Beer and Pavement

Does Size Matter?

Posted in Beer, Intersections by SM on January 9, 2011

Boy, I can’t wait to see the spam this post attracts…

A hot topic in beer circles is that the Brewers’ Association has redefined “small” in order to keep one of their charter members, the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams), under the label “craft beer brewer.” Sam Adams is huge, but they don’t produce nearly as much beer as the big industrial producers of rice adjunct swill do. Sam Adams founder Jim Koch once joked about how Budweiser or some beer producer like that spills more beer in a year than his brewery sells all together.

So, the move to redefine “small” makes sense. Sam Koch’s baby is all growns up, but she ain’t anything like the rice kings of beer. Still, Sam Adams doesn’t taste like it used to and this is probably related to the growth in Koch’s company. By Boston Beer growing bigger, it has giving up on some of its quality, not like the big brewers, but the change is palpable. Still, the BA needs a major player on its roster. It needs a company with the capital to pay for lobbyists and keep the craft brewing portion of the market vocal in DC. As long as the rest of the craft beer community stays small, Boston Beer Company will need to stay within the parameters of craft brewing.

For the BA’s purposes, size matters. They need a major player in Washington, in the industry. They need some muscle to take on the non-craft beer sector. Despite changing what it means to be labeled as “craft beer,” cheapening what it means to be craft, AB did what they had to do.

For Sam Adams/Boston Beer, size also matters. Growth is important for the company’s stability. The more beer they sell, the more profits they make. More profits fuel that growth. That growth dilutes the product. Still, they’re technically a craft brewing company.

Both BA and Boston Beer have paid a price to retain their status in the industry. The cost they pay is a hefty one. For the BA, the cost is the watering down, diluting what it means to be a craft brewer. By keeping Boston Beer in the club, the meaning of what is craft versus what is a mass-produced product is blurred. The BA begins to look more like AB. And Boston Beer grows to the point where their beer doesn’t taste like it once did. Somewhere, quality is giving way to to quantity. The relationship between BA and Boston Beer is both beneficial and detrimental.

Similar is the effect of bands moving on to major labels and/or reaching new heights in their sales figures. The music isn’t as immediate as it once was, not as clever. The material becomes drab and mundane in order to appease a new audience or label. Size and quantity kill quality.

It’s late and I won’t get to hyperlinking or footnotes. Leave some comments so that this conversation may continue. What do you think about BA redefining what makes a brewer “craft?” What about music? Does success or sales numbers have a detrimental effect?

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5 Responses

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  1. jeffmenter said, on January 10, 2011 at 12:00 am

    Defining “craft” beer should never be about quantity of beer produced. It should be about quality. I suppose that judged on these terms, Sam Adams shouldn’t be considered “craft” beer. OK, their Noble Pils is not bad and Utopias is truly something else. But what else do they produce that’s exciting?

    Also, think of it this way: if Stone produced 10 million barrels of Ruination in a year, every single bottle face-punchingly good, would it not be considered craft beer?

    If a local brewer made a pissy yellow adjunct lager that tasted like piss would that be considered craft beer?

    The 6 million barrel cap is an arbitrary yet convenient number. Much easier to pluck a number out than having to judge each brewery on their own merits. I’m trying to not let my disinterest in anything Sam Adams make me think that the cap adjustment was a wholly cynical move.

  2. Pizza Cottontail said, on January 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    It sounds like it helps the brewers’ association to have a big name associated with it. My state, Colorado, has quite a few laws that encourage a local craft culture–there are over 100 breweries in the state. I don’t know how far these laws would have gotten without the colossal Coors, or how long they would have stayed on the books without not-colossal-but-still-pretty-big New Belgium.

    I’m struggling to see the connection between the craft beer/indie rock connection on this one, though: I haven’t had Sam Adams in years, so I can’t comment on whether the quality of the beer has changed. (Last time I had it, I rated it as ” slightly better than Michelob.”) But I’m not convinced the size of the band’s contract is always an indicator of the quality of the material. Lots of bands (REM, Springsteen, Built to Spill, Nirvana, Flaming Lips) continued to make interesting a few interesting albums after a large contract; other established acts (recent Robert Pollard comes to mind, as does Cat Power’s cover album from a couple years ago, Ryan Adams’ self-released metal and hip hop material) stay on small labels and make music that’s sort of dull.

  3. jeffmenter said, on January 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    I’d also like to see the connection with music. While you can certainly point to specific examples where the move to a major label coincided with a marked lack of quality for a certain band, you’d be hard pressed to show that reduction in quality is a fundamental property of moving to a major label.

    Just for instance:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/They_Might_Be_Giants_discography

    They Might Be Giants had a 4-album major label stint (is Elektra major?) but They have always produced music of quality, sophistication, and cleverness.

  4. builderofcoalitions said, on January 11, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I think I agree with you both. It’s not necessarily a connection, but it happens. In music, bands can get lazy when they’re making a ton of cheddar. (That’s right. I said “cheddar.”) I sort of threw that in there to make some connection, but it certainly doesn’t work the way it does in craft beer.

    As far as craft beer, I don’t think the size of the brewery determines the quality of each beer. Rather, I think large breweries tend to produce mostly mediocre beers. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium are all examples of larger craft breweries. Each one brews mostly “sessionable” but uninspiring beers. However, each is able to reach back to their roots and put out something that easily qualifies as good craft beer. Still, I think the idea of staying small and focusing on quality over quantity is a valid one.

  5. Steve said, on January 12, 2011 at 3:48 am

    I’d say it should be a matter of process rather than size. I think CAMRA’s description is a useful one, as a point of comprison: http://www.camra.org.uk/page.aspx?o=100330

    I terms of a beer/music link, the nearest I can think of is of record labels that appear to be ‘independent’, but are in fact funded or part-funded by major labels. The music may be produced in much the same way, but the money situation clouds matters somewhat. This was an issue in the UK when we had a thriving ‘Indie’ chart, as there was confusion over what was and what wasn’t eligible. As for whether it had an impact on quality, it is hard to say, as it is difficult to judge whether a lapse in quality is down to the band, or external pressures.


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