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Posted July 15, 2014 by keif in blog

Mega Breweries Chance to Fight Craft Breweries

In “How Anheuser-Busch Can Beat Craft Beer at Its Own Game” Slate’s Pete Mortensen touts that Big Brewery (AB InBev/MillerCoors) have a fighting chance by making those hard-to-make beers, or by mass-distributing more expensive/rarer beer types, like sours, bourbon barrel ales, New Zealand pale ales, citing that it’s a problem about cleanliness/sanitation, consistent quality in brewing, and access to ready ingredients. I don’t doubt Pete’s writing ability–that’s not what this is about. He actually gets paid to write. I have ads on this site under the illusion I will make money writing (haha). What I doubt, is Pete’s understanding of Craft Beer–its culture, fan base, and the concept. Granted, this is my opinion, and I’m more than happy to be corrected (as Ryan may do, and I encourage you to correct or clear up if you feel I am off base). No doubt, everyone was introduced to a craft beer at some point. I think it’s arguable that my first “non-domestic like” beer would’ve been Blue Moon several years ago–something that was not like the rest of the beer. It wasn’t until I visited my brother in Colorado (technically, you could say the night before, as my dad and I had New Belgium’s Fat Tire at some random grill east of Colorado) that I was introduced to microbreweries and their vast selection. Reading this article (and the linked Slate articles) makes me wonder if they know beer, or they just get paid to write about beer. “Hops are prevalent in craft beer!” is, in my opinion, inherently wrong. It’s like saying “because of my personal experience, this is the case, it must be the case everywhere.” No. These writers lean towards hoppy beers, and tout them as being the holy grail, and then can’t understand why no one else agrees with them. Beer is art (as I loved seeing on a bartender’s shirt at Night Shift Brewing). It’s true. And as is the case, not every artist is going to have the same style (or sense of style) and that is most true in Craft Brewers. I couldn’t even enumerate on the number of styles my brother introduced me to in Colorado. Yes, there were pale ales, and IPAs… and smoke stouts, bourbon, sours, lambics… I’ll start with the easy point first.

AB InBev logo

AB InBev logo

Where Have All The Hops Gone?

In Columbus? We have breweries with a large variety of beers they brew – like North High Brewing – and then we have Zaftig Brewing dedicated to brewing the highest ABV beer they canZauber was one of the first ones to really not deliver on “here’s our version of a pale ale” and instead set out on a different path:”…to produce what he calls ‘Tweener beers,’…Instead of uberbeers and macro, light beers, a nice in-between zone so that you can have the best of both worlds…” Now that I’ve hammered home that there is more to Craft Beer than hops… why would Big Brewery buying up all these New Zealand Hops be a bad thing? Wouldn’t that be great? To have all of the available space in New Zealand converted to growing hops, because it’s such a huge country, with a wild landscape, ripe for farming? See where I’m going with this? I’m willing to be proven wrong… that maybe an economist can step in and point out that it’s an untapped market, and one New Zealand needs. But then what… you’ll have mass produced New Zealand beers by Big Brewery. Maybe they shut down the local guy, so now you only get Budweiser New Zealand Pale Ale.

More Bourbon Barrels For Me

Bourbon Barrel Ale is something that you don’t see large breweries breaking into. You can’t mass produce large amounts in huge vats – you don’t have huge whiskey barrels, and it’s not something you want to see “cost cutting” going towards (i.e. “if we just add this chemical, it tastes just like it was brewed in a bourbon barrel! Same price for them, half the cost for us!” <yes, I’m being cynical>). Bourbon Barrel Ale is brewed in batches, made in barrels that have brewed bourbon. It seems like a simple enough explanation, and not one big brewers would opt to do.

Craft Beer is Art

Tart saisons. Sour beers. Lambics. The kind of beers that a lot of breweries do limited releases of because of their finickiness. We, as a nation, seem to be pushing heavily to “make everything available at all times everywhere.” Why should I have to wait for something “in-season” when we have the ability to force it to be grown out of its native environment, and pump it full of chemicals? Why should we infuse beers, or have a brewing process, when we can add chemicals to our beer to make them last longer, be cheaper, or “taste-like” something that it wasn’t brewed with? Why don’t we throw out all classic art work, and replace it with high resolution scans? Just as good, right? Craft beer is an art. The brewmasters are the architects, that pour their heart and soul into the beers they brew. Homebrewers are often the same way – they mimic their favorites (like an art student studies the master) and then they try their hand at it (sometimes with great results, sometimes with horrible results). But Craft Breweries are often small–two guys in a garage. A few buddies with a love of beer. People that spent college brewing more beer than they were drinking. People who weren’t happy with what they saw at the store. A community.

What can Big Beer do?

I know, it’s easy for me to riff on Big Beer. They are an easy target (and pissing and moaning about a couple Slate articles is just as easy). How can Big Beer really compete? They could buy up craft breweries–which, if I understand correctly, revokes their true “craft beer” status, as is the case with Blue Moonand a few others, including an early favoriate of mine, Goose Island. Honestly, due to my initial “asshole elite” attitude, I stepped away from Goose Island after its acquisition. Whereas it seems to have been good for Goose Island, I think it may be time to pick up a few six packs and see if they still make truly good beers. I mean, growing as Goose Island has, where the brewmaster is still very much involved (and no market testing, just a natural instinct in their [at least initial] beer development), is a good dream to pursue. As long as you don’t cut corners in quality and start making ingredients about cost and keep true to natural, quality ingredients. Or, as the article title suggested (but failed to really deliver) is to approach the problem like a craft brewery. That means small batches and experiments. Sam Adams does this (some consider them a “macro” craft brewer, as somehow they keep below the 2 million barrel limit before breaking the threshold). They hold a Homebrewing contest and distribute the winnersTheir Cincinnati brewery has won a few medals for the beer they brew, as well. Do any of the big guys do that? If Big Beer wants to see a way to compete, I think Sam Adams is the brewery to look at. A focus on quality and small batches.


Keif is a ecommerce web consultant and fan of beer, wine, fine spirits, the art of the home brew, and fine smokes. Favorite Beer: tends to fall around stouts and I/PAs Favorite Wine: Port Favorite Microbrew: The city of Columbus, Ohio. All of it.