by Craig Pinhey
There has been a lot of chatter in the North American beer world lately about the USA’s Brewers Association’s (www.brewersassociation.org) new “Independent” seal. The BA, which is for small and independent craft brewers, has created a new seal that qualifying breweries can use on their packaging and for marketing purposes. It is basically an upside down beer bottle with the words “Independent” and “Craft” written on it. Above that is the word “Certified” and on the side is “Brewers Association.”
The use of the seal is free to everyone, even non BA members, who qualifies according to the BA’s definitions of Small, Independent and Traditional:
Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.
Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
The arguments amongst beer experts and avid drinkers has arisen over the words independent and craft. Is the word craft even necessary anymore now that they are using independent? We wonder if they have come up with this idea because many writers have come out as being anti-craft, in terms of overusing the word, not the actual breweries. I am one of them.
I don’t like the term craft, and stopped using it (other than when quoting people or if it is in the name of a brewery) in my writing several years ago due to the wave of snobbery that has arisen amongst the “craft beer” cult. The word assumes quality without any proof of such, and the use of “small” as a definition of a quality brewery essentially amounts to “beeracism.” It is completely unfair to large breweries that make good beer. Also, I constantly encounter beer enthusiasts (and brewers) who don’t notice when their beer is off. As long as it is craft it must be good, right?
In my early days in the mid-1980s learning about “good” beer – not the factory made, fizzy stuff that I was weaned on in Halifax – we didn’t call it “craft beer.” The term didn’t exist. When travelling to Belgium, England, Holland and Germany we rarely considered how big the breweries were, or how they marketed their offerings. No beer expert worth their brewing salts would discount Pilsner Urquell, Paulaner, Duvel or Young’s because they make too much beer to be considered a “craft brewery.” That would be stupid.
For us there were just two types of beer: good beer, and less good beer. Three if you count off beer.
This said, I can get behind the term independent. It, unlike craft, actually means something. I’m also OK with someone saying they only want to drink local beer from small breweries. That’s fine, but don’t assume the beer is well crafted. Sometimes it is not, and that should not be rewarded with blind loyalty.
Out of curiosity, I conducted this poll in a local Facebook group made up of enthusiastic beer lovers:
What is the most important thing about a brewery?
- The beer is good 65
- It’s independent 3
- It’s local 2
- It’s small 0
The results were clear. People care about the beer quality first. Now, to be fair, most people wanted to qualify their responses. Here are some examples:
“I like all these things but making good beer is the most important thing for me.”
– Todd Beal
“Good beer is necessary, but I think for a brewery to be really successful there also needs to be a good story behind it.”
– Owen Green
“Good beer is obviously the most important but then the other criteria go to tie break. But at times principles will dictate avoiding a good beer if some of the other criteria are not present.”
– Trevor Funk
Ian Covey, a New Brunswick Cicerone who works for Picaroons, a pioneering microbrewery in Fredericton, puts it nicely, “Obviously, good beer is important. If you’re small, or local, or independent, and the beer is shitty, then you’re doing beer a disservice. But being owned by a multinational, in my mind, doesn’t support local entrepreneurship, even if the beer is great.”
I realized I needed to reword the poll, so I tried again on Twitter. Not all of my Twitter followers are beer lovers, but most are. Here are the results:
What drives your choice of buying a beer the most? (assumption is that the quality of the beer is good and price is the same)
It’s locally made 23%
It’s from a small brewer 7%
It’s independently owned 8%
The style of beer. 62%
Again, the results don’t portray today’s beer drinkers as caring very much about the size of a brewery or whether it is independent. What they really want is good beer in the style they enjoy, preferably made locally.
If it is from a small, independent brewery, that’s a feel good bonus, but what beer lovers really want is good beer.