Why Are Fat Head's and Karl Strauss in the Same Category

Eno Sarris, October 11, 2016

So the why is easy enough to explain.

Why did Fat Head's get an award for Mid-size Brewery of the Year at this year's Great American Beer Festival, and then find out hours later that the award would instead go to Karl Strauss?

It has to do with classifications. Apparently, Karl Strauss had been entered as a mid-size brewpub by accident, and once that was rectified, their scores outdid those of Fat Head's, despite the fact that Fat Head's had won three medals, including bronze in the prestigious and crowded Double IPA category for their Hop JuJu. Karl Strauss won four awards, so ther point tally was higher. 

Matt Cole, Fat Head's brewmaster and owner, didn't seem to have much quibble with the way that Karl Strauss saw their status corrected. He did, however, have some things to say about how Fat Head's was required to enter as a mid-size brewery. 

"The rules say if you have a conglomerate of breweries it refers to the largest. Multiple locations have to compete at the same level," he told Marc Bona at Cleveland.com. "The problem with that is it doesn't reflect us. Middleburg Heights is clearly a mid-sized brewing company. North Olmsted and Portland are clearly large brewpubs."

The rules at GABF are clear, though. If you have multiple locations, you are classified by your largest location. That makes too much sense to poke a stick at -- Karl Strauss itself has a half-dozen brewpubs, if they showed up in a Small Brewpub competition you'd have a lot of angry brewers. 

Though Fat Head's may not have that point to make, there does seem to be something a bit screwy in the groupings. Karl Strauss was in the top 50 craft breweries by beer sales volume in 2015, hanging out near Bear Republic and Green Flash. Fat Head's may be making more than 15,000 barrels, but we know they can't be making much more than 30,000 barrels, because that was the listed (post-expansion) maximum capacity of their largest location when they opened it

Take a look at the grouping definitions for brewery size at GABF:

  • < 1,000 barrels = very small brewing company
  • 1,000 - 14,999 barrels = small brewing company
  • 15,000 - 6 million barrels = mid-sized brewing company
  • > 6 million barrels = large brewing company

Let's look at this grouping by number of breweries in each category, because that third step is a doozy. Seems like there might be a ton of breweries in that scrum. I'm using numbers National Beer Wholesaler Assocation Chief Economist Lester Jones used in his writeup of the industry in 2015

Size by Barrels Number of Breweries Share Brewery Count Share Tax Paid Volume
<1000 barrels 3,663 75.70% 0.40%
1,000-14,999 934 19.30% 1.70%
15,000-6million 212 4.40% 26.70%
>6million 15 0.30% 71.10%

So there are only 212 breweries in that grouping, its the very small brewing company grouping that has the most competition, when judged by sheer number of breweries. 

But that doesn't mean that the numbers aren't a little weird. Take a look at the large brewing company competition. Seems like the same giants go at it every year in that category. 

Perhaps we could fell two birds with one stone by evening out the last two categories. The NBWA calls anything over two million big, so if we moved that line, we add six more breweries to the large category.

The next category is where we get in trouble -- if we add anything over 100,000 barrels to the large category, we add 61 breweries, and Karl Strauss and Fat Head's are not in the same pool. In terms of breweries in each category, we'd have 81 large breweries and 146 medium ones, and that seems fine. But it may not pass the sniff test any more, to call Karl Strauss a large brewery. 

Maybe there is not solution, then. Maybe, once you're big enough to be a mid-size brewery, sometimes you'll go up against a brewery that is three times as big as you are... and still probably in the right place. 

As weird as that sounds now, it's probably true. Despite the fact that I offer no solace to Fat Head's, they have those three medals to help them sleep at night. And the knowledge that, they are among a small handful of the best breweries in America.