There’s been a hubbub recently in the beer world over the Brewer’s Association’s new labeling practice. Basically, the BA wants you to know whether your “craft” beer is truly “independent.” Their parameters are pretty straightforward. To use the “Independent Craft” logo the brewery needs to produce less than 6 million barrels per year and have no more than 25 percent outside investment from an entity that “is not itself a craft brewer.”
That means juggernaut brewers like Boston Beer Company Inc get to maintain their independent craft status since their production hovers around 4 million barrels per year and it remains publicly traded. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium — which both produce around a million barrels a year — fall under the moniker as well. Which is interesting given that all three of those beers are not only ubiquitous in the United States but very findable across Europe and parts of Asia as well. They’re certainly craft, but they’re not micro.
Therein lies the question. Does a brewery being ‘independent’ really matter? Or is being ‘local’ more important? Or should we just be focusing on the taste and quality? It’s a difficult to know the best answers here. There are some very hard lines in brewing that don’t exist in, say, spirits. No one was refusing barrels of Bulliet Rye when Diageo came on board to help the company grow. Wicked Weed or Devil’s Backbone didn’t get that same pass when AB InBev came on board. It’s a weird double standard.
We’ve done a little digging to build a list of our favorite beers that won’t get the BA’s ‘Independent Craft’ logo. There are a few on the list that leaves our heads scratching — not only at the idea of “independent” but also at how that definition will invariably shift more and more as massive amounts of money pour into the industry from all sides.
BORN YESTERDAY APA — LAGUNITAS BREWING COMPANY
Heineken International dropped $500 million for a piece of Lagunitas in 2015. That bought them a 50 percent stake in the brewery thereby disqualifying the Californian brewery from the BA’s designation.
Born Yesterday American Pale Ale is all about being shipped fresh and sipped quickly. They bottle and ship the same day. The pale is has soft hints of pine and grapefruit thanks to an array of Yakima Valley hops. It’s a delicious testament to the style and brewer’s ability to balance hop bitterness with a sweet malt underlayer.
MATILDA — GOOSE ISLAND BEER CO.
Back in March of 2011 Anheuser-Busch started its High End Division and bought a 58 percent stake in Fulton Street Brewery (the legal name of Goose Island Beer Co.) for $38.8 million. It’s probably not a coincidence that the craft beer market exploded over the next five years, as more and more investment money flooded the industry … and it all started here.
Matilda is a Belgian Strong Pale Ale that puts forward clove, cinnamon, and star anise spices with an orange, malty sweetness. It’s a delicate beer with a nice hint of Belgian funk.
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GRAPEFRUIT SCULPIN — BALLAST POINT BREWING COMPANY
Constellation Brands spent $1 billion on Ballast Point Brewing back in November 2015. Previously, the company had large stakes in Mexican macro beers like Corona, Modelo, and Pacifico. Ballast is their first foray into American craft.
Their award-winning and classic American IPA has great hints of citrus and tropical fruits with plenty of… you guessed it… grapefruit. It’s a fruity, hop-forward beer that’s perfect on a hot San Diego day.
SNAILBONES IPA — ELYSIAN BREWING COMPANY
It was never revealed how much AB InBev paid for Elysian’s brewing operation and their three brewpubs. What we do know if that Elysian was able to increase their yearly output by 50 percent to 130,000 barrels — a number that’s still insanely lower than six million.
Snailbones IPA is a tasty ale that leans heavily into the tropical fruits like guava and mango with nice hits of grapefruit and stone fruits. It’s refreshing, light, and crisp.
REILLY’S RED ALE — DEVILS BACKBONE BREWING COMPANY
AB InBev invested another undisclosed sum into Devils Backbone when those brewers were looking to increase their capacity from 60,000 to 150,000 barrels annually to meet demand. The Virginia brewers received a severe backlash.
Their Reilly’s Red Ale (an Irish red ale) is a toasty, malty, and caramel-y treat for the senses. The blend of very light bitterness from the hops is accented nicely by an almost rye spiciness from the malt. It’s a very drinkable beer.
