BARLEY MOWAT: Why Craft Beers Are Awesome (And Macro Brewery Beers Suck)

February 28, 2013 

by Chuck Hallett | So what’s all this Craft Beer fuss about? You see the term in bars, and you definitely see it in the liquor store, but what makes some beers craft and others…not?

“Craft Beer” is a fairly new concept, one which grew out of the older term “Micro-brewery.” Micro-breweries staggered onto the scene begin in the mid-80s, and wanted to differentiate themselves from the “beer” produced by the major breweries (think Coors, Busch, Molson, etc). So, they began a program of marketing themselves as the little guy, brewing beer with time honoured traditions and only quality ingredients, versus the big corporate behemoths, only concerned with ever-increasing profits.

And guess what? It worked. It worked so well, in fact, that the micro-breweries grew so large that the term “micro” became a fairly laughable misnomer for them. Therefore a new term was needed, and now we have Craft Beer. Only the USA has an official definition of craft beer (and one that seemingly constantly shifts to avoid including anything brewed by the big guys); Canada has no official designation, but coloquially it means “sorta good.” You can read more about changing Craft Beer designations here.

But why aren’t macros good? Surely, as the old “micros” have proven, one can certainly brew good beer in large volumes? Ah, but therein lies the trick. The older, larger breweries just aren’t brewing good beer. They aren’t even trying to brew good beer. They’re brewing a special brand of insipid lager that they created and popularized through decades of research and advertising. How? Why? Time for a bit of history…

Lighter tasting beers are a fairly recent innovation in brewing. While the trend towards predominantly lager production was in place pretty much as soon as lager was invented, the wheels really didn’t come off the beer flavour cart until US Prohibition (1920). Prohibition is pretty much solely responsible for the invention of “American-style Pale Lager”, a label that’s about as hard to throw out of your mouth as the product is to throw in. Even so, this abomination is anywhere from 75-95% of all beer sold today, depending on the market (we’re ~80%, FYI).

In the dark years of Prohibition bartenders would smuggle barrels of lager in from Canada (or from underground breweries closer to home) and then conscientiously serve a quality product to a clientele that, suffering under the iron fist of repression, needed just a few moments of flavourful relief and respite from their cruel, beer-less lives. Just kidding, they watered that shit down to within an inch of its life and sold it to desperate rummies who would pay anything for their medicine. It’s just the way it goes.

Surprisingly, their patrons actually *preferred* the lighter flavoured, lower alcohol product. Partly this was because the beer was either originally produced in someone’s bathtub between bathings or, even worse, smuggled in from Canada in a long, unrefrigerated version of a reverse underground railroad. Also, it could be presumed that it was easier to deny imbibing illegally if one wasn’t passed out blind drunk at the dinner table.

When the USA got their collective senses back and repealed Prohibition (1933), the pent-up demand was not for quality beers, but rather for the weaker American lagers that everyone had become used to…and so an industry was born. In the next few decades, things went from bad to worse as breweries boomed, grew to industrial scale, and began experimenting with ways to make their product even less flavourful. Flavourless hops and barley were custom bred to help (Coors famously uses their own species of barley) but that only took things so far.

Shortly thereafter, adjuncts such as corn entered the brewing chain, along with non-hop bittering methods. These were praised not only by consumers for providing “clean, refreshing taste” but also by the producers because they’re cheap as fuck compared to actual barley and hops.

Around this industry of generic, insipid drunk-water grew a massive marketing machine. This wasn’t by accident; the only way to differentiate an entire industry of effectively identical products is through branding. And thus the big-budget beer commercial was born, and legions of brand-loyal consumers bought the slick marketing hook, line and stinker. Despite professing being “Bud Men” or a “Coors Fan”, the reality is that the vast majority of macro-drinkers are unable to differentiate between their preferred product and the competition’s. They’ve bought the branding, not the beer.

With a product whose very existence relies on strong branding comes strong competitive advertising and a cut-throat industry hell-bent on destroying or acquiring the competition. This is macro beer, and the big guys behave towards the little guys pretty much like you’d expect: they buy them and shut ‘em down (or seriously water down their product to “increase its marketability”).

Craft Beer, in stark contrast, is focused around making the best beer possible and letting consumers decide what to drink – preferrably a variety of products. Consumers have bought into this model so strongly that the Craft Beer segment continues to grow faster than the breweries can keep up. With enough business to go around for everyone, there’s no pressure to subdue one’s competition. In fact, craft breweries have invented a unique tradition: the collaboration, wherein two breweries jointly share the creation of a beer so they can share techniques, technologoies, and processes.

That spirit of collaboration, quality, and constant improvement is the heart and soul of “Craft Beer”. The great suds are just a bonus.

MORE BARLEY MOWAT

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Chuck Hallett lives and works in downtown Vancouver. His passionate obsession with craft beer borders on insanity. When not attempting to single-handedly financially support the local brewing industry through personal consumption, he spouts off on his award-winning beer-themed blog: BarleyMowat.com. If you’re in a good beer bar reading this, odds are he’s sitting next to you. Be polite and say hi.

