Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Tempest in a Craft Beer Week

If you doubted that 'craft beer's' singing of kumbaya-around-the-brew-kettle might be ending, look here.

In an interview in a Madison, Wisconsin, periodical, an organizer of the Madison Craft Beer Week (MCBW) seemingly took a passive-aggressive swipe against two mainstays of 'craft beer' in the city: the Great Dane Brewpub (founded 1994) and Capital Brewery (founded 1986, in nearby Middleton).

How has the Madison craft beer scene changed since you got here in 2006?

It has grown immensely. There’s a lot more players in the market. It has gone from being a fairly standard beer oriented market to a very adventurous beer market. When I first got here it was Great Dane and Capital and that was about it.

(And) it was still all relatively normal beers. They had their ambers and their porters and their pale ales and their pilsners, there wasn’t anything really weird or exciting or creative particularly about it. It was all good, it wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t that interesting either.

I think that has changed significantly with the influx of nanobreweries like One Barrel, with super creative brewers like Scott Manning at Vintage or Aran Madden at Furthermore or Andrew (Gierczak) and Henry (Schwartz) over at MobCraft. You have breweries in the market now that are doing such strange and creative things with beer that simply didn’t exist in 2006 when I moved here.

To which, Great Dane took umbrage:
Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, an organizer of MCBW has chosen to speak publicly in a way that is demeaning to some of the breweries who work to make their event a success. While the slight in both instances were most likely unintentional, they both speak to the same unsettling trend in America’s craft beer movement, where breweries whose “raison d’être” is to only make extreme beers, are shown more appreciation than those who take a more even-keeled approach.

Even if this attitude reflected the opinion of the majority of beer drinkers, which it probably doesn’t, given the immense popularity of beers such as Spotted Cow, it certainly isn’t accurate in regards to the Great Dane or Capital Brewery. The Great Dane has consistently offered many specialty beers over the years that have been either very hoppy or utilized unique and interesting ingredients. We were the first in Wisconsin to offer a cask ale program, as well as the first in the nation to offer a non-stout nitro beer on tap (our Devil’s Lake Red Lager). Kirby Nelson’s Autumnal Fire was far from boring, even though it didn’t have any “weird” ingredients.

The Great American Beer Festival, which named The Great Dane as 2012’s “Best American Brewpub Group,” and Rob LoBreglio “America’s Best Brewpub Group Brewer,” and which has awarded The Great Dane dozens of medals over the years, does not have the same one-sided view of the brewing industry. It is similar to the difference between those who prefer the X-Games versus those who prefer the Olympics. It is nice that Madisonians can attend a tap takeover where most of the beers are from out-of-state breweries and 100+ IBUs. Just as we have been doing for over 20 years, we’ll be here for those who appreciate the traditional AS WELL AS the innovative.

Firkins on the wall

Great Dane may have been a bit snippy in its retort, but its point, well taken. Is not the act of creating good beer itself creative? Why demean, even if gently, when the point of a celebration of a city's beer culture is to celebrate the good totality of it? Was this all taken out of context? The MCBW may yet respond to the response.

And then there's a bigger question.

When the term 'craft beer' can encompass everything from extremely hoppy beers to well-etched pilsners, brewed by breweries of one-barrel, so-called, nano-brewery-size to 6-million barrel annual production regional-brewery-size, is the term a thing lacking relevance except for purposes of Linnaean-like taxonomy, marketing, association, political lobbying, and dues? *

If we accept 'craft beer' as real or Platonic ideal (I don't, which is why I enclose it in single quotations), what is it, then? Is it simply beer which is innovative, as I was recently 'schooled' on Twitter? Or would it be beer that is fresh, flavorful, well-made, and enjoyable, as well as beer of —but not limited to— variety and experimentation? (Small and local being plusses, if not end-alls.) Way too many modifiers to neatly fit into any definition.

Putting this in perspective was Kirby Nelson, brewmaster of Capital Brewery, who responded succinctly (if not in an official capacity) on Facebook:
Here's to the appreciation of all great beer,
from the mild to the extreme.

As this May is the first-ever American Mild Month, I'd agree with that.


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