Craft brewers toe the line in between the extremes of Bud-like consistency and a home brewer who never brews the same beer twice. Craft breweries establish themselves with a few consistent, flagship beers and make those available year round to their customers. They spend the rest of their time experimenting on new brews and seasonal offerings. For a craft beer lover, there is something new being produced by their local brewery three or four times a year and it’s fun to follow the local events and charitable efforts of a small business.
In 2009, Anheuser-Busch donated $2 million to the United Way. I doubt that was their only charitable contribution that year but that kind of money is beyond the scope of the average consumer. It seems that size does matter when we become fans of a brand and there is something that makes craft beer lovers feel good about themselves when they support local businesses and the further away you live from cities like St. Louis and Denver, the harder it is to see the financial impact that a big brewery has on your local economy. Charity bike rides sponsored by New Belgium (makers of Fat Tire) and $100K donations to Operation Homefront by breweries like St. Arnold in Houston operate on a scale that the average environmentalist can consume. And sustainable operations are also a big draw to craft brewing. New Belgium as an example is entirely wind powered.
In the mid-90s, big breweries went under the radar and created several subsidiaries designed to cater to the craft beer consumer. This sparked some controversy within the craft beer community over labeling practices that didn’t make it clear that a brand like Blue Moon was a division of Coors. This issue has since been resolved but for a local-minded beer drinker going into a bar, they still wouldn’t know based on the label that Killian’s Irish Red is a division of Coors. And who cares? Isn’t taste all that matters? Yes, but the criticism is that beers produced in large batches in short timespans and shipped all over the globe undermine the quality and care that a craft brewer takes when constructing their brew. The argument is that competition is fine but that the craft brew playing field isn’t equal when small breweries are forced to compete against companies with near unlimited financial resources.
Much like there is a lot of attention on retail brands like Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble, Anheuser-Busch is often considered the enemy of craft beer. They are well known for litigating craft brewers into bankruptcy over words they have trademarked with the sole purpose of keeping competing beers off the market (see the documentary beerwarsmovie.com for more information on that). It’s hard for people who love the experience and science of beer making to support a company that trademarks area and airport codes in an effort to keep craft breweries from using local indicators to label their beer – (512) out of Austin and 312 in Chicago are recent examples. At a certain point, a lot of us just feel that the 28.5% market share that Bud Light alone holds is enough.
When home brewers started getting together to judge the beers of fellow craft brewers to see how their unique beers ranked against one another, it wasn’t long before Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors wanted their brands to be represented at these events as well. Offers from the biggest breweries to sponsor smaller and local events in addition to entering their widely distributed beers into competitions created some backlash against organizers and the breweries themselves. Like skaters and punk rockers, craft brewers didn’t want to appear as though they’d sold out.
And more of us are starting to make political choices based on beer. Organizations like Open the Taps are dedicated to change legislation that opens up the distribution channels that Anheuser-Busch and Miller control to get more craft beer to market (again, reference Beer Wars for more information on how shelf space is allotted in grocery stores).