Something that has always struck me about the beer industry is its white-knuckled grasp on definitions.
We have BJCP guidelines to tell us how a beer should look and taste, but we also have a definition of beer itself. Or, at least, what constitutes the artisanal aspect of beer production, better known as “craft.”
All the “little guys” earn a title of “craft brewer” depending on a variety of standards set forth by the Brewers Association. Namely, that breweries be independently owned (or at least 75 percent so), they create beers whose flavor comes from “traditional” or “innovative” brewing ingredients and they produce 6 million barrels of beer or less, approximately 3 percent of annual sales in the United States.
That last marker – size of production – might also be recognized for its relationship with the Boston Beer Company, the largest member of the Brewers Association. In 2010, the Association upped its threshold of allowable barrel production from 2 million to 6 million as Boston Beer, maker of Sam Adams, was preparing to break through that cap, thus nullifying its existence as a “craft brewer.”
As it stands today, Boson Beer produces about 3 million barrels of Sam Adams annually, and that number is going up. Fast.
For beer enthusiasts, defining the difference between Big Beer (AB InBev, SABMiller) and everyone else has been a hot topic in the past year, as the Brewers Association works to inflate craft’s market share in order to sell 20 percent of all beer by 2020.
But the thing is, these definitions come across more fermentally-challanged than anything, especially when you consider they are placed upon businesses in an industry that thrives on bucking trends and setting their own paths. Even if a brewer is producing 3 million barrels of beer, they are more than the definition we provide for them. They are not a descriptive term, they are a story.
Instead of focusing on Boston Beer’s place in terms of the definition of craft, we should instead train our eyes (and livers) on the company’s commitment to the industry. As a profit-driven company, the growth and business acumen of Boston Beer is kind of amazing, but if you look hard enough, you’ll see that owner Jim Koch has never lost sight of his roots as a plucky, upstart brewer.
Which is why I’m devoting a few posts this week to a deeper look at Boston Beer and what they’ve been doing in recent years. To some, the company may seem to be a giant in the beer industry that simply is adorned with the title of “craft.” Their ever-expanding profits and ad dollars certainly create that point of view.
But ultimately, the flexibility of the company and commitment to its homegrown culture is what drives its products (and company) forward. But don’t just take my word for it:
“We are reminded every day that we are still a small business,” [Jim] Koch told Entrepreneur.com in Washington D.C. during National Small Business Week. “We have to compete with these enormous global companies that are 50, 100 times our size, and you have to bring the small business game to that — just innovate, try to think of a better way to do things, try to be more nimble and smarter about all your decisions.”
I hope you’ll join me this week to share your own impressions of Boston Beer, Sam Adams and why being nimble is valuable when you have to wiggle out of a definition thrust upon you.
Posts in this series:
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac