This post is being written over several days. To read new content, scroll down to where you haven’t read yet. Cheers!
It’s sort of bugged me for years now that a local restaurant has gotten a free ride on the tails of craft beer. There’s nothing wrong with the restaurant. In fact, I’ve had some great times there. It’s just that the public is under a misconception of who they are. It got me to thinking about some of the sleight-of-hand in the beer industry in this country today.
If you’ve followed the craft beer industry, you know two things.
- The craft beer industry is exploding. You can look just in Columbus to see it happening. About two years ago, there were no craft breweries in Dayton; next year there will be 18. And on and on and on. The Brewers Association says that, as of June of this year, there were 1,165 brewpub, 1,221 microbreweries and larger players that bring the total up to 2,538. Yowza! When I started doing this for a living, there were about 200 brewpubs in the country.
- Macro breweries continue to see their sales decline. If it wasn’t for craft beer, beer volume in the USA would actually be down in 2012.
One thing you may not be aware of is that there is a beer war going on right now. It’s a huge fight. The macros are doing everything they can to crowd the micros out of the market. Next time you’re in the supermarket, take a hard look at the beer aisle. You’ll see 90 percent of the aisle is macro beer. The macros buy shelf space to keep the little guys out. Maybe that’s just good business (we’ll leave that for you to decide) but there’s two things going on that are perhaps a little sinister.
- They make beers that appear as craft, but don’t mention the parent company behind the label; and
- They just buy up craft breweries and don’t tell you about it.
Again, that may just be good business. But what’s not cool is that they are doing everything they can to cover their tracks and to market their acquisitions as “mom and pop” breweries. They put a mask on these brands so you can’t tell that they are behind them.
While this is painfully obvious to those of us in the craft beer industry, it occurred to me that it may not be obvious to you. So, I present to you twelve beers that are more crafty than craft. I’ll post one today and then periodically add others.
I’ll end this multi-day post with the restaurant here in town that I wish would not imply they are part of our industry. But that’s for another day.
Today, I start with…
This one you may actually know about. If you look at the label, it’s brewed by Shock Top Brewing Company of Saint Louis, Missouri. Cool, cool. Except Shock Top was created by the marketing department of Anheuser Busch, now a subsidiary of InBev.
Telltale signs from the beginning include as massive marketing campaign to launch. Craft brewers don’t have that kind of bank, nor is it the right vibe for a true artisan brewery. And nowhere does the label say AB is behind this beer. Crafty.
OK, I’ll do two today. Next we lift the veil on…
The Blue Moon Brewing Company was founded in Golden, Colorado. I think you see where this one’s headed.
Blue Moon Brewing Company was a marketing concept for Coors. Yes, it’s a real beer, but it was invented out of whole cloth to pretend it is a craft beer. Coors created it. Then they marketed it. Then they merged into MolsonCoors.
MolsonCoors then merged into SABMiller/MolsonCoors (I think.) Never along the way did the label say Coors. Or Molson. Or Miller.
Don’t get me wrong. Blue Moon is drinkable. It has been a gateway beer into the world of craft for many people. But it’s not craft. A South African conglomerate owns it. Oh, yeah, it’s sold in Canada as Ricard’s White. N-i-i-i-ce.
I visited Leinenkugel’s some time ago in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. It was a quaint brewery, founded in 1867, with a copper brewhouse. It appeared to have seen better days, but it was quaint, in a good way, a respite from day-to-day city life.
In 1988, it was purchased by Miller, now SABMiller. There’s no real problem here, since they let the beer stay pretty much what it was. (Well, until Shandy this and the rest.) The problem here is that now that the rest of the country can get it, people who never heard of Leinie’s see it on the shelf and say, “Cool! A new craft beer.” Except it isn’t. And it most certainly is not all brewed in Chippewa Falls. And it is owned by one of the major beer conglomerates.
OLDE SARATOGA BREWERY
It’s located in Saratoga Springs, New York and unavailable in Ohio. Consider this a head’s up in case it ever arrives here. You can pretty much guess that a brewery that considers itself “olde” isn’t.
