In explaining the concept of BierWax to friends, family, and colleagues, I often use the phrase “craft beer.” In fact, I’ve used it in previous posts here. But, what really is “craft beer?” How useful of a term is it? And, how should we describe our beer preferences?

When I first became aware of the wider world of beers with more complex flavors and a wider spectrum of taste and style, many of these products were referred to as “microbrews.” As I understand, that term fell out of usage because it was actually a legal term referring to breweries of a certain (rather small) size and many brewers of good beer grew out of that legal definition. So, our favorite microbreweries were no longer microbreweries. “Craft beer” emerged as the replacement term.

The Brewer’s Association defines a craft beer brewer as “small, independent, and traditional.” For their purposes, this definition is probably fine, but to me it doesn’t seem particularly helpful. For example, “small” is a relative term. As an example of the arbitrary nature of this definition, “small” currently means fewer than 6 million barrels, but this figure has been revised upwards as outfits like Boston Beer Company, better known as Sam Adams, outgrew previous caps.

By the industry definition, Sam Adams is craft beer. However, most of the community who identifies as “craft beer drinkers,” would scoff at the notion of Sam Adams as craft beer. In fact, this post was partially motivated by a sign I saw at a local corner store advertising “craft beer” and featuring a picture of several varieties of Sam Adams. At the same time, a brand like Ballast Point might be considered more accessible craft beer, but ever since it was acquired by Constellation, it is no longer independent, and therefore not craft. In addition to a proxy for good beer, some people value the distinction of craft as a way to feel like they are supporting smaller, independent businesses. With more and more mergers and acquisitions, this issue is becoming a bit tangled as well.

On the simple grounds of taste, there’s beer that fits our more practical definition of “craft” that isn’t so great. There’s also beer that we don’t consider when we think of “craft,” that’s can be adequate. So, we have a term that has a technical definition, which doesn’t really reflect its colloquial use and is generally of minimal help. So, why do we use it?

Pause for appreciation of this post’s namesake

It seems to me that the false precision of the term functions basically as a lexical crutch. Take the phrase, “craft beer revolution,” or “emergence of craft beer” – both of which I’ve probably written in previous posts. What’s the alternative? “Good beer revolution?” That seems highly subjective, so I’m not sure it’s preferable.

More serious craft beer drinkers seem to understand what is meant by the term when used in like company. So, one may argue that as long we understand one another, it doesn’t much matter if common use is somewhat at odds with formal definition. But, perhaps the opposite is actually true. Beer enthusiasts can just refer to products by their proper names when speaking among ourselves – we don’t need a catch-all, genre-encompassing term. Those who need to understand what we mean when we use the term are precisely those who are on the outside. And, as long as the rift exists, it’s kind of hard to blame your cousin who, when you visit, tells you, proudly, yet condescendingly, that he picked up some “craft beer” for you because he knows you “like that stuff,” only to reveal Sam Adams Cherry Wheat or something.

As a thought experiment, imagine your beer-naïve friend is getting supplies for a barbeque and asks you what kind of beer you want. How would you answer that question without appearing too high-maintenance? Replying, “craft beer,” you’re likely not to know what you will get. You might be best off either suggesting some actual brands, or varieties, “I like IPAs, especially black IPAs,” for example.

As we market BierWax, we will likely use the term “craft beer” as a shorthand, often for practical reasons. But, we’re eager to get down to the nitty gritty, select particular offerings and engage our friends and clientele to help learn exactly what you like and how we can both satisfy and expand your palettes.


Deconstructing Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” Commercial

There has been a lot of talk about the second Budweiser commercial that debuted during Super Bowl 49. This is not the one featuring a cute little dog to sell beer – now it’s officially a dog and pony show. I’m referring to the one that explicitly takes aim at the craft beer movement in the United States. If you missed it, here it is: Brewed the Hard Way

For Anheuser Busch InBev to spend several million dollars (still a drop in the bucket) on an advertisement mocking craft beer, then the small guys are really starting to bother the macro beer giant. Of course, with the recent acquisition of Elysian by AB InBev, the entire commercial is a slap in the face to their new craft beer portfolio. Allow me to break down some of the main themes and images below…

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Running throughout the sixty second slot are sounds and images that are grounded in history, humility, and pride. We are “proudly a macro beer” flashes early on in the commercial. This is the beginning of the juxtaposition that follows, with good ol’ Bud being pit against the snobbery of craft beers and their drinkers. Budweiser is clearly a populist drink for the everyday person.

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One of my favorite lines is “It’s not brewed to be fussed over.” As my wife pointed out, isn’t this message already admitting Budweiser beer is of inferior quality? I get it, though – Budweiser makes beer for people who like to drink. Simple folks who just want to throw a few back and care less about intellectualizing what they are drinking. Why bother having a deeper appreciation for the appearance, aroma, body, and taste of a beer? Beer is not to be fussed over, just consumed mindlessly. A few seconds later, “Brewed for drinking, not dissecting” flashes across the screen. They are really driving home the message. Like many other things in life, ignorance is bliss. Just drink it; don’t think about it too much!

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Upon closer inspection, our beer connoisseur is actually a hipster. He had to have a handlebar mustache, didn’t he? Just perfect!

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The commercial is titled “Brewed the Hard Way” after all. What does that really mean? I’ve been told that it actually takes a lot of work to make macro beers taste so consistently bland and water-like. I can’t necessarily badmouth automated brewing, because some of the larger craft breweries can afford computer-driven brewing equipment, as well. However, if you have ever been to a brewery that makes less than 50,000 barrels a year, you’ve probably witnessed an operation that takes hard work, patience, and extreme attention to detail to run smoothly. (Not to take away from the larger craft breweries in any way.) This message is probably the most offensive, in my opinion, as it undermines the blood, sweat, and tears micro-brewers around the country devote to their craft.

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“Let them sip their Pumpkin Peach Ale.” Another classic line. If you didn’t think they are going after craft breweries and craft beer drinkers with this commercial, now there is no mistaking it. Twitter was filled with great commentary in response to this particular line…

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And lastly…

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At the very end of the commercial, when they really start playing the Budweiser classic/historical card, the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses break through a gate. Why is none other than Adolf Hitler and possibly a highly ranking SS officer riding high on top of the majestic horses? I understand invoking German symbolism and even the Reinheitsgebot to sell beers, but this Nazi imagery just has no place in a beer commercial of any kind. (I was threatened with a defamation lawsuit in the past – I am not being serious. However, I’m still disturbed by that image.)

It’s pretty clear that falling beer sales, a 4% drop since 2008, is causing macro beer companies to be worried. This hypocritical and asinine commercial is further proof that the rise in the craft beer movement, especially during the last five years, is becoming a serious threat to the two major macro beer companies, SabMiller and AB InBev. The craft beer industry will continue to experience surging growth as more and more people develop a beer consciousness, caring more about the quality and integrity of the beers they consume.

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(American) Beer Basics

I wrote this a while ago, but it still resonates two years later…  Some background and historical context for those just getting into craft beer.

My mother’s knowledge of beer, like the majority of our country-folk, has been very cleverly shaped by mega beer companies that account for over 80% of beer sales in the U.S.  The following is more or less how I explained why I drink craft beer and not “crap beer” to my Mom.  Of course, beer, music, and one’s taste in food are subjective experiences.  However, as a former history teacher I was trained to dig a little deeper to uncover the often hidden truths.

Americans celebrated the end of Prohibition with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933.  Lovers of beer were enthralled, but the beer landscape slowly declined over the next several decades.  As a handful of macro-breweries began to dominate beer production in the U.S., smaller regional breweries, who kept alive a diversity of beer offerings, quickly met their demise.  Mega beer companies rose to dominance and popularized what most Americans know as beer, an inferior version of a Czech Pilsener.

Mainstream beer, such as Budweiser, takes pride in its European roots.  However, the “King of Beers” wouldn’t even have been able to pass the German Beer Purity Law, known as the Reinheitsgebot.  This law stated that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malt, hops, and later yeast.  Budweiser and other mainstream beers use adjuncts, or cheaper ingredients to supplement barley.  The most popular adjuncts in beers such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller are rice and corn.  Cost cutting equals maximized profits and subpar quality and taste.  Quality or taste hasn’t really mattered because the big beer companies spend millions and millions of dollars in advertising every year to convince the consumer that their beers taste great and are the standard of what beer should taste like – light, bland, and consumed extremely cold.

In 2012, we have mega beer companies unparalleled in the history of beer.  Budweiser was already a mammoth company before merging with InBev, a Belgian and Brazilian company.  Coors and Molson are now under the umbrella of SABMiller, a South African company.  These two giant beer companies now control more than 70% of the world’s market and over 80% of the beer sold in the U.S., as previously mentioned.  Head over to the blog Beer Head for an in depth breakdown of these two major companies and the over 450 beer brands they own worldwide.

I’ll write about the history of the craft beer movement in another post, but here it is in a few sentences.  Home brewers, tired of the very limited options at bars and at stores, decided to brew their own beer, even when it was illegal to do so in many states.  Many of the beers they conjured up were inspired by European beer styles, often with an American twist.  Some of these home brewers were able to start their own micro-breweries and began generating local interest in their unique offerings.  First there were only a handful of breweries: New Albion, Anchor Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company, Commonwealth Brewing Company, and Northhampton Brewery.  In the late 80s and early 90s, the movement picked up steam and craft breweries began opening throughout the country. By 1996, there were more than 1,000 craft breweries operating in the U.S.

What united a majority of these small breweries was a dedication to quality ingredients, an experimental spirit, and a steadfast commitment to remaining independent.  Some of these “micro-breweries” did so well that they grew beyond the designation “micro.” Breweries such the Boston Beer Company can still be considered craft breweries, but they are now multi-million dollar enterprises, with distribution deals in all fifty states.  Other craft brewing companies, in their desire for increased production and revenue, are now partially owned by either SABMiller or InBev.  (I’ll also return to this at a later date.) The majority of craft brewers remain independent and are committed to protecting the hand-crafted nature of their brews…superb ingredients, better quality, and more variety.

Sam Calagione, the founder and president of Dogfish Head, explains it quite well in his book Brewing up a Business:  

“The other big reality is that people are choosing to support small, local companies.  They see there are international, sort of nameless, faceless, publicly traded, global breweries that dominate the commercial beer landscape –and there’s beer being made right in their hometown, literally.  There are over 1,600 breweries in the United States today, and the average American now lives within 10 miles of a local brewery.  These local brewers are in their community, doing festivals, doing beer dinners, doing tastings, and introducing themselves on a very human level and scale.  And people are choosing to support businesses that are of a human scale.  People are discouraged by the failures of global, publicly traded companies and are embracing the opportunity to support a small, local brewery –or any small, local business.”