Is it time to retire the term “craft beer”?

When I first started drinking beer the smaller, non-corporate breweries were called “microbrews”, a term you rarely hear anymore. I imagine that the growth of breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada made the “micro” designation inappropriate. This was replaced by the term “craft beer”, and eventually the Brewer’s Association (a trade group representing independent brewers) defined a series of stipulations for a brewer to be considered a producer of craft beers. Interestingly these requirements seem to change annually, especially the maximum number of barrels that a brewery can produce and still fall under the craft umbrella. There have also been a series of buyouts, where bigger brewers have bought the rights to smaller establishments and caused them to lose their “craft beer” designation, even if they are producing the exact same product at the same location. These changes have led many beer enthusiasts in the Twitterverse to suggest that it is time to retire the term craft beer. I have mixed feelings on the argument, so I thought it would be a fun exercise to lay out the pros and cons (as far as I see them) and try to come to a conclusion.

Argument for keeping the term craft beer: Who owns the company that produces the beer you drink does matter. Big brewers are still trying to deceive potential customers as to the origins of their products, just look at the use of the word “craft” in the new Blue Moon commercials (a beer that is brewed by MillerCoors). While no designation is perfect, it is important to draw a distinction between independent breweries and national conglomerates. Some of the big brewers have a reputation for bullying smaller producers, even putting pressure on distributors to favor their products in displays and on draft at bars. The term craft can serve as a rallying cry in an increasingly competitive industry, in the hope that smaller brewers maintain a focus on taking market share away from big beer instead of fighting with each other.

Argument for ditching the term craft beer: The term is somewhat arbitrary, and it tells you nothing about the quality of the product. Boulevard, Ommegang and Goose Island all make excellent and highly sought after beers, but none of them are considered craft breweries under the current definition. Sam Adams and Yuengling aren’t exactly struggling little operations, but the Brewer’s Association has bent over backwards to make sure they continue to qualify as craft breweries (and that their sales still count towards the statistics the association likes to publicize). Unless you are going to label every qualifying bottle with a “craft beer” sticker the designation really doesn’t help educate consumers, it’s easy enough to find out who makes your beer if you care. Just do a Google search.

Verdict: Some of my opinion pieces include a passionate argument for one side of an issue, but I am kind of torn here. I understand the need to differentiate independently brewed beers from the “crafty” beers brewed by InBev and MillerCoors. My issue is all of the grey area with larger breweries that still qualify as craft and great breweries that don’t due to ownership decisions. While I am not going to join the chorus calling for the end of the term, I think I am going to personally ease away from using “craft beer”, I’ll just call it all beer and let you know who brews it. In the end the point is to find tasty and interesting beverages to enjoy, regardless of who brews them.

What are your thoughts? Is it time to retire the term craft beer, or is it still important/relevant?

Singlecut Billy Half-Stack IPA

As a brewery grows and their capacity expands, eventually they are presented with the opportunity to begin or expand distribution outside of their home state. Unfortunately each state has their own series of regulations, laws, licensing and other bureaucratic BS, so it’s important for a brewery to be strategic in regards to when and how they grow. As more beers become available in a particular state competition heats up for shelf space and taps, so an incoming brewery probably won’t be able to showcase their entire lineup right away. I’ve noticed that many breweries have used their IPAs as an introductory beer to the Massachusetts market. While I would like to see a little more style variety, I understand why this is the case. IPA is the most popular craft beer style and introducing a new IPA to a market can help drive sales and boost name recognition. The first beer that prospective customers try is key, if they enjoy it they will probably check out other beers in the catalogue. Singlecut Beersmiths out of Queens, NY recently started to distribute a few of their beers in the Boston area, and one of the beers they are leading with is Billy Half-Stack IPA. Singlecut Billy Half-Stack IPA is brewed with a blend of New World hops and is available year round on draft and in 16.9 oz. bottles.

