Can Craft Beer Survive the Hard Seltzer Craze?
Our columnist shares his concerns that the heart and soul of craft beer is in danger of disappearing.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, California, is celebrating 40 years in business. If you’re somehow not familiar with Sierra Nevada, they are the second-largest craft brewer after Boston Beer, and the seventh-largest brewing company in America. More to the point I’m going after, they are the oldest independent craft brewery in the U.S. and are still family owned.
As Ken Grossman, the founder, owner, and inspiration of the brewery recently told me, “we’re the last man standing, and we haven’t been sold, so we’re the oldest of the pioneers.”
Appropriately, the anniversary also comes at what I believe may be a watershed moment in craft brewing. The number of breweries in America continues to grow—just over 8,000 currently, according to the Brewers Association—and craft beer sales continue to grow, albeit at a slower rate than a few years ago. Even so, the segment is at a crossroads, where the meaning of “craft brewer” and “craft beer” are in a moment of existential flux.
I’m not talking about the way the terms are defined by the industry groups or analysts that use them to cut up the beer market into silos for reports. And it’s not about the small, evolutionary changes that have taken place constantly over the 40 years since Sierra Nevada was founded, or since “craft brewing” became the commonly used term for the category in the mid-1990s. There is a potential for a deep, fundamental change to the heart and soul of craft beer.
Sierra Nevada’s anniversary and success are at the center of it. It was craft before there was craft. In 1980, Grossman literally built the brewery with his own hands. After learning to homebrew, he got the idea to open his own small brewery from California pioneers, like Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing (still open, but owned by a much larger company) and Jack McAuliffe of now defunct New Albion Brewing. Grossman took a welding course at Chico State and built his brewing equipment. (He also built a copper pot still that year, and you can only wonder what would have happened if someone like Grossman had actually started making “craft” whiskey back in 1980.)
He founded the brewery on the idea of making American-influenced examples of classic English beer styles: pale ale, porter, IPA, barleywine, stout. And most of the original line-up of beers Grossman developed are still made: the iconic Pale Ale, Bigfoot Barleywine, Porter and Stout, and the celebrated Celebration Ale. The labels—designed by his homebrewer buddy, Chuck Bennett—still look largely the same.
It was not about selling what everyone else was selling and at times it didn’t even seem like it was about selling at all, but just about making good beer. If you want to buy it, that’s cool. If you don’t want to buy it, that’s cool. For years, you never saw a Sierra Nevada ad and when you did it was for their merchandise, but not the beer. They seemed to rely on what I call the Field of Dreams business model: If you brew it, they will drink it.
All of that makes Sierra Nevada a model for craft brewing...and increasingly, an outlier, an oddity.
To get at that, let’s look at what a “craft brewer” is these days. And I don’t mean the Brewers Association’s definition, which is based on size, and ownership, and some very vague descriptions of how the beer is made. That’s a business association, and it has created a definition that meets the needs and desires of its members. When the members squawk loud enough, the definition changes.
The same goes for the term “craft beer.” It’s telling that after a brief fling more than a decade ago, the Brewers Association declines to define “craft beer.” It’s something craft brewers make, apparently, which is just a bit circular in the argument department.
People tell me that craft breweries are small: how small is Sierra Nevada? And why should a craft brewery lose that valuable moniker just because it’s been successful enough to grow? Maybe craft breweries are “local”? I dunno. Maine Beer Company makes really good beer, and they’re small, but I buy their beer in New York and Pennsylvania; are they only craft when I buy them in Maine?
A lot of other arguments center on ownership: are they owned by a brewery that isn’t a craft brewery? What if General Electric bought a craft brewery and let it run, hands off? Would it still be a craft brewery? Why not? What about a brewery that’s owned by a large, foreign brewery that is itself independently-owned?
If those things are important to you, that’s fine. I hope you look as closely into the ownership of the companies that make the other fine products you enjoy, and only buy local fruit in the off-season. Hope you don’t like shrimp, or bananas.
For me, what makes a craft brewery, what makes a craft beer, is transparently clear: it’s about the beer. Always. As the late great craft beer publican Don Younger somewhat famously said: “It’s not about the beer—it’s about the beer!” For me, it doesn’t matter who owns the brewery: how’s the beer? It doesn’t matter where the brewery is: how’s the beer?
That’s not always popular with brewers and that’s okay. That’s not my job. My job is to find good stories, and find good beer; not popular beer, not beer that virtue-signals. I’m not going to stop drinking a really good beer just because the brewery changed hands. If the beer still tastes really good, I’m drinking it. Obviously, some people agree with me. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout still sells like mad, even though it is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Lagunitas still sells hot, even though it’s owned by Heineken.
What is a craft beer? Is it made well? Is it made with pride? Is it made with some kind of thought? Then, yes, it’s probably craft. Is it made with food in mind? Is it made to have good flavor, to deliver something more than just a dose of alcohol? It’s probably craft.
“Craft beer” doesn’t really mean much anymore when there are more than ten thousand breweries in the world making beers that fit in that box. It doesn’t mean much when there are really large, multi-national breweries that are making beer that fits in that same box.
