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Is Craft Beer Bought in a Supermarket Still Craft Beer?

One of many seminal questions related to craft beer asks when a product stops being craft. This question came up last week when DCDining's Don Rockwell raised the question “at what point can we stop calling places like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada 'craft brewers?' I propose that whenever a beer is available in supermarkets nationwide, that's a pretty clear indication.” The post took place in a thread on Virtual Beer Tasting around New Belgium's Dig Pale Ale. By the way, this concept of a virtual beer tasting is one with a lot of merit for finding out about new brews. Anyway, the comment caught our staff's eye and captured our attention for a few hours.

As we're wont to do, we're sharing the dialogue with you here and urging you to chime in on this question. The idea of what constitutes a craft brewer is one that Jake recently touched on, but the focus of the discussion largely considers Rockwell's proposal that we consider the location from which a beer is sold as part of its “craft” credentials. Please note that for those of you with delicate sensibilities, there's some gratuitous profanity below.

It all started when…

Nick Rakowski: /slaps forehead until bloody. http://www.donrockwell.com/index.php?/topic/19335-new-belgium-brewing-dig-fort-collins-co/?p=229601

John Fleury: One more "oh man, it is popular so it can't be cool anymore."

Nick: Here are a few of my numerous issues with the post:

Why would the definition of what is craft be governed by where a product is sold? The product isn't made by 7-Eleven or grocery stores or whatever other retail outfits are below Don's standards for beer – it's just sold there. If the product is still held to a high standard of quality in production, which both New Belgium and Sam Adams are, then what's his issue? I'm making an assumption here, but I'm more than a little confident Don isn't discussing the finer points of beer storage and freshness when he talks about retail venue determining craft vs. non-craft.

Similarly, I think it's pretty clear craft beer is, to a large extent, about quality. If the beer is produced en masse (and en masse for New Belgium doesn't even go near macro territory) and still retains the quality that made it popular and successful, what's not craft about that? Growing craft beer, as an industry, is all about increasing availability of quality beer.  The fact that Don’s palate “tends toward malt over hops” and he can exercise that preference at a 7-Eleven is a good thing.

Finally, Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, etc…they're all still great beers. If anything, their production has become more consistent as the breweries have grown, resulting in a larger scale of equivalent quality. God forbid they become larger and more successful without all this good-old-days-get-off-my-lawn posturing. Both of these breweries continue to innovate (especially Sierra Nevada) and put out batches of unique one-offs and experimental beers apart from their standards. There are many times that I’d rather drink a SN Pale Ale (even purchased from a 7-Eleven), than a Barrel-Aged Bigfoot. Their success is predicated on creating something that people enjoy and doing it consistently well.

John: These are the points that should be touched upon. And by touched upon I mean dropped down like an anvil chandelier from 50 feet above. I know I get bent out of shape about everything, but what really burns my biscuits about this is dudes who think they know beer because they're in the food world [or blog world in general] and throw around some jargon they think means something but to anyone with an actual knowledgeable opinion, their words are meaningless and actually prove they don't know shit. I was praying to read that something tasted "crisp" because shit like that makes me irate. I don't care when someone says beer-centric platitudes or fuck-all statements that mean nothing in the confines of a bar, but when someone in the limelight says it, it lessens what we (read: y'all) write and cheapens the integrity of something I care deeply about.

Aaron Morrissey: John hits it right on the head. I really think it's baffling that intelligent people who otherwise will talk your face off about the need to educate yourself about any other topic (local politics, cycling, art) before spouting your mouth off publicly about it are actually against learning anything when it comes to beer. That piece of garbage that Slate put out yesterday and people on our social media feeds swallowed like it was the Gospel proved to me (again) that brewers of any size are held to aesthetic standards that nearly every other entity meriting popular discourse aren’t.

So Don Rockwell seems to have problems with Fat Tire being sold at 7-Eleven. If he knew anything about brewing, distribution, marketing, or nearly anything else about the industry, he'd realize how misguided that stance is.

Bill Jusino: Aaron and John are exactly right. DR is perfectly welcome to shamefully navigate around the taquitos and MD 20/20 to get his Fat Tire fix, but anyone who wants to talk shit about New Belgium or Sierra had better come correct.

IMHO, the real difference between craft and macro brewers is not size or even beer quality, but business practices. Craft or macro, breweries are there to make money, but craft brewers seek to do so by selling portfolios of interesting, flavorful, diverse products. To me, macro seems much more like the soda industry: pushing what's essentially a commodity product through advertising, brand identity, and often anti-competitive business practices. Sure, they have good QC [quality control], but it’s clear to all of us that that’s not their corporate focus.

But since all of that is hard to define, the Brewers Association mainly uses size to define craft. It's nonsense.

I don't have a problem with macros' beer; it's just not really what I want to drink. I don't have any problem with Sierra or New Belgium's size. Their growth means more tallboys of Shift and Torpedo for me to crush in more places. I do have a problem with AB/InBev trying to consolidate the market, fix prices, and drive competitors out of business.

The day Sierra and New Belgium decide to focus on taking over the world instead of making sure that they're putting out good product is the day they'll stop being craft breweries, and it'll be the day I stop drinking them.

