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Indie Beer and the Importance of a Name

Eno Sarris, February 03, 2016 -   

The first time the term Craft Beer was born, it wasn't even called Craft Beer. It was True Beer. Talk about a loaded term. 

In 1984, Vince Cottone, a beer columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer began referring to certain brewers as craft brewers, and they were brewing True Beer. In a great piece about the origins of the term 'craft' for All About Beer by Stan Hieronymus, the author quotes Cottone's first description of craft beer. It still rings true: 

"I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally. I refer to this beer as True Beer, a detailed definition and description of which appears in the following section.”

And that's been the working definition of craft beer among drinkers for the last thirty years. At least as a beer-drinking populus, it seems that craft beer has meant traditional, handcrafted beer with a local bent. The link between handcrafted and craft seems to be the natural link, and the freshness of a local IPA, in the face of weird distribution laws, is the concrete represenation of that definition. 

Of course, the Brewers Association got involved, and through great intentions, they muddied the water. The BA is there to represent the little guy, because the big guys have their own representatives and their own money with which to further their own interests. So the BA has defined craft beer a little differently.

A huge part of their definition has been the size of the brewery. It was one number. And then Sam Adams got big, and things got problematic, and so the BA changed the biggest size a brewery could be and still be considered craft. It's still problematic to discuss Sam Adams as a craft brewery, but they are still at the center of the discussion. Are they craft because they own themselves? Or not craft because they are national and act more like a national brand? Take a closer look at the Widmer label that heads this piece for another entry point into the discussion.

With the most popular craft beers getting bigger, though, it is hard to define craft as just size. How many times will BA have to change the maximum barrell allotment as Stone and Sierra Nevada begin to push Sam Adams? And yet size is at the heart of a new movement in craft beer: #indiebeer.

Concerned that consumers aren't aware of the recent list of purchases of smaller breweries by bigger corporations, local media in San Diego have been pimping Indie Beer as a new name for craft beer. As Ian Anderson wrote in San Diego Reader, the feeling in that holiest of craft beer towns is that big beer buyouts have sullied the craft name.

""Is craft beer even a thing any more, or is it just marketing?" asked Pritchard. "It's been appropriated by corporations." Taking a cue from the concept of Indie Rock in the music industry, the trio settled on Indie Beer as a way to distinguish small, privately owned businesses."

Ownership is part of the BA definition, but the BA definition has been a business-oriented one, not necessarily one that drinkers have internalized. When was the last time you heard a bar argument about craft beer that included barrels produced last year? Indie Beer threatens to make ownership central to the definition of craft/indie. 

Not everyone is super psyched about it. Jeremy Danner at Boulevard Brewing had a decent point about the divisive nature of this new term, in an industry that has been seen as largely cooperative to date. 

Maybe it's time to put some biases on the table. I'm biased towards locally-owned products because I feel that traditionally more of the profit ends up in labor's hands, or at least in a small business owner's pockets. The bigger your company, the more overhead there is, the more you have to use economies of scale to squeeze more profit from every unit sold, in order to cover that overhead. That's how I see it. 

Danner belongs to Boulevard Brewing, which was recently bought by Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat. That's doesn't mean he's necessarily biased in favor of Big Beer, but it seems important to the discussion. 

But back to the question at hand: do we need the new term? Does it bring anything to the table but divisiveness? 

On one hand, the Brewer's Association definition already had language about ownership and brewery size, so this new term doesn't add much. 

But on the other, 'craft' as a general term has not necessarily included that piece in the past. A brewery like Elysian or Golden Road, making their beer locally and marketing to locals, might still be considered craft by the original definition. For the most part (so far) big beer has allowed those breweries to continue making their beer locally -- sounds like True Beer. 

And yet now, those breweries have the power of Big Beer behind them, and all that overhead to cover. 

We've talked about different ways that Big Beer's buyouts may start to affect us here. I've thought it might come in the form of tap takeovers at airports, since I drank Elysian's Space Dust for the first time at Bob Hope airport. If you're in a pay to play battle -- finding yourself looking for kickbacks and price reductions and giveaways to give bars in order to stock your beer -- you really don't want to be up against Anheuser In Bev. Michael Donato wrote a good piece outlining those dangers

Recently, I talked to former Cloudburst brewer Steve Luke in Seattle, who left Elysian right as they were getting bought -- "I was already leaving, but I didn't take my time once that came out, and everyone here at Cloudburst is local and used to work at Elysian" he said -- and he brought up a seemingly innocous part of the battle of beer: the six pack. "There's no way we'll produce six packs," he grimaced. "People won't pay $25 for a six pack." 

So you'll see a six pack of Space Dust soon, most likely, because AIB can push the cost of that six pack down to a place where even craft beer lovers -- accustomed to forking out $10 for a bomber -- won't pay the same price for a six pack of beers. As a culture, we've been buying six packs for too long to get used to these new prices, maybe. 

In any case, smaller 'craft' brewers that have been bought by Big Beer have an advantage of some sort. And if that seems unfair to you, or you'd rather just reward local labor for their money, then maybe this new term is for you. 

But know that this new term, too, will be ephemeral. Remember the industry from which it came. Indie musicians (and indie movies before that) were once about local, darker music that wasn't yet attached to big labels. There are now many different 'indie' musics, and you can hear that music on the radio. You can see that music on the top 100 charts. There are even satellite radio channels devoted to the term. The Strokes and the White Stripes aren't as 'indie' as New Order and The Housemartins, not to most listeners. 

Indie doesn't mean what it once did in music, and it probably won't mean the same thing in beer many years from now. Music critics find the term 'indie' problematic in music today, just as beer critics find the term 'craft' problematic in beer today.

There was a reason we started calling some music indie. There was a reason certain crews stopped using that term. There was a reason we started calling beer craft. There is a reason for some to stop using that term. 

In the end, though, it's a term of business, not art. Using it signals a concern about where the money is going and where it's been. If you still like Elysian Space Dust, and Ten Barrel Joe, that be okay. Just be prepared to blink when someone tells you it's not craft.

"Dude, the Black Keys ain't indie, are you crazy?"

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