Singlecut Billy Half-Stack IPASinglecut Billy Half-Stack IPA pours an amber orange with a solid white head. The scent is a big hit of citrus and tropical fruit, very aromatic. The hops dominate the flavor, notes of peach, grapefruit, guava and orange along with strong but not overwhelming bitterness. There is just enough malt here to add balance without muddling the flavor, touches of caramel and fresh baked bread. The beer is medium bodied, easy to drink and nicely carbonated, a refreshing combination. At 6.6% ABV this isn’t a session beer but it’s not overly boozy. The finish is dry with a bitter bite. Overall this is a really good IPA, well balanced with great hop flavor and aroma. If Singlecut’s plan was to use this beer to drive enthusiasm for the rest of their beers in MA, this did the trick! I will definitely check out more of their offerings. Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5

Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin

Last summer saw a huge rise in availability/popularity of the shandy and radler beer styles, which are beers mixed with citrusy fruit juice or fruit flavored soda. This trend has met a mixed response from beer enthusiasts. Radler fans have started the twitter hashtag #teamradler to try and raise awareness and excitement about fun new examples of the style. Others have opined that commercial shandies are for suckers due to the fact that they either dilute perfectly good beer or taste artificial. I have mixed opinions on the shandy/radler movement. While I have never been a huge fan of adding fruit flavoring to beer, I tried a few local shandies and I’ve been surprised how much I enjoyed them. I don’t think I could drink a 6-pack of shandy in a day, but it is a nice way to mix it up, especially on a warm summer day. The one major issue that I’ve had with shandies/radlers is the lack of beer flavor, they are typically light lagers/ales that are quickly overpowered by the fruit flavor. Ballast Point has taken the trend in a different direction, and the result is one of the more popular radlers on the market. Instead of using a light ale, Ballast point added grapefruit flavor to their Sculpin IPA, resulting in Grapefruit Sculpin. This combination makes a lot of sense, the New World hops used in many popular IPAs are prized for the citrus and tropical fruit flavor and aroma they impart on the resulting beer. The addition of a citrus fruit like grapefruit should complement the inherent flavors the hops already contributed to the beer. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin is available on a limited basis on draft and in 12 oz. bottles.

Ballast Point Grapefruit SculpinBallast Point Grapefruit Sculpin pours a clear orange with a mild white head. The scent is a huge burst of citrus fruit tinted with some floral and pine from the hops. The grapefruit is the dominant flavor, while standard Sculpin IPA has a touch of grapefruit flavor this beer has a heaping helping. This added fruit is a pleasant complement to the notes of lemon, resin, orange and grass contributed by the hops. Even with all of this citrus flavor you know that you are drinking a beer, there is a full malt backbone and a solid hit of hop bitterness. The beer is medium bodied and goes down smooth, at 7% ABV it is not a light beer by any definition. I like the idea of adding some citrus juice to a West Coast style IPA, and it works in this case. I would say this is my favorite radler (of the ones I’ve tried so far), but I’m not sure I like it any more than standard Sculpin IPA. Still, I would much rather see more brewers experiment with this concept instead of blending Sprite or lemonade with a light lager. Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5.

Two Roads Rye 95

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have been on a bit of a rye beer kick recently. The subtle spicy flavor of rye can add complexity when used as a minor adjunct grain or major flavor when a more generous portion is added to the mash. American craft brewers have predominantly used rye in two styles of beer. Rye IPAs meld floral, aromatic and bitter hops with the spicy grain while rye additions to the Belgian saison style complement the expressive yeast flavors. I enjoy both of these styles and understand why they are popular, but I am always looking for creative uses of rye in other styles of beer. An innovative local example is Two Roads Rye 95, a Belgian style tripel brewed with rye. There are many similarities between tripels and saisons (light color, expressive Belgian style yeast, typically moderate to low hop flavor), so the use of rye in this beer style make sense, even if it isn’t a traditional ingredient. Based on the label Rye 95 pays homage to I-95, one on the central highways that connects the states of New England and the rest of the East Coast. It also refers to the 9.5% ABV in the beer, the kind of full bodied booziness that the tripel style is known for. Two Roads Rye 95 is available on draft and in 12 oz. bottles during the late winter and early spring.

Two Roads Rye 95Two Roads Rye 95 pours a clear light orange with a mild white head. The scent is a mixture of spicy yeast and rich malts. The taste is malt forward, some spicy rye, with touches of cracked grain, biscuits and a little sweetness. This mingles with the yeast flavor, notes of pear, clove, pepper and apricot. Many American tripels include extra hop character and this is no exception, the hops add some grass and lemon and dry out the finish. It’s not a “hoppy” beer but the hops add complexity to the palate. The beer is a medium bodied sipper at 9.5% ABV and you get a little bit of the warming alcohol in the aftertaste. Overall this is an interesting take on the tripel style, lots of diverse flavors that work pretty well together. I personally would have liked a little more robust rye character, but others might appreciate the restraint. Hoppy Boston