  • Susan

    Interesting take on the history of beer evolution in N.Am. A different perspective I had not heard before. I think we need to be careful about generally placing a halo over the entire craft beer industry though. Some craft beers can be truly crap as well if they are brewed by people with a lot of passion but no talent/experience, or poor equipment, low quality ingredients or for a host of other reasons. In the end it all comes down to personal preference. If someone loves their Molson Canadian or Coors Light like you love your craft who are we to judge? One man’s castle………..

  • Sparky

    Exactly Susan. There are few things more annoying than the elitist and condescending attitude that because people drink XYZ beer/spirits/wine that there’s something wrong with them. If you enjoy it then then there’s nothing wrong with it at all. Not everyone has a sophisticated palate or has tried some different things and not found them to their liking. The whole idea of poo-pooing lagers and pilsners is asinine. They have their place too. Nothing beats sitting down and having one after some hard work on a hot summer day. It’s great Chuck has something he’s passionate about but as with everything else as subjective as taste that doesn’t make him right and everyone else wrong, and he should keep that sort of evangelical attitude to himself. If the only way to elevate your position is by castigating another you don’t have a strong argument to begin with.

  • Andrew

    Sounds like Sparky enjoys Miller Time on a very personal level.

    Look, there are quantifiable ways that you can measure the quality of beer. Personal taste aside, there IS such a thing as good beer and bad beer, just like there’s such a thing as good food any bad food. If you don’t want to take the time to develop your pallet so that you can tell the difference, that’s your perogative, but don’t kid yourself about small-batch craft beers usually being higher quality than industrially produced lager. Different ingredeients and attention to detail during the brewing process make one a higher quality than the other.

  • pablopicante

    in other news, those that drink the likes of Coors, HiLife, Canadian, etc. don’t really enjoy the taste of beer, they just enjoy pissing.

  • Sparky

    Yeah, I actually do enjoy and MGD every now and then. And I really like 1664 Tuborg Pilsner, etc. And I also enjoy a good craft beer now and then too. I also like and dislike a lot of the natural wines I’ve tried over the years and different brands of spirits too. At least I keep an open mind and try different things. You go ahead and enjoy your little elitist parade, Andy. I outgrew being a drink snob after 25.

  • http://www.barleymowat.com Chuck

    @Sparky – I am not attacking lagers or pilsners here. There are many great “craft” examples of each style, brewed locally, and I enjoy them equally with other lagers and ales. What I am trying to do here is put some perspective on how this whole “craft beer” business is different from the major labels, along with a bit of history. I share because I care.

    @All – I did not want to give the impression that people who haven’t tried craft beers, or who actually prefer macro beers, are bad people. Not everyone likes good pizza vs panago, not everyone likes good hamburgers vs McDonalds, etc. These vendors exist precisely because there is demand for the lower end products.

    Likewise Molson, etc will exist for people who like it, but let’s not confuse “people like X” with “X is good.” (Also, to @Susan’s point, absolutely let’s not commit the equally awful mistake of confusing “X is made by friendly people” with “X is good.” There is bad beer that absolutely can be classified as “craft”)

  • alex

    If you’re a person that shares concern about diversity in a city’s food and drink culture (which I imagine applies to most Scout readers) you can’t deny the remarkable impact that craft beer has had in Vancouver recently. How many diners knew what an IPA was five years ago? Now the style is represented almost ubiquitously across the city. Hell, I had a pitcher of Fat Tug at the Cambie last night.

    It just seems a little rich to accuse craft beer advocates of elitism on a website that’s essentially dedicated to connoisseurship. People are passionate about craft beer the way other folk seek out single-origin coffee, handmade leather goods, locally-sourced produce, or abstain from patronizing generic chain restaurants.

    It boils down for having a strong preference for businesses that create unique and quality product and then supporting them with your dollars. Craft beer drinkers have embraced an industry that provides an alternative to the light-lager monoculture that has dominated for decades. And yeah, craft beer has been succeeding in spite of the big breweries who would rather see the category fail.

  • http://vancouvercraftbeerweek.com cbjerrisgaard

    There is nothing wrong with liking macro beer. Just like there is nothing wrong with liking Burger King. I don’t personally like Burger King, but if that’s your cup of tea so be it.

    That said, its pretty crazy that you get the sort of responses as the above on a website where many people would decimate a writer for posting his or her love of BK. It’s also pretty crazy that the industry at large sees nothing wrong with a restaurant having mass produced beer on draught as “no big deal,” but would destroy the same establishment if they had a wine list consisting of Yellow Tail and Blue None.

    Everyone is allowed to like what they want. That said, there is a very prevalent hypocrisy in the industry when it comes to stuff like this.

    Nice post Chuck!