Then why would I care that craft beer is at a crossroads, where the meaning of “craft brewer” and “craft beer” are in a moment of existential flux? If I don’t even care who owns the brewery, what could I possibly be concerned about?
I’m concerned since the idea of craft beer got us to where we are today. Those pioneering beers were great because of the heart and soul of the people who made them. I don’t want to see the soul go away. I don’t think that the beer world as we know it today could survive that.
The threat I perceive is probably not what you think. The soul is not at risk because of hazy IPA, or pastry stouts, or fruited everything, or kettle sours, or lactose additions that make beers taste like milkshakes. Some of them are good, some of them are fun, and for sure not every traditional beer is good or fun. This is real innovation. Plus, there’s some pretty weird stuff in historical brewing.
The soul is not at risk because of the recent fall of Stoudt’s Brewing, and the declining popularity of “beer-flavored beer.” If it’s good, it’s going to survive. My local brewpub does fine on a menu of porter, brown, DIPA, pale, and some stouts and pilsners on occasion.
The soul is not at risk because the youngs don’t listen to the olds (you know, like me, and that’s a topic for another time). It’s not at risk because of “ticking” or the Untappd beer social media app, driving unending quests after the newest and rarest beers. That’s been going on for as long as I can remember. I was keeping track of every new beer I had back in 1987, it was just in tiny handwriting in the back of a 35-cent notebook I still have...somewhere. Putting it on a phone didn’t change anything significantly.
The soul is at risk because craft brewing doesn’t know what it means anymore, and it all comes down to hard seltzer.
Hard seltzer is booming. It is the first really big new thing in years. I’ve already told you how big it is. It’s so big that it’s catching the attention of craft brewers. They’re making hard seltzer because people want it, and you know, they might as well sell it to them. It’s so easy to make, after all; a lot easier to make than light lager. Easy money!
I can be brief about this. Hard seltzer is not craft. It is fermenting sugar to a flavorless wash, adding flavors, and carbonating. There is no way that you can twist it around and make it come out craft. “We use demerara sugar.” “We source novel fruit flavors.” “We ferment it fully to create a completely flavorless base to build a pure flavor package.”
Stop. That’s not craft. It’s fermenting sugar and adding flavor to a drink that has been stripped of all flavor. There is nothing about the process that separates it from what White Claw does other than the size of it all. It is not beer, it is not cider, no matter what the TTB has decreed. It’s the first step to moonshine, the kind they make in the holler and run through a car radiator.
Does that make me hypocritical, having written about hard seltzer? Hold on a sec: what did I say about hard seltzer other than it’s selling like a sonofabitch on fire? I said, “...is fermented cane sugar really ‘beer’? No, it is not, just like rum isn’t whiskey.” My conscience, my soul is clear. On this count, anyway.
It’s really about the business, not the beer, and if you bought into that as a definition of “craft brewing”, you shouldn’t be surprised when your prized local brewer starts making hard seltzer. Hell, you’ll probably drink it. (Which is fine, I have no quarrel with that. But don’t try to tell yourself it’s much different from your neighbor drinking Claws. Well...you’re probably paying more.)
So what does this have to do with Sierra Nevada? Let’s go back to that interview with Ken Grossman. I asked him if there was a path to continued success as a large, established craft brewer when the “cool kids” all seemed to be tiny and new.
“We’re working in alternatives,” he said. “Kombucha is one, and we’re looking at others. The kombucha we hope will appeal to a similar consumer. We worked really hard at making it, the cultures are ones we intentionally put together. Most of them are combinations of yeast and bacteria that just happened, passed on from a friend’s uncle. We’ve been purposeful about that: a little funky but not a lot, lower alcohol, organic.”
And then, unprompted, he told me: “I don’t know that we’ll do an alcoholic spritzer. We’ll want it to have some more meaning and soul, more in line with what we are than just fermenting sugar and putting flavor in it.”
Indeed, Mr. Grossman. Indeed.
I think Sierra Nevada and Grossman are guardians of craft brewing’s soul. I think Great Lakes Brewing and the Conway brothers, Allagash Brewing and Rob Todd are also guardians of craft brewing’s soul. I think there are a lot of small, local guardians of craft brewing’s soul. And I do firmly believe that craft brewing’s soul needs to be guarded.
Make IPAs as hazy as you want. Brew beer with malt, corn, rice, wheat and quinoa. Stuff it full of lactose, sour it in the kettle, age it three years in a barrel full of funk-inducing bacteria. Dose it up with fruit, ferment it to ultimate dryness and hop the bejayzus out of it. Make a pilsner I can’t distinguish from an IPA, make an IPA I can’t distinguish from orange juice. It’s all good, because it’s beer. As long as it is beer, craft is safe.
But if you chase money down the fizzy water hole, you’ll lose something valuable down there. Call it your soul, call it credibility, call it craft. Hold onto it. It’s the only thing of real value in the end, and we’re counting on you to keep it safe.