Craft vs crafty gets out of hand

Infographic by M Suarer Creative www.msaurer.com/

Infographic by M Suarer Creative www.msaurer.com for NorthlandBeer.com

On April 24, a man filed a class action lawsuit in San Diego against MillerCoors, alleging that it had misled him to purchase Blue Moon, a wheat beer made by Blue Moon Brewing Co./Tenth & Blake Beer Co., a wholly owned division of MillerCoors, between 2011 and mid-2012, because it was positioned as a craft beer.

The filed action uses the Brewers Association definition of a craft brewer – one that is small, independent and traditional – as the basis for claiming that, at 76 million barrels of beer brewed per year in the US, MillerCoors does not fit the criteria for being a craft brewer, and that consumers are generally happy to pay a higher price for what is considered craft beer.  In other words, the action argues that MillerCoors should be charging people less for their mass-produced beer, and that by masquerading as “craft beer” they are ripping people off by charging a premium price.

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The plaintiff, one Evan Parent of San Diego, claims that by using the term “artfully crafted” on Blue Moon’s packaging and by NOT showing that Blue Moon Brewing Co. is actually part of MillerCoors anywhere on Blue Moon’s packaging, MillerCoors is willfully misleading beer shoppers and drinkers.  Also, whether by MillerCoors’s design or not, the beer is often placed “among other craft beers” in the grocery stores of San Diego, and its advertising, such as this ad, were considered like craft beer advertising by the plaintiff.

(Apart from ads for Sam Adams and Saranac, this author has never seen a TV commercial by a company that does fit the Brewers Association definition of a craft brewer, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.)

One probably shouldn’t comment on the likely outcome of a recently filed lawsuit, but this author believes this action is a good thing.  Because hopefully it will show, decisively, how ridiculous the so-called craft vs. crafty excitement is.

Craft vs crafty really broke in December 2012 when the Brewers Association issued a press statement calling for “transparency in beer ownership” that “allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brews the beer they are drinking”.  Note that late 2012 is about the time Mr Parent appears to have realised that Blue Moon was not, in fact, the craft beer he believed it to be.

There has, before and since then, been plenty of excitement among the beer blogging community about craft-like beers started from scratch by big brewers.  Beers such as Tenth & Blake’s Batch 19 (for example this piece, Big Beer, Big Lies), Anheuser Busch Inbev’s Shock Top brand, and the small breweries that have been bought by Anheuser Busch Inbev: Goose Island, Blue Point, 10 Barrel and Elysian.  (I dipped my toe in the water commenting on the Elysian purchase here.)

Why does The Drinking Classes believe craft vs crafty is ridiculous?  For two simple reasons.

First, we live in a free market society in America, in which one person is at liberty to make money selling products to other people by any legal means.  One of these is brewing and selling beer within the constraints of the US’s three tier system.  Whether that beer is made by a nano-brewery owned by three childhood friends on Staten Island, such as my buddies at Flagship Brewing Co., or by the world’s largest brewer in St Louis, MO, that is owned by a Brazilian venture capital fund, it’s all just beer.  When we try and tell people they cannot or should not try to make and sell a certain style of beer, we’re on dangerous ground.

Second, as concisely and eloquently put by this author’s favorite beer writer, Jason Notte, in his recent article Craft Beer’s Biggest Enemy Is Itself, Not Budweiser and Miller, craft brewers don’t need to rail and protest against big brewers trying to steal their piece of the market.  Because they’ve already won.  Craft beer – as defined by the Brewers Association (and we won’t get into that definition here – after all it’s now the foundation of a class action) – now has an 11% volume share of the US beer market, and a near-20% share of dollars spent on beer in America.  Yes, one in five dollars spent buying beer is spent on craft – excluding beers such as Blue Moon, Shock Top and even Elysian’s Split Shot milk stout.

The very fact that ABI and MillerCoors are either buying microbreweries or making beers like the ones they brew illustrates that the battle against bland, light beer – the war cry famously let rip in the I Am A Craft Brewer video – is in its dying stages.  Like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace at the end of the first big battle against the English in Braveheart, holding his claymore aloft and bellowing a victory scream while there are plenty of people still fighting around him, craft brewers can look around them and see that the momentum is irrevocably in their favor.  Bud Light may still sell more beer than every craft brewer combined, but it’s losing sales hand over fist, while the craft segment is growing by a whopping and accelerating 18% in volume.

I celebrate this.  I am a huge fan of beer – good, tasty beer.  I drink a lot of Guinness, and I drink a lot of craft beer.  I almost never drink Blue Moon, but only because I’d far rather drink an Allagash White.

While two excellent articles published in the last week – Jeff Alworth’s State Of Beer and Dave Infante’s Why Craft Beer Is About To Go To War With Itself – have got me thinking about where craft beer and all “tasty beer” might go in the next several years, it’s worth noting that craft beers and good beers in general are experiencing unprecedented popularity and success.

Fans of good beer have the kind of access to tasty, interesting, complex, diverse and very high quality beers that would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago.  Heck, even five years ago.  There are bumps in the road ahead, as there always are, but this author has 100% confidence that the craft beer movement will move a long way from here, and that having great, well-made beers on tap at every bar in America will be a permanent reality.

I raise a glass of good beer to Mr Evan and toast his lawsuit.  Because it brings into relief how much the beer market has changed, and what incredible privileges that change has brought us lucky beer drinkers.

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