Craft Beer vs. ‘Crafty’ Beer: What’s the Difference?
“Craft beer.” It isn’t just a buzz word for beer geeks; it’s an actual designation that refers to beer produced by a brewery using certain types of ingredients and in specific quantity limits. But with the rise of craft beer’s popularity comes a few blurry lines.
Hey, no one is going to mistake Bud Light for Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. But if you’re newer to the game, sometimes those blurry lines aren’t just blurry because you’ve had four Arrogant Bastard Ales; sometimes it’s a bait and switch game played by the dreaded big brewers and distributors to steer would-be connoisseurs off the path to beer enlightenment.
The result is that a lot of people become interested in trying craft beers, even if it’s just for the sake of being able to tell people, “I really like craft beer,” but they don’t always know what the hell a craft beer really is.
The Craft Brewers Association called this “Craft vs. Crafty” – meaning that these other beers are trying to be crafty and fool us – and even created a handy infographic to help people tell the difference. But for those who don’t know where to begin, so-called “crafty” beer can be a stumbling block.
I was in a sports bar with a limited beer selection a couple of years ago, and there were three middle-aged, upper middle-class men sitting next to me. One wore a gray button-down, another wore a dark-colored sweater and the one in the middle was wearing a dark blue blazer.
I overheard blazer guy say, “Do you have Bass Ale on draft?”
“No, we don’t, sorry,” the 20-something bartender said.
“I only like to drink craft beer,” Blazer responded.
“I’ve never had those; can I try them?”
Blazer tasted both, made a couple “yuck” faces, and then ended up ordering a Blue Moon, complete with orange wedge and the whole schmear. I stopped myself from chuckling as they sat there talking about their golf games, and after they left, the bartender came over to me and said, “What a bunch of douchebags.”
Hey, it happens. And I shouldn’t make fun, because I was drinking a Miller Lite at the time – but the point is, I knew what I was drinking. That kind of corporate light beer is easily distinguishable from craft beer, even for the uninitiated. It’s those blurry-line-straddlers that can trip you up.
How do you spot one of these "mockrobrews" (as we used to call them in the early 2000s)? Well, it isn’t always easy. Some of them are downright camouflaged. Take Henry Weinhard beers as an example; those started popping up in my local Kroger a year or two ago, and I thought, “Hey, is this a new craft beer I somehow missed?”
And then I looked at the label, which said the beer is brewed in Oregon, and that’s when I knew something was fishy. You see, most small craft brewers in Oregon don’t have distribution power that will get them into Kroger stores on a national level. That? That is the work of a Megabrew. And yes, Weinhard is owned by MillerCoors and is being marketed as a lighter version of “craft” beer that is palatable to the masses.
You know, guys like Blazer.
The point here is that a craft beer that travels from, say, Indianapolis to Louisville, is an exotic craft beer to the beer geek. That sort of distribution is the result of a lot of hard work and lost sleep, and the small profit made from the sale of that beer goes to a guy running a small brewery who is trying really hard to feed his family while chasing a dream.
Similarly, the local brewery down the street with a three-barrel system and a small tap room that gets distribution to a handful of bars in its own city is what the beer snobs will choose every time, and for good reason: That’s about supporting your local economy.
Plus, that beer isn’t diluted to make it all things to all people; your mom might not like the imperial IPA at your favorite local brewery, but she might not be the target audience, you know? That stuff was brewed with the real thing: hops, malts, barley. And it was done in such a way as to make it distinctive and interesting.
These “crafty” pretenders, well, they’re using what the Brewing Association calls “adjuncts,” which are lesser ingredients such as corn designed to water down the beer for less discerning beer drinkers like Blazer.
Here’s a quick take on some of the obvious brewers churning out fake craft beer.
Blue Moon: Created by MillerCoors to fool the masses into thinking they have good taste, this wretched take on a Belgian white ale screams “amateur” to beer geeks. Don’t be caught dead with this in your grasp.
Leinenkugel : Falls on the aforementioned blurry line because it actually has a long history of brewing in Wisconsin. But it was bought out in the 1990s and continues to make fruity pseudo-beer for your sister’s sorority parties. Even beer amateurs should know better.
Shock Top: owned by Anheuser-Busch, it’s just a sad copy of Blue Moon with a mohawk. Nothing to see here.
Magic Hat: Another would-be craft brewer that is owned by a mega-corporation. Or maybe two; hell, I lost count. It is now in the business of brewing candy-flavored beer and suing small, local breweries.
Goose Island: Was bought by Anheuser-Busch in 2011, and now much of the beer it releases is contract brew; Goose Island was in pretty good craft standing until that turn of events. It’s still debatable as to whether quality has fallen off as much as image, but it sure isn’t what it once was.
Kona, Widmer and Red Hook: These are the three heads of the Craft Brew Alliance. The so-called Alliance is looked down upon by beer snobs in part because combined together they exceed the max production requirement set forth by the Craft Brewers Association and in the process gains a distribution advantage, and in part because Anheuser-Busch owns a big chunk of it. Like Leinenkugel, however, the brands have long histories in their respective territories, so it could be easy for a craft beer newcomer to be fooled.
Pyramid Breweries: Owned by the same folks who bought Magic Hat, North American Breweries. Was a Great Northwest favorite and probably still is, but it has sold out. Reminds me, I have some Pyramid stickers I need to peel off my guitar case.
Hell, even Unibroue sold out and is now owned by Sapporo, a gi-normous Japanese company, creating some beer-snob consternation, even though I’ve not heard any inkling that the beer quality has suffered. And there are plenty of others – just refer to the infographic.
At the same time, plenty of these beers can be fine “gateway” beers, if you will; say you enjoyed that Game Changer ale you had at Buffalo Wild Wings? (Psst. It was brewed by Red Hook!) Heck, then you may be ready to go to your local brewery and try a nice, big APA. The pace you set in your journey to enjoying craft beer is up to you.
Just know that if you say you love craft beer and a beer geek sees you drinking a Kona, well, the state of your beer-drinking dignity is in your own hands. Literally.