There’s Craft in Your Beer: A Giant, An Industry and a Definition

sam adams-dictionary-beer-definition-craft-crafty

Something that has always struck me about the beer industry is its white-knuckled grasp on definitions.

We have BJCP guidelines to tell us how a beer should look and taste, but we also have a definition of beer itself. Or, at least, what constitutes the artisanal aspect of beer production, better known as “craft.”

All the “little guys” earn a title of “craft brewer” depending on a variety of standards set forth by the Brewers Association. Namely, that breweries be independently owned (or at least 75 percent so), they create beers whose flavor comes from “traditional” or “innovative” brewing ingredients and they produce 6 million barrels of beer or less, approximately 3 percent of annual sales in the United States.

That last marker – size of production – might also be recognized for its relationship with the Boston Beer Company, the largest member of the Brewers Association. In 2010, the Association upped its threshold of allowable barrel production from 2 million to 6 million as Boston Beer, maker of Sam Adams, was preparing to break through that cap, thus nullifying its existence as a “craft brewer.”

As it stands today, Boson Beer produces about 3 million barrels of Sam Adams annually, and that number is going up. Fast.

For beer enthusiasts, defining the difference between Big Beer (AB InBev, SABMiller) and everyone else has been a hot topic in the past year, as the Brewers Association works to inflate craft’s market share in order to sell 20 percent of all beer by 2020.

But the thing is, these definitions come across more fermentally-challanged than anything, especially when you consider they are placed upon businesses in an industry that thrives on bucking trends and setting their own paths. Even if a brewer is producing 3 million barrels of beer, they are more than the definition we provide for them. They are not a descriptive term, they are a story.

Instead of focusing on Boston Beer’s place in terms of the definition of craft, we should instead train our eyes (and livers) on the company’s commitment to the industry. As a profit-driven company, the growth and business acumen of Boston Beer is kind of amazing, but if you look hard enough, you’ll see that owner Jim Koch has never lost sight of his roots as a plucky, upstart brewer.

Which is why I’m devoting a few posts this week to a deeper look at Boston Beer and what they’ve been doing in recent years. To some, the company may seem to be a giant in the beer industry that simply is adorned with the title of “craft.” Their ever-expanding profits and ad dollars certainly create that point of view.

But ultimately, the flexibility of the company and commitment to its homegrown culture is what drives its products (and company) forward. But don’t just take my word for it:

“We are reminded every day that we are still a small business,” [Jim] Koch told in Washington D.C. during National Small Business Week. “We have to compete with these enormous global companies that are 50, 100 times our size, and you have to bring the small business game to that — just innovate, try to think of a better way to do things, try to be more nimble and smarter about all your decisions.”

I hope you’ll join me this week to share your own impressions of Boston Beer, Sam Adams and why being nimble is valuable when you have to wiggle out of a definition thrust upon you.

Posts in this series:

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

13 thoughts on “There’s Craft in Your Beer: A Giant, An Industry and a Definition

  1. While I understand the thinking behind it, I’ve never liked the size portion of BA definition. If they’d left it alone and given Jim a polite “see ya, it’s been fun” wave as he broke the mark the first time, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way. But continually moving it just shows the true meaning of “craft”. Not Bud, Miller, Coors.

    I’m on the record stating that I think the word craft should never be associated with a brewery. The term should focus on what’s in the bottle, not the manufacturer.

    Sad for Jim if one day he wakes up to discover that his business has grown so big that a word can’t be used to describe it anymore? I wouldn’t be. And I’m sure his accountants and stock holders wouldn’t either. If that’s the ramification of his dream to one day open a brewery and play with the “big boys”, oh well.

    1. The good thing – for Boston Beer and BA – is the company will have to double in size before reaching the threshold.

      That said, it’s not out of the question for that to happen in the coming years. (yikes)

  2. I’ve tried to convince many people that Sam Adams gets a bad rep. They make a number of good beers and are willing to explore a wide variety of styles. They were one first breweries to start bringing back the Gose a few years ago wither Verloren.

    My gripe about Boston Beer and Sam Adams in a local one. In your research this week into them take some time to look into their Cincinnati heritage. Know where Boston Beer Company’s largest brewery is? Cincinnati. Know where Jim Koch’s grandfather (who supposedly crafted the Sam Adam’s Boston Lager recipe) worked? Cincinnati. What credit do they give us though? The place where Angry Orchard is made.

    Though they are a big contributor to our Oktoberfest and Winter Beer Fest events. Plus being one of the main collaborators in the yearly beer brewed for Winter Beer Fest.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Tom. I’ll keep the Ohio connection in the back of my head in case it comes up.
      With such a heavy reliance on “Shipping Off to Boston” as (almost) a theme song, we can’t be surprised at this!

  3. Boston Beer is way too successful to be craft, dammit.

    I always look forward to a good thisiswhyimdrunk series.

    1. Ah, but might it also depend on what the definition of “success” is?

      Is it dollars? Customer satisfaction? Converted drinkers from Big Beer to craft?

  4. We can’t wait to see where this goes. Cheers Bryan!

  5. I never would have even thought of Boston Beer/Sam Adams as a craft beer — I guess I always put them in the scale of Big Beer, though not to the level of Bud and its kind. Very interested in reading the next posts to come to see if/how my opinion changes!

    1. I look forward to your input as part of it!

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