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.
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.