They were founded in 1997 and almost immediately got bought up by Mendocino Brewing Company. Some of you may have heard of Mendocino Brewing and are asking yourselves, “Hey, that’s a craft brewery, so maybe this beer shouldn’t be on the list.”
MENDOCINO BREWING COMPANY
This craft brewery was founded way back in 1983. They were one of the first micros in California. These guys bought Saratoga to spread to the eastern part of the US, a reasonable move if you want to grow.
But in 2001 they in turn sold themselves to United Brewery Holdings, the Indian conglomerate that makes Kingfisher Beer. UBH now owns at least 70% of both Mendocino and Saratoga. You won’t find that information on either sub-breweries packaging. I’ve spotted Mendocino Brewing’s products at Trader Joes, rarely anywhere else. Crafty.
GOOSE ISLAND BREWING COMPANY
Goose Island began as a Chicago brewpub in 1988. Then they expanded with a production facility in 1995. In 1999, they added a second brewpub in Wrigleyville. Goose Island was the craft brewery in Chicago, making some memorable beers. I remember enjoying their barrel-conditioned Bourbon County Stout at the brewpub as if it were yesterday. 312 Urban Wheat is wildly popular in the summer. Their taphandles are distinctive.
Goose Island had it all. But maybe all wasn’t enough. They went and done it. They wanted to grow faster and get into more distribution channels. Who could do that for them? Why, Anheuser Busch, of course! Now AB-InBev, they bought 100% of the company, giving them a legitimate “craft beer label.” Only thing is, now it’s just another brand in their arsenal that puts a choke-hold on truly artisan craft breweries competing for shelf space. That, and the fact that GI’s packaging doesn’t mention AB-InBev anywhere. The beer’s still good, just apparently not good enough to say you own them, bitches.
What is AB-InBev afraid of? That the craft beer community won’t support a huge international macro brewer, led by a Brazilian known more for cost cutting than raising quality, and headquartered in Belgium? Hmmm.
Founded in 1984 with the name Hart Brewing, this Washington brewer’s signature beer is Pyramid Pale Ale. In 2004, they acquired Portland Brewing Company. Still a craft brewer up to this point, just getting bigger. Nothing wrong with that.
In 2008, Pyramid was acquired by Independent Brewers United, the parent company of Magic Hat Brewing Company, Burlington, Vermont. In 2010, the joint company was acquired by North American Breweries (NAB,) headquartered in Rochester, New York, at the Genesee Brewing Company’s headquarters. A lot to follow, I know, but rather than tearing into the details of who’s who at this point, let’s cut to the chase.
In 2012, the entire organization was acquired by Cerveceria Costa Rica, a subsidiary of Florida Ice & Farm Company (FIFCO). Who are they? For starters, they’re not in Florida. FIFCO is a Costa Rican food and beverage company headquartered in Heredia, Costa Rica, with a catalog of over 2,000 products sold in 15 countries.
Did you follow all that? The point is that Pyramid is a small cog in the wheels of an international conglomerate. You can’t call that craft, no matter how tasty the beer.
Magic Hat Brewing Company was founded in 1994, in Burlington, Vermont. It makes interesting beers with hipster labels that are works of art. They have all the trappings of a craft brewery, and until 2010, they were.
Until they too were purchased by NAB (see above.) Which means they too are another small cog in the FIFCO machine. With not indication on their packaging that this is so.
Now on to a trio of craft brewers (with a bonus brewery!) who are craftier than craft…
REDHOOK ALE BREWERY
Located in the Seattle area, I first visited this brewery and brewpub in 1991. It had a cool vibe and some really good ales. It was founded in 1981, making it one of the pioneer craft brewers in the industry.
On July 1, 2008, Redhook merged with Widmer Brothers Brewery, operating in Portland Oregon. The merged company called itself Craft Brewers Alliance. No doubt, the company was formed to gain production efficiencies in a capital intensive industry.