David Slentz: My opinion Is also not about size but instead the philosophy of the brewery. The growth of New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues has caused them to change their concept.  The expansions into the east coast makes their marketing incompatible and disingenuous with the reality. When I first visited NB, they constantly talk about the Fort Collins culture, mountain water, being powered by Wyoming wind farms, etc. I suspect the message at SN is similar. By expanding to the point that they have to open facilities in North Carolina, the local feel is inherently eliminated. They become nationwide breweries.  The question then becomes "can two separate locations be craft?"  I am not arguing that tiny, local options are always better. That would cause me to miss some of my favorite Belgian and Italian brews. Nor am I saying that the grocery store sales ruin the likability of the beer. Frankly, the convenience of getting my favorite beers at the grocery store has its appeal. If I want the best craft selection, I will still hit up Arrowine but they sell macro beers as well. The point is, I occasionally consider the philosophies of our preferred breweries. The bigger point is that we should all drink what we want.

Bill DeBaun: Don does point out in his asterisk in the post that to some extent his comments are tied to a perceived substitution of people's familiarity for and attachment to a brand for that brand's quality: “Related, is the overwhelmingly deep penetration into the public psyche of 'perception of brand quality,' long after that brand has died a painful death…I witnessed firsthand the downfall of Pilsner Urquell, once a truly *great* beer, even the versions you got here in the states. Others shortly followed (Spaten Oktoberfest, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam – as hard is it might be for someone in their 20s to believe it, these were all fantastic beers back in the 1980s).” As someone in my 20s, it isn't hard for me to believe that these were fantastic beers. They were, and they still very much are. Spaten's Oktoberfest and Anchor Steam Beer both maintain 97 style scores on Ratebeer and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is at a 99. All three are still magnificent examples of their styles, not only in my opinion but in the eyes of Ratebeer's reviewers as well. That DR selects these as examples of brand downfalls seems to provide evidence that his view is that ubiquity and high quality cannot coexist in the world of beer, which I think (and certainly hope) is a fallacy since our market is growing and I sure as hell don't intend to be paying for and drinking beer of inferior quality.

Bill Jusino: I'd amend my own comments with one more thought I just had–Macro QC is like Flying Dog and Dogfish Head's branding. Yeah, they're obviously there, and yeah, they put lots of work into them, but no, they aren't the real focus of the respective companies. Flying Dog and DFH remain firmly craft, even with their heavy handed branding, just as Budweiser being a "flawless" beer doesn't make it any less of a macro product, or less of a commodity.

Jake Berg: Man, I go to one meeting and this happens. What hasn't been said:

  1. The whole fucking point of this "craft" thing is that we, meaning all of us, everybody, except pretentious individuals, want good beer at 7-Eleven. I want craft beer to be ubiquitous. I want it everywhere. And that's not "including 7-Eleven," that's "especially 7-Eleven." To me, at this point in where craft brewing is in the US, that's what should, I hope, happen next. Put craft next to the macros on the shelf, and let people choose. I bet New Belgium and their distributors worked their asses off to put that beer in a 7-Eleven, to break the BMC stranglehold that the macros had there. I've never seen NB in a 7-Eleven and if I did I would think "cool, good on them." And I say that knowing that there are times that I'm bummed that the only options are Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Boston Lager. And then I stop and think about it and am happy because those beers taste good.
  2. Also at this point in where craft brewing is: the term "craft" is a designation and definition created, or hijacked, cultivated, what have you, by a trade organization. I'm much more interested in “good” versus “non-good” than debating semantics put forth by a trade association. If Bud, Miller, and Coors were good, I'd drink them.
  3. I will run this factoid into the ground: InBev sold more Bud Platinum in five months of 2012 than New Belgium made beer last year.
  4. Miscellaneous: there is no "anti-hop revolution," as much as I like to see gruits. Spaten, Sierra Nevada Pale, and Anchor Steam are all good beers, maybe even great. I wasn't drinking them in the 80s, but are they somehow different now, or is he just talking about perception since those aren't the fresh new thing?

Bill DeBaun: And so our discussion tailed off with a question that we leave to you as readers. One of many questions actually. Does where your beer is sold affect your perception of its quality? Does “familiarity breed contempt” with beer or does availability make you overlook potential deficiencies in quality? We are curious to hear your comments below.

Before this piece gets wrapped up, let me offer a bit of an apology to Don Rockwell, who probably was not expecting an off-hand comment made in a beer tasting thread to spawn 2,000 words on craft beer availability and what constitutes “craft” beer. What may seem like a minor point or comment clearly resonated with us. Why the vociferous response from our writers? We each have our reasons, I'm sure, but the overarching one is probably because winning the hearts of minds of consumers and turning them on to craft beer is a daily ground war.

Pint by pint and bar by bar, the case is continuously being made to customers and businesses everywhere to try something new. Regardless of where it's purchased, whether it's as part of a dinner at Komi paired with the finest the District has to offer in dining or at your gas station or supermarket where you'll find craft beers next to their distantly related macro cousins, we think that the quality of a beer is determined primarily at its source with the care, consideration, and craftsmanship of its brewery. The ubiquity that Mr. Rockwell tries to advance in his post as a sign that a beer is losing its craft status is backward logic to us; when craft is everywhere, when you can buy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale both at birrerias and next to the Beer Nuts, that's a victory, not a defeat, for lovers of good beer everywhere.

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