June 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm

What Happens When Craft Beer Becomes Big Beer

The little guys aren’t so little anymore. The craft beer industry produces 7.8 percent of the total beer volume sold in the United States, up from 4.2 percent in 2008. It’s not just that people are drinking more craft beer – they’re drinking less of the “other stuff.” Big names like Anheuser-Busch and Coors are down in production by tens of millions of barrels a year. So if big beer can’t join them, at least they can try to beat them.

(Credit: Adrian Pike)

(Credit: Adrian Pike)

According to an article by Pew Charitable Trust’s news service, big beer is trying to regain its market share by leveling some of the laws that give an advantage to smaller brewers. This time the battle is centering in Florida where a fight over allowing 64-ounce growlers to be refilled in breweries set off a wave of proposed modifications to existing beer laws. Though the smallest craft breweries are still off the hook, larger craft breweries could find themselves having to sell beer to wholesalers rather than the current system that allows direct-to-consumer sales. As the three-tiered system where brewers sell to distributors who sell to retailers like bars, stores, and restaurants was actually meant to keep monopolies from forming, it makes me wonder just how big these “microbreweries” are getting. (Serious Eats has a great article on the history of the three-tiered system for those interested.)

A version of the bill died in the Florida House mostly because craft beer is big money in Florida. The in-state industry grew a whopping 43 percent between 2011 and 2012. It helps that the definition of “craft beer” is constantly in flux. According to NPR, The Brewers Association increased the craft category cap to six million barrels to allow Sam Adams to remain the small, artisan beer I didn’t know it was.

That brings up the age-old question of the actual difference between big business and artisan/”craft” productions. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as one who produces fewer than 6 million barrels, where less than 25 percent is owned by a large beverage company that isn’t a craft brewer (I assume this means Grey Goose won’t be making craft beer any time soon), and whose “flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.” While those are decent guidelines, what part of them speaks to any kind of “craftsmanship” exactly?

It does seem unfair to afford the craft brewers’ advantages to firmly rooted breweries (like Sam Adams) who should rightly be considered medium-sized rather than small. Yet does that leave much room for growth or competition? Where’s the incentive for the industry to keep growing if growth pushes them out of the very category that made them popular in the first place?

In the end, I’m left wondering if craft beer go big without going home.

-Tove K. Danovich