Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
September 12, 2017 - Who Really Makes Your Beer?
How I love living in Nova Scotia. There’s a bit of a Renaissance going on here, and it has a lot to do with liquor. A recent bit of research by one of my Salt Box compatriots revealed the following numbers for our wee province: 16 local wineries, 9 cideries, 12 distilleries, and 48 craft breweries. In fact, Nova Scotia now leads the nation in craft breweries per capita.
The growth in craft breweries throughout Canada and the US has “big beer” producers going on the attack. In Nova Scotia alone, NSLC sales of multinational, mass market beers have flat-lined in stores, while craft beer sales increased over 25% in the last year. In an attempt to claw back their market share, Big Beer has undergone a two-pronged approach: they are either purchasing small breweries already popular with consumers, or launching “craft” brands that appear like small, independent labels, but are really brewed in large, mass-market production facilities. This is starting to make it difficult for consumers to differentiate between “acquired” brands and those brands truly made in small batches by independently-owned local breweries.
Detractors of this Big Beer strategy call the phenomenon “crafty” beer (and it’s a bit of a double-entendre, given those multinationals think they’re being fairly clever). Let me give you a few examples. Have those of you who like wheat beer ever gone into the NSLC and purchased a six pack of “Blue Moon”, the Belgian-style wheat ale created by beer-loving visionaries two decades ago in Denver, CO? That brewery is owned by MillerCoors, a subsidiary of an even bigger beer giant called SABMiller. That hoppy beer called “Goose Island”? Owned and brewed by Anheuser Busch InBev, your beloved brewers of Budweiser. Have you seen cans of “Shock Top” sitting amongst the local craft brews at some of the bigger NSLC stores? That’s Anheuser-Bush InBev’s best-known “crafty” beer. According to one source, 75% of consumers believe Shock Top is produced by a small, unknown brewer (that may be because you don’t see the name of the brewery on any of its labelling).
Why does this matter? Well, these multinational big beer companies with deep pockets hope to win sales by creating the appearance of independent, craft beer authenticity while using the production and marketing advantages of a global corporation. Their “crafty beer” gets placed alongside genuine, locally-crafted beers, ultimately squeezing them off the shelf and possibly out of business.
So just what constitutes a genuine “craft” beer, and why should we drink it? According to the Craft Beer Association of Nova Scotia (CBANS), a craft brewery is three things: small, independent, and traditional. “Small” means production of less than 1.5 million litres of beer annually. “Independent” means less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer (i.e, not a large, multinational beer producer). And “traditional” means beer made from malted whole grains, and processed in the same way my great, great grandmother made beer…i.e., the grain is crushed on premises and “mashed” (steeped in hot water) to create what is called “wort”. The wort forms the foundation of the beer that is ultimately flavoured with hops and other interesting ingredients like herbs, fruit, coffee, etc. to create interesting and unique beers with lots of flavour.
Before the renaissance of craft brewing, Big Beer held sway by producing a watered-down, fizzy brew designed to please everybody. Their primary goal was to make beer that was simple, consistent and affordable. What they didn’t offer was creativity, variety or flavour. Craft beer has filled that niche – so successfully that it can no longer be ignored. Big Beer’s response has become, “if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em”. And while some of the small breweries that have been “acquired” claim that their beer will continue to be made by the same staff on the same equipment, the majority of these takeovers transition the once-local brands to be produced in large-scale facilities that can affect how the beer tastes. Think about taking one of your grandmother’s recipes and producing it for 100 people instead of 10. That special flavour almost always gets lost when you scale up the production.
A recent review in Halifax Magazine said it best, “buying local beers lets you vote with your wallet”. Local breweries emphasize the use of local ingredients, they hire your fellow Nova Scotians, and they invest their profits back into the community (as opposed to funneling them off to a giant head office located in another country). And while local breweries need to be cost-conscious, they are primarily focused on meeting the local demand for fresh, great tasting beer, rather than simply on how much beer they can produce and sell to as many people as possible.
Most importantly, let’s not forget, going to your local brewery isn’t just about the beer; it’s about the destination. This is a place that taps into local stories, local activities and the local economy. These breweries create an “experience”, where you can socialize and learn about each other while discussing new, alternative styles of beer with a variety of flavours that might pleasantly surprise you. These places don’t just manufacture beer; they create it…that’s why it’s called a “craft”. And it provides those of us who love to consume it, the opportunity to purchase fresh, tasty, interesting beer.