The nearest bar to my house, in a city with about 1 bar for every 1000 people, is an unabashedly craft-focused beer bar called Roman’s Pub. The second closest bar is Blackbird, with one of the best selections of local Wisconsin beers in the town. Down the street is St Francis Brewery. Milwaukee’s newest brewery, 1840, just opened last weekend in my neighborhood. Brew City may still be awash in macro beers unlike any other city (besides St. Louis or Golden), but Miller tied houses are a thing of the past and today, even the corner dive has a full tap line of microbrews.
But the big guys (Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors) know that, and are pivoting accordingly. Miller‘s purchase of Leininkugel’s in 1988 was a precursor to the rash of microbrewery purchases Big Beer has made over the last few decades, creating “craft divisions” of their conglomerates. MillerCoors has Tenth and Blake (Leinie’s, Blue Moon, Saint Archer), AB has The High End (Goose Island, Elysian, Breckenridge). In fact, in 2013 Anheuser-Busch acquired a 32.2% stake in the Craft Brew Alliance, literally a company founded on pooling together small craft breweries’ resources to battle against Big Beer.
And though their name isn’t well known yet in the United States, the parent company of Modelo, Constellation Brands, is like the third head of a US Big Beer Cerberus; they also owns “craft” brewers like Ballast Point and Funky Buddha.
So with all these faux-craft brewers floating about as lackeys for The Man, what’s a discerning beer hipster to do?
Stop drinking craft beer.
No, don’t stop drinking beer; stop drinking the marketing sham that is “craft beer” today. The term “craft” was supposed to mean “handcrafted”. Now it means “our brewer probably has a beard, with beard-wax paid for by Adolphus Busch”.
Instead, focus on what the Brewers Association has deemed “Independent Brewers”. It’s essentially doing for beer what Indie Rock did for music: easily identifying small, often local creators. The newly-created independent craft brewer seal “gives beer lovers an easy way to identify true small and independent craft brewers, something they have indicated is important to them.”
The seal isn’t meant as a knock against Big Beer, instead it’s a way for consumers interested in supporting Small Beer to do so more easily and transparently. AB’s The High End didn’t see it that way, though, putting out a slick video of their own trying to downplay the idea.
This Independent Brewer seal is already showing up around Wisconsin: from Milwaukee all the way up to Wausau and beyond, small breweries are proudly displaying the logo in their taprooms and on their bottles.
Taking off my hipster-hat for a second, I honestly do enjoy a fair amount of both Bud and Miller products, and I have no intention of stopping drinking my doctor-recommended daily-dose of High Life. But more information for the beer-buying consumer is a good thing in my book, and I’ll raise a glass to this new Indie Beer category and their ability to turn the industry, and the beer bottle on their logo, upside down.