At this point, the merged company can still be considered a craft brewer. Then Anheuser Busch acquired a stake in this company. That’s not the whole story, though. Read on.
WIDMER BROTHERS BREWERY
Widmer was founded in 1984 in Portland by two actual brothers. At some point, they collaborated with Red Hook for several years through a licensing agreement whereby Redhook brewed and distributed their beers on the east coast. Still craft at this point.
Already with a stake in Redhook, AB took a stake in Widmer Brothers as well. AB at this time was quietly picking up stakes in craft brewers as a hedge against what turned out to happen: declining macro beer sales. During this time, AB simultaneously launched a marketing campaign poo pooing craft beer. Here’s a link to a summary of one such campaign.
Side note here. Widmer has a separate company called Omission. Omission brews all their beer gluten free. If you go to Omission’s website, this information is clearly stated.
What isn’t stated is that Omission is also part of Craft Beer Alliance, partially owned by InBev. Omission indeed.
KONA BREWING COMPANY
Kona was founded in 1994 and is supposedly the top-selling craft beer in Hawaii. Only thing is… they joined the Craft Brew Alliance, formerly Craft Brewers Alliance. Like Redhook and Widmer, they are now partially owned by AB. Does it make sense now how a Hawaiian beer can make it to Columbus store shelves?
AB owns 35% of Craft Brew Alliance. These breweries still operate independently, are capable of making good beer and can still control their destinies. So what’s the big deal?
For one, these beers, through AB’s distribution network, now help crowd out smaller craft beers on your store shelf. Think about that the next time you’re in the supermarket and you see Redhook, Widmer and Kona alongside Bud, Bud Light, Bud-a-Rita (or whatever it’s called,) Michelob, Natty Light and all the other InBev beers. Look how little space is left for craft beer. This is by design.
AB really doesn’t care if their crafty beers don’t sell well. They just want to make sure a competitor doesn’t get the sale. Got that?
For two, there’s no mention that ABInBev has a significant stake in these companies. It’s no coincidence that InBev does not support mandatory labeling to show alcohol percentage in beer. (Today, it’s optional.) If the casual beer drinker knew that his Bud Light was around 4%ABV and he could get a flavorful craft beer around 6-8%, well… InBev doesn’t want you to go there.
For three, with the world’s largest brewing conglomerate backing you, you can’t call yourself craft anymore.
CRAFT BEER ALLIANCE
If you find yourself thinking, “Hey, how can I get in on this action?” you’re in luck. CBA is a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ. Their ticker symbol is BREW. Thank goodness “craft” is five letters, or they may have gone for that ticker instead. In addition to InBev being a 35% partner, they also have two seats on the Board. I wonder what they drink at those meeting?
I don’t have anything against any of the beers I’ve mentioned (though I’d prefer to never drink many of them.) I’m just showing a little transparency. Openness and honesty is something you should associate with that pint of craft beer sitting in front of you. Right?
The last beer I’ll mention just about breaks my heart, because this brewery makes some fine, non-mainstream beers. I consider this brewery to have been a part of the American craft beer movement, even though it is our Canadian cousin. It can no longer be called be called craft, though.
Unibroue was founded by Andre Dion and Serge Racine in 1990. A hallmark of their beers is that they are bottled “on the lees.” South of the border here, we call it bottle-conditioning. Some yeast is left in the bottle to naturally carbonate the contents. Cool. Sierra Nevada used to do this. So did others. It’s just really hard to control on a large scale with distribution partners who may not treat the beer with kid gloves. So kudos to Unibroue for continuing to do this. Their beer ages nicely as a result.
One of their beers is called “La Fin du Monde.” It’s available locally, and I recommend you get a bottle or two for your cellar. The name translates to “End of the World.” I’d be OK leaving this planet with one of these.