HUNAHPHU’S IMPERIAL STOUT — CIGAR CITY BREWING
This is where things start to get convoluted for craft brewers. Fireman Capital (in Boston) bought the controlling stake in brewer Oskar Blues (of Dale’s Pale Ale fame) back in 2015 to create Oskar Blues Holdings. That holding group then went on a buying spree of smaller craft breweries. They bought Cigar City, Wasatch, Squatters, and Perrin Brewing to form United Craft Brews LLC under Fireman Capital — a firm that exists to buy up craft breweries. Now, none of these brewers were bought by AB InBev or the likes, but calling them ‘independent’ according to the BA’s designation seems like a massive stretch.
Cigar City’s Hunahphu’s Imperial Stout is an event when it’s released in Florida. The stout is aged with cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla, ancho and pasilla chilis, and cinnamon. Each element complements the other without any overwhelming from the spicy chilis. It’s a powerhouse beer with a heavy-hitting 11 percent ABV that’s deliciously creamy.
BOURBON BARREL AGED HELLFIGHTER — KARBACH BREWING CO.
AB InBev bought out Houston’s Karbach Brewing in a bid to increase the brewery’s capacity from 55,000 to 150,000 barrels per year by 2019. The price tag was undisclosed.
Their BBH American Porter is a hell of a beer (sorry). The porter is aged in whiskey barrels from Heaven Hill Distillery which adds a good rush of whiskey warmth and vanilla to the beer. That’s accented with a natural roasted cacao creaminess tying the whole beer together nicely.
PUNK IPA — BREWDOG
Here’s some more murkiness. Back in April, punk brewers BrewDog announced they were giving up 23 percent of their company to TSG Consumer Partners for £213 million ($275 million). BrewDog has been growing massively lately. They plan to increase their barrel output from 170,000 barrels to 850,000(!) in the UK and add on another 340,000(!) barrels of production in Ohio. Which still falls well short of the six million mark set by the BA.
So, we guess technically, they’re still ‘independent craft.’ But this becomes very murky when you have them opening up a “craft” brewery in Ohio with the help of a quarter billion dollar investment. So we’re including them anyway.
Punk IPA is the beer that made BrewDog a household name. Their American IPA is a burst of tropical fruits, florals, and a strong bitter finish with a nice hint of a perfectly balanced maltiness. It’s a really a solid example of the style and goes down easily.
STONE IPA — STONE BREWING
All right, this is where things get even weirder and murkier. VMG Partners invested $100 million into Stone Brewing so the two entities could start the firm called True Craft. That entity’s purpose was to spend $100 million investing in craft breweries — read: buying them. It wasn’t disclosed how much of a stake VMG got in Stone. Stone maintained that this was about craft beer, but the company went through a set of layoffs after the VMG investment and replaced their CEO with the guy who used to run POM, the juice company.
So is Stone still ‘independent craft’ if it is literally becoming the behemoth that buys up breweries? Stone was putting out approx. 350,000 barrels prior to its expansion to Berlin, which supplies Stone beer to a large part of the European continent. Without knowing what stake VMG holds, it feels like they need to be on this list since their plan is to gobble up craft breweries.
Stone IPA is their classic and still most popular beer. Its heavy pine and citrus bitterness is wonderfully balanced with a sweet, almost earthy maltiness on the end that brings a much-adored balance to this beer.
ANGEL OF DARKNESS – WICKED WEED BREWING
AB InBev’s investment into the stellar Wicked Weed is allowing the company to increase its 2017 output to 44,000 barrels (up from 20,000 in 2016). That investment, however, has caused a massive outpouring of vitriol across the craft beer world. Which makes you wonder if those same denouncements would have arrived had they sold a stake in their brewery to a Manhattan equity investment firm instead.
Their American Wild Ale, Angel Of Darkness, is one of our favorites already. It’s an American Sour that’s aged with tons of delicious dark fruits that give it a great tart funk. It’s a spectacular beer and we can’t help but be happy to know there will be more of it out there.