I think for about as long as I’ve been writing on this site, and definitely many years longer than that, there’s always been this epic war going on between smaller breweries and the big breweries. I know I definitely took part in fighting for the side of Small Craft Beer, especially when the lines were divided so distinctly between “unique, flavourful beers” and for the most part “tinted water painted up to look sexy”. It was, and still is, a thrill to see small businesses pull one over on the big corporations. It’s a sign that quality DOES matter to consumers and that each battle won, be it in the form of a growing selection at bars or stores, or in the rise of beer events, the small will always win. It’s always an aspiration and a joy to feel like Anya Major in the 1984 Apple commercial, throwing a sledgehammer at the screen broadcasting Big Brother’s word and showing the drones of people that there are other options out there and they can think for themselves.
The problem is, though, that at some point it became a war over ideals than actual quality of the product. This wasn’t helped by the fact that no one really managed to get a firm definition of exactly what “Craft Beer” is. The Brewer’s Association have one, but considering they’ve changed it so they can keep certain famed breweries under the “craft” label, it’s safe to say that their definition isn’t too great. With that, everyone has a personal ideal of what “Craft” represents. I often joke by saying that Craft Beer is the sun rising in Spring and is the warmth you feel when a loved one holds your hand. Frankly, I feel that “Craft Beer” should either be trademarked (similar to “Trappist Beer”), or left be. The definition is so broad.
Additionally, the distinct line between flavours blurred as more and more the big brewing companies were purchasing smaller ones and had them continue to make the beers that made them famous, only with MUCH bigger distribution and budget behind it. Similar to when a favourite indie band signs with a big label, many fans forget that there is a business side to every art and that “selling out” is very different from “changing who signs the cheques”. Boycotts and expressions of outrage over a betrayal usually follow the news of a smaller brewery getting bought. It’s weird to see that, even though smaller breweries have won so much, many of its fans still fight as if they have everything to lose, as if everything they’ve fought for could all slip away without a moment’s notice and we’d immediately go back to The Way Things Were. For many, when we think of small breweries we think of the lone brewer skillfully working on their craft, but when we think of big breweries or breweries owned by a bigger one, our mind leaves the brewing floor and focuses on people in suits having a meeting about marketing strategies. And that IS terrifying. Our minds go back to the quality distinction and there’s this small, gripping fear that anyone picked up by a company that historically was on the wrong side of that distinction will be lost to us, drowned in watered-down piss, and emerge as one of the nameless machines that churns out mediocre brews.
Not to suggest that big brewing is blameless and doesn’t warrant that distrust. Like how Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is run by the same folks that sign off on AXE Body Spray ads with bikini-clad women, it’s hard to trust a company that is so big that they have sections that cater to things you’re both for and against. I love sitting down at a patio with a nicely made beer, but I hate being at an event where nightclub partiers scream and fall down with a beer-case cardboard hat on their heads. And yet big breweries are in this position where they are able to comfortably sell to both sides of that market. Along with that and actively engaging in offence and deceit tactics, as a consumer I totally get how someone could look at that and not want to support it.
For myself and many others, there’s been a few things we’ve had to do. Firstly is to acknowledge that everyone has different tastes (duh). Secondly is to put the politics aside and see how the beers stand up along with the others we’ve enjoyed. While Miller Light, Coors, Bud, and Molson Canadian will always be passed on for me, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and IPA, Rickard’s Lederhosen Oktoberfest, and Pilsner Urquell will always be considered damn good beer. Just like a beer being “craft” doesn’t mean it’s a good beer, the same goes the other way for big beer. It’s not all yellow water with a flavour note of “cold”.
But hey, you’re all adults capable of making informed choices. I certainly don’t want you to choose sides, though as a personal rule that doubles as a compromise, I’m more prone to give local smaller breweries my money and attention while knowing that if I find myself in a spot, a good quality big beer is handy if I need it and they can work great as “old reliables”. From a variety within the brewery perspective, I’ll get some amazing limited one-offs from local breweries. Big breweries? Not as much.
There are many wars being fought in regards to beer. But I do feel that with the way things have been going, with big brewing companies courting smaller breweries and trying their best to embrace some of the adventurous spirit in those brewers, small beer has won the war on flavour. How that victory will continue to take shape is something we’ll discover as time goes on.