Alas, They were bought by Canadian brewer, Sleeman Breweries, Ltd, in 2004. Sleeman is a macro brewer that’s slightly hipper than the US macros, but nothing a craft beer drinker would go out of her way for. In any case, in 2006 Sleeman was purchased by Sapporo. There you have it. As The Vapors wrote…
“I’ve got your picture of me and you
You wrote “I love you” I wrote “me too”
I sit there staring and there’s nothing else to do
Oh it’s in color
Your hair is brown
Your eyes are hazel
And soft as clouds
I often kiss you when there’s no one else around…
…I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the Japanese. But I have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that when I enjoy a Fin du Monde, I’m drinking Japanese. Especially when they don’t say so.
So that’s my rundown of beers that are more crafty than craft. One of them is great; some of them are good. I wish they’d stop making some of the others. That’s not the point of this post, though.
I wish that every brewery was transparent enough that we knew who’s behind them. I wish that the Big Boys didn’t make beer just to jam the beer aisle with beers just to keep really competition out and instead, let the marketplace decide. I wish brewers would list what’s in the bottle on the label. I wish for world peace too, but it is what it is.
Armed with a little information now, I mostly wish that you get the beer you deserve. There’s a whole craft industry waiting to serve you liquid art in a bottle. Don’t settle for crafty when you can have craft.
I promised I’d conclude with a local reference to crafty trumping craft. I don’t intend any malice here; I merely want to provide clarity. Because it’s bugged me. Since the start.
I’m calling you out…
COLUMBUS BREWING COMPANY RESTAURANT
First, go to their blog page and read what they say. OK, they present an abbreviated history of themselves. But. They state that, “we are the remaining brewery in Columbus’ Brewery District.” That is a bald-faced lie. They don’t brew anything.
If I may, allow me to elaborate on their history.
Some time in the late ’90s (I wish I knew the exact year) Cameron Mitchell (yes, THAT Cameron Mitchell) thought he’d get in on the craft beer craze. His organization put together an upscale pub menu, and had a contemporary joint designed for him. He also called it a brewpub. Only thing is…
THEY DON’T BREW BEER!
Here’s what happened. Cameron Mitchell made an agreement with the former owner of Columbus Brewing Company, Jeff Edwards, that he’d attach himself to the CBC brewery and also call himself CBC. CBC (the brewery) would supply their beer, and look! We can make everyone think it’s a brewpub! Only it’s not. It’s a pub. It’s a bar. It’s a beer bar. It’s a gastropub. There are countless terms that can be used to describe the restaurant.
Cameron Mitchell subsequently sold the restaurant to the current owners, and Jeff Edwards sold his stake in the brewery to Eric and Beth Bean. The original culprits are no longer involved. Yet the current owners seem happy to let our community think they brew beer in their setting. They don’t.
CBC Restaurant, please don’t call yourself a brewpub. Running a brewpub is really hard work. It’s like running two businesses. It’s having two staffs. It’s a mash up of two art forms.
And please don’t call yourself a brewery. Columbus Brewing Company is a brewery. You’re not. You don’t brew beer.
Just recently, CBC Restaurant has started putting some guest beers on tap. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. We do the same thing. There’s a lot of good craft beer out there, so why not?
But I’ve had people come up to me and ask “if I’d had the new beer from CBC.” Like Fat Julian. CBC doesn’t brew Fat Julian, Actual Brewing Company does. The confusion is getting worse. (Full disclosure: we had a firkin of Fat Julian at last year’s Mini Real Ale Fest and it was delicious!)
It’s time to blow the whistle on all this confusion. CBC is neither a brewery nor a brewpub, and it’s very crafty that they don’t do anything to clear the air. Great food. Great beer. Crafty marketing.
Do the right thing, CBC Restaurant. Stop the madness. It would be really cool if you took Brewing out of your name completely. It’s a chance to reinvent yourselves, while being more honest. There, I said it. I feel better.
Local Crafty Runner Up: BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (two locations)… nice shiny tanks, guys. Too bad you ship your beer from out-0f-state, instead of merely using the tanks to make root beer. Brewhouse indeed.