Not all micro-breweries do things the right way

by Jason Foster

When I chat with people about craft beer, they often tell me they aren’t a fan because they tried a microbrew once and it wasn’t very good. Sometimes that’s just because the beer offered more than they were prepared for, which is fair and fine. But other times, it’s because the beer was just straight-up substandard.

For those of us who love craft brewing, this is a problem: there’s nothing worse for the movement than a crap beer trying to pass itself off as craft — it turns people off, and makes consumers think “craft” just means over-priced, iffy and hard-to-understand swill.

Those beers make me mad.

Not all craft beers are created equal. Just because it comes out of a small, local brewery doesn’t make it brilliant, and different breweries have differing degrees of skill and interest in making high-quality beer.

This isn’t about a beer that I (or anyone else) simply don’t like. That’s fine, because we all have our own tastes, right? What we’re talking about here is craft beer that clearly doesn’t meet the basic standards of quality — things like ensuring there’s no contamination, or being sure to create a beer that delivers what it promises.

This isn’t about styles, taste preferences and so on. It’s about plain-old bad beer.

If you’re ready to start scanning for names, sorry: this isn’t going to be an article that singles out specific breweries for a spanking. Why? Because the problem isn’t any single brewery — it’s a structural issue.

There are two basic reasons for the craft beer movement’s inconsistency. The first is “perceived perception”— there’s a widespread belief in the craft beer world that only a small portion of beer drinkers like full-flavoured beer, and in one way this is true: 90 to 95 per cent of beer sold in Canada is corporate pale lager, while craft beer remains a small portion of the beer market.

But the consequence of such thinking drives some craft brewers to dumb-down their beer. They feel the need to back off the hops, keep the malt in check and pick styles that are more easily accessed. On one level I’ve got no problem with that: they’re in the business of selling beer, not works of art, right?

But on the other hand, they’re selling beer drinkers short. In recent years, consumers have moved with serious speed to a place where they’re willing to experiment and explore different beer flavours. The number of people open to trying a hoppy pale ale, a roast-y stout or a fruity witbier, for example, has grown exponentially.

These craft brewers are also forgetting that they don’t really compete with the big breweries. Their target audience has already abandoned the corporate beers, and is looking for something local and/or interesting. There’s no point in chasing a market segment that doesn’t want you, especially when a significantly sized niche eagerly awaits your entrance.

The second reason: craft is the only portion of the beer market that’s growing — by leaps and bounds, in fact — while sales of domestic corporate beer are shrinking. This makes many (generally uncaring, unqualified) people think that it’s easy to make money brewing craft beer.

What we’re getting as a result is the weedy growth of what I like to call pseudo-craft breweries. These are breweries who claim to be craft, but that instead adopt the methods and mindset of the discount corporate brewers.

They tend to have craft-y names and labels, and usually claim to be a specific style but with some experience, you can spot them. Generally the beer doesn’t taste right, lacking the cleanliness and distinct flavours that a real craft beer has. Often it has a cidery, sharp taste that seems out of place in a craft beer. (That’s because they’re cutting corners through corn additions or shortened fermentation times, which can have a big effect on beer flavour.) These are the beers that the discouraged drinker at the top of this article was talking about.

We need to get real craft beer into the hands of consumers, and ferret out and marginalize the pretenders. That’s going to take time, but it’s a crucial project for those of us who love craft beer.