What’s craft beer, what’s not, and what difference does it make?

Date: 4/10/2015

It’s been a while since a beer column graced the pages of these papers and with its return, I’ll wade right into the murky waters of one of the longest running feuds the beer-loving world has ever known and let you know just one thing – it’s absolutely ridiculous.

This means war!

The Brewers Association recently released its report on the top-selling beers and with it rekindled the age-old debate: What is craft beer and what is not?

At the crux of the newest chapter of the ongoing battle is the fact that D.G. Yuengling & Son, which jumped back into the Massachusetts market with much fanfare in 2014, was included in the list as a qualified craft brewer and, as a result, rocketed to the top spot on the list, supplanting Boston Beer Co., makers of Samuel Adams products.

Brewers Association Top 50 list for 2015

While Yuengling has been in existence in one form or another since 1829, since its establishment in the 1970s, the Brewers Association has never classified Yuengling products as craft beer because of their use of adjuncts.

Now that that has changed, the fight has resulted in especially the most ardent of self-appointed “beer snobs” (it’s not necessarily a derogatory term) digging their trenches even deeper and lobbing verbal grenades and mortars.

What’s an adjunct?

Adjuncts, broadly defined, are anything outside of the basic, traditional ingredients of water, barley, hops, etc.

For example, oats for oatmeal stouts, spices in many popular winter beers, and even the apricots utilized in Magic Hat’s No. 9 are technically adjuncts; however, in Yuengling’s specific case, they use other starchy malts besides barley – namely corn grits – in their mash. For those unfamiliar, mashing is the process of essentially cooking the malts in water to convert the starches into sugars that can be fermented. Corn is also a popular adjunct added to mash.

Beer purists consider this method a blasphemy. In Germany, it is actually against the law. Evidently I’m not the purist I thought I was.

The original law the current German regulation is based on didn’t include yeast as a key ingredient for beer, and also disallowed the use of wheat. Those restrictions have been loosened, but it just points out the extremist view from which the rule stems.

In reality, adjuncts have been used in brewing for centuries. Ancient brewing recipes included them, especially in regions where barley might have been scarce or expensive. In the 1600s settlers in New England and the Dutch in New York used corn in their brewing. German immigrants utilized adjuncts to cut down on the higher levels of protein found in American barley.

In America, the use of adjuncts in the mash has received a very bad rap because it is a practice much abused by macrobrewing companies such as Anheuser Busch, which identifies itself as the largest purchaser of rice in the United States.

While the use of adjuncts is most commonly associated with being a cost-cutting measure, many claim it is not an effective strategy for saving money and can actually be more costly.

Most often the goal is to create a beer with a lighter body and smoother mouthfeel, which is what Yuengling claims is their purpose; however, many mainstream beers, like a Budweiser, to pick on Anheuser Busch again, cut the mash to the point that the beer is thin and watery.

Defining “craft beer”

The issue of what is craft and what is not usually comes down for most to taste, but seeing as that is a completely subjective criteria, for industry purposes, a line has to be drawn somewhere.

In layman’s terms, the Brewer’s Association has defined a craft brewer as:
• Small – Producing no more than 6 million barrels, or roughly 3 percent of all US sales;
• Independent – Not owned by a larger “non-craft” entity. For example: Goose Island and Blue Moon don’t count because they are owned by Anheuser Busch and Miller Coors, respectively; and
• Traditional – Beverages whose “flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.” Flavored malt beverages such as hard lemonade or hard iced tea don’t qualify.

Until 2014, the Brewers Association took a strong stance against the use of adjuncts in the mash, presumably because it violated their definition of “traditional,” but the February 2014 meeting of its Board of Directors brought about a softening of this stance. In addition to Yuengling, popular brands Narragansett and Schell, which were previously excluded, are now on board as well.

The numbers game

This all could be seen as a fairly transparent effort to claim a greater share of the American beer market.

In 2014, craft beer claimed an 11 percent share of the American beer market, a big leap over 2013’s 7.8 percent.

In questioning Bart Watson, Ph.D., chief economist for the Brewers Association, I learned companies who joined the craft beer ranks by qualifying under the new standards produced 3.5 million barrels, roughly 15 percent of its membership’s total output of 22.2 million.

It is not the first time the Board of Directors was criticized for this kind of alteration. In 2010, Boston Beer Co. the Brewers Association increased the definition of “small” from 2 million barrels to 6 million. Board members claimed it was allow growth for its members, but many felt the change was made because Boston Beer Co. was in peril of falling off the list because it was growing too rapidly, and, in turn, the top earner would no longer fit the definition.

The addition of these brewers, Watson also pointed out, did bog down the growth figures – still a robust 18 percent over last year – which raises other interesting questions about how successful Yuengling’s return to Massachusetts has been.

What’s in a name?

Beyond statistics and fun with numbers, you could believe that if adjuncts are used with the purpose of improving the quality of the product in some way, then the beer could be considered craft.

Of course, intent is as difficult as anything to prove and I can’t speak to Yuengling’s true motivation beyond their explanation.

Then there’s the question of whether simply having intent to make a quality product is enough to qualify.

Is your head spinning yet?

If so, you’re on your way to realizing that to try to find a true definition of craft beer is to attempt to catch a hummingbird on PCP.

The Brewers Association needs the moniker to establish the difference between its membership and other products, but at this point, is it one we necessarily need as educated consumers? In a way, it seems clinging to labels is in its own way a violation of the spirit of craft beer.

I wasn’t heartbroken that Yuengling wasn’t considered a craft beer and I’m not all that upset that it is now. It hasn’t once affected my decision to drink it.

The point is, if you like a beer, enjoy it. That’s what really matters, right?


Infographic courtesy of the Brewers Association