How to tell if your 'craft beer' is authentic

A friend recently asked if I'd tried Space Dust IPA, a "craft beer" from Elysian Brewing Co.

"Good beer," I said, adding that the brewery is owned by the makers of Budweiser.

He didn't expect that. Nor should he have.

It's not like it says so on the label. And it tastes more like a local micro-brewery's IPA than traditional macro-brewery beers (Bud, Coors Light, Miller Lite, etc) – which makes sense, because Elysian was a micro-brewery before it was sold in 2015 to Anheuser-Busch InBev, as the Seattle Times reported.

This is American Craft Beer Week, so let's expose the poseurs.

I used to be more reluctant about pointing out big-beer products disguised as craft brews. My wife says I'm turning into a beer snob. Maybe a little, but my friends and I spend a lot of money on beer.

We should know whether we're helping support an independent brewery – a small business based at least on American soil, if not locally – or an international conglomerate.

If you visit the Goose Island Beer Co. website, the "Our Story" page describes the Chicago brewery's modest beginnings in 1988, with a founder inspired by a tour of Europe's breweries, who decided to start making beer in his hometown.

The word "craft" is mentioned at least six times. Landmark expansions in 1995 and 1999 are proudly described. But what's missing from the page or its 16-minute "History of Goose Island" video? The $38.8 million sale to A-B Inbev in 2011.

Merriam-Webster's definitions for "craft" include both "an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill," and "skill in deceiving to gain an end." It's no mystery which one brewers prefer.

After keeping beer boring for most of the past 100 years, the macro-breweries are sharply aware of the excitement over craft beer. They're buying up craft breweries and cleverly marketing in-house "craft" brands, turning the tables on an uprising of much-smaller breweries that have multiplied and tapped into their market share.

AB InBev's acquisition of Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, N.C., announced earlier this month, alarmed craft-beer fans. Near the same time, it was announced that Heineken would buy up the rest of California- and Chicago-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. after previously purchasing half of the company in 2015, the Chicago Tribune reports.

From 2011 to 2016, the volume of craft beer produced has grown from 5.7% to 12.3% of the U.S. beer market as the number of craft breweries grew from 1,977 to 5,234, according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit trade organization. Last year, the association reports that craft beer accounted for 21.9% of the market share by dollars; that's $23.5 billion of $107.6 billion.

The association defines "craft brewer" as a small, independent, traditional brewer — specifically, annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Also, the brewer must be less than 25% owned or controlled by an alcohol industry member that is not itself defined as a craft brewer.

That would absolutely not include Blue Moon Brewing Co., which never existed as an independent brewing company but appears first in the "Craft Breweries" section of the MillerCoors website.

In fact, the Brewers Association definition also doesn't include Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co., which sold 30% of its ownership to Spanish company Mahou San Miguel a couple years ago. That deal, which kept the majority of Founders's ownership intact, didn't spark an uproar like Wicked Weed's acquisition.

Beer connoisseurs tend to resent the idea of publicly traded, corporate macro-breweries controlling craft beer. Many are concerned that they'll prioritize profit over quality, hoard hops and undersell traditional craft brewers. There's also a sense of pride that the demand for craft beer developed from humble beginnings, in many cases with home-brewers wanting to share their creations with others.

For brewery owners, selling to a big company can be a sweet deal. It appears the breweries keep making their beer the same way, with the same staff – at least, the ones who stick around.

A big side effect of the craft movement is that it's causing people to think those beers are better than beers like Budweiser – which, to be fair, is in fact a well-made, reliable, refreshing American adjunct pilsner. And as anyone who's ever watched a Super Bowl can tell you, the big beer companies place a high value on image.

In 2016, total volume at Anheuser-Busch declined 2 percent, including a 1.6 percent volume decline in North America, the Associated Press reports.

This fall, the Detroit Red Wings will begin playing in their new home, Little Caesars Arena, with Bud Light as the team's official domestic beer, it was announced Monday.

When I go to a game with my friend who likes Space Dust, perhaps we'll stop by the Goose Island Pub on the main concourse. Perhaps he'll wonder why it's named for a Chicago brewery and not one of the many fantastic Michigan ones.

Or maybe he'll see this cheat sheet of macro-breweries and the "craft beer" brands they own:

Anheuser-Busch Inbev (Bud Light, Budweiser, Stella Artois): Goose Island Beer Co., Elysian Brewing Co., Shock Top, 10 Barrel Brewing Co., Blue Point Brewing Co., Breckenridge Brewery.

Constellation Brands (Corona, Modelo, Pacifico): Ballast Point Brewing Co.

Heineken (Tecate, Red Stripe, Amstel): Lagunitas Brewing Co.

Millercoors (Coors Light, Miller Lite, Keystone Light): Blue Moon Brewing Co., Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Saint Archer Brewing, Terrapin Beer Co.

North American Breweries (Labatt Blue, Genesee, Honey Brown): Magic Hat Brewing Co., Pyramid Brewing Co., Portland Brewing Co.

Spirits of Detroit columnist Robert Allen covers craft alcohol for the Free Press. Contact him: rallen@freepress.com or on Untappd, raDetroit; Twitter @rallenMI, and Facebook robertallen.news.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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