Drinking on the Last Frontier: Craft clash a’brewing

Photo by Elaine Howell. Can you spot the craft beer from the ones made by big chain breweries?

Photo by Elaine Howell. Can you spot the craft beer from the ones made by big chain breweries?

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

For the last few months, there has been a hot topic of discussion in the online community of craft beer lovers. Given that so much electronic ink has been spilled and so much rhetorical powder burned, I have decided it’s worth taking a look at here.

The issue boils down to this: What are we to make of the “faux craft beers” being produced by the major brewing conglomerates? If you are not really into craft beer, you may not realize that beers such as Blue Moon, Shock Top and others are not produced by small, artisanal craft breweries, but are brewed by the likes of Coors and AB-Inbev.

Some craft brewers are more than a little irked by what they see as the “big boys” trying to cash in on a growing market that actual craft brewers have worked to create. Put yourself in the shoes of New Belgium Brewing, one of the biggest and most respected craft brewers out there. Many years after New Belgium started producing Sunshine Wheat, Leinenkugel (now part of MillerCoors) introduced a beer called Sunset Wheat. The logo for Shock Top — a Belgian-style wheat Anheuser-Busch started selling six years ago — resembles that of a New Belgium label.

There is a billboard in New Belgium’s hometown billing Shock Top as a Belgian-style wheat “made here in Fort Collins.” That’s technically true, as Shock Top is brewed at Anheuser-Busch’s Fort Collins brewery along with Budweiser, Bud Light, Busch, Busch Light, Michelob, Michelob Light and Natural Light. You can see why the folks at New Belgium might be a tad unhappy with all this.

Many craft brewers see such beers as a nefarious plot by the Big Three (Bud, Miller and Coors) to deny the little guys as much of the limited store shelf space to market their product to the public as possible.

After all, every shelf slot filled with one of these beers is a slot that’s not available for a craft brand. So by offering multiple brands, the large brewers can effectively choke off their smaller competitors, the same way the shade of a large tree prevents other trees from sprouting.

However, other craft brewers take a more philosophical view, arguing that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that the big brewers are essentially providing free advertising for craft brewers. After all, isn’t a beer drinker who tries Blue Moon and likes it likely to continue his or her explorations, eventually making their way to “real” craft beers?

This might all sound like a bit of a tempest in a teapot, until you consider the following: Last year, overall U.S. beer sales were down 1.3 percent, while craft beer sales were up 13 percent. While it still represents less than 10 percent of the American market, craft beer is where all the growth is taking place, and the Big Three know it. It’s quite clear that they are looking for ways to be a part of this growing slice of the market.

Another area of concern is what to make of formerly independent craft brewers who are bought out by one of the Big Three. Many of today’s successful craft breweries were established in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Their owners are beginning to think about retirement. Unless they are lucky enough to have family to pass the business off to, they will need to find someone to sell to, and in more than a few cases, that buyer may be one of the Big Three. Will such breweries continue to brew innovative and artisanal beers, when their ultimate owners are driven by bottom-line value to shareholders, or will beer become just another commodity, to be made as cheaply as possible?

After all, isn’t that what happened to the American brewing industry in the first place, setting the stage for the rise of craft brewing 30 years ago? Only time will tell.

So, where do I, personally, stand on all this? First and foremost, I stand for good beer. I’m in favor of a quality beer, brewed from fine ingredients that delivers good flavors at a fair price.

If your beer tastes bad, I really don’t care how small or artisanal you are, your beer is bad and that’s all there is to it. And if a beer drinker likes Blue Moon or Shock Top (or Bud Light, for that matter), I’m certainly not going to try to tell them that they’re wrong to do so.

However, I’m also a believer in honest labeling and an informed consumer. I’m not happy that the large brewers seem to be working so hard to disguise the fact that the beers in question are actually part of their portfolios. Are they afraid that they can’t succeed on their taste alone?

We each must decide for ourselves, but the next time you see a new “craft” brew on the shelf, check the fine print and know what you’re buying.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.


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