Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

April 9, 2008

Beer Diary:

Why Is That One-Eyed Cat Walking Backwards?

The Brewers Association annual top 50 list got us to thinking: when is a craft brewer not really a craft brewer?
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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So the Brewers Association put out their annual top 50 lists of all American breweries and American craft breweries a day or two ago. You can view the PDF here. Only a handful of Midwest breweries get a mention and here they are, in order of barrels produced:

1. Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin
2. Pabst Brewing Co., Woodridge, Illinois
3. Minhas Craft Brewery, Monroe, Wisconsin
4. Bell’s Brewery, Inc., Galesburg, Michigan
5. Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, Illinois
6. New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, Wisconsin
7. Great Lakes Brewing Co./Ohio, Cleveland, Ohio
8. Capital Brewing Co., Middleton, Wisconsin

Obviously, the first three on the list are not craft breweries. We all know about Miller, Pabst doesn’t even brew their own beer, and Minhas, other than contract brewing Berghoff, makes shit. And, according to the Brewers Association rules, Goose Island isn’t one either—more than 25 percent of Goose Island is owned by Widmer, which itself is partially owned by Anheuser-Busch. If you do look at the full list, you’ll see that number one in the craft beer segment is Boston Beer Co., brewers of Sam Adams Boston Lager, among many other beers. But I’ll throw this out there, just for discussion: is Boston Beer Co. really a craft brewer?

I?m not sure if you can still call a beer a craft brew when it?s made in various breweries hundreds of miles apart, some of which the brewer doesn’t even own.
I’m not talking about the Brewers Association’s hard and fast rules. My point is that the word “craft” in “craft beer” stands for hand-crafted, meaning, the creator of the product—in this case, beer—has a direct involvement in its creation, and the creator’s artistic vision is strongly visible throughout. No one can argue that Boston Beer Co. owner and founder Jim Koch isn’t passionate about good beer. Not only is his company still putting out fantastic—and groundbreaking—brews, he’s been a vocal evangelist for the craft beer community for decades.

What has me concerned though is how scattered the production of his beer, namely Sam Adams Boston Lager, is. I’m not sure if you can still call that a craft brew when it’s made in various breweries hundreds of miles apart, some of which Boston Beer doesn’t even own, like City Brewery in La Crosse. Compare this to the number two brewery on the Brewers Association list, Sierra Nevada, whose owner and founder, Ken Grossman, has vowed to never contract out the brewing of his beer.

Admittedly, even when a beer is contract brewed the creator’s artistic vision can still come through, but there is no “hands on” about it—Jim Koch’s beer is being made by someone else, period. One huge disadvantage to this was made evident this week when Boston Beer had to recall their product because of shoddy bottles. Quality control becomes an issue as distance between the brewer and his or her beer increases. But you’ll only have one person to blame if you have such issues when you’re making your product in the shop just across your driveway.

Now, I’m not saying Sam Adams is a bad beer, or you shouldn’t drink anything brewed by Jim Koch and company. But … is Boston Beer Co. really a craft brewer?

If you look at Sam Adams high end beers-Utopias? Impieral Pilsener?-there's no way you can't call them a craft brewery.
posted by Sean P. | April 9, 2008, 8:35 AM
Wait...New Glarus produces more barrels than Great Lakes or Capital? Then how come they "can't keep up" and distribute outside WI? Great Lakes is available everywhere, and Capital gets around, too.
posted by astrochick | April 9, 2008, 4:29 PM
It?s not about being able to keep up. It?s about quality control?they want to be as close to the drinkers of their product as possible.

Don?t believe me? Hear it from the horse?s mouth:
posted by Eddie Glick | April 9, 2008, 10:24 PM
I have to agree... as much as Sam Adam's is heavily marketed and distributed, they still deserve respect as a pioneer in the craft beer movement and a creative force with beers like Utopia, etc. They ARE a craft brewer, albeit the largest one in the country... you can't downgrade them for being successful.
posted by Nigel | April 10, 2008, 12:35 AM
Sam Adams is no craft. My test is when at the tap. When Sam Adams is so available that I'm looking for "what else" is on tap, that's the threshold. Sorry Sam Adams Lager isn't raising an eyebrow.
posted by ade solomon | April 10, 2008, 1:18 AM
Just because Sam Adams is all over the damn place and they have some brews that aren't that great doesn't make them any less "craft". There are plenty of small craft brewers out there that make absolute shit. Look at New Glarus... great brewery, but their big beer is Spotted Cow, which is pretty awful. And the fact that they brew at a number of locations?? Totally meaningless... if you only have so much room at one location, you have no choice but to find another in order to meet demand. That doesn't mean the beer produced at the other location is somehow lacking in quality.
posted by Nigel | April 10, 2008, 1:33 AM
I agree ubiquity doesn?t rule out a beer being consider ?craft brewed.? But what if Sam Adams was brewed in Peru, at a factory Jim Koch had never been to, run by staff he?s never physically met. Would it still be a craft beer? Just because it?s got the Sam Adams logo and uses the Sam Adams recipe?
posted by EddieGlick | April 10, 2008, 12:09 PM
I like Spotted Cow. It's one of my go-to session beers.
posted by astrochick | April 10, 2008, 1:52 PM
Ok, that's a pretty big jump that is totally hypothetical. BUT, if for some reason Boston Beer outsourced production overseas and didn't participate in the brewing process firsthand, then I would reconsider calling them craft. I don't see that happening, however and it doesn't compare to finding other American facilities staffed with Boston Beer brewers to meet production demands.

Shameless plug:
posted by Nigel | April 10, 2008, 4:01 PM
I guess, I don't know what quantity has to do with whether a beer, brewery, or brewer is "craft" or not. Moreover, I'm not really sure why the location of the brewing is relevant.

I don't mean to plug my own site, but this definition of "craft" is one of the more interesting issues in contemporary brewing and I've explored it a few times on my own site Madison Beer Review ( - primarily in the face of Leinie's assertion that THEY are a craft brewery (and, unlike Sam Adams, they don't even meet the Brewers Association definition).

Anyway. It's an interesting issue, but I'm not convinced that quantity or location are relevant factors, except as they impact quality - and there, then, the real issue is quality.
posted by Jeff | April 17, 2008, 5:02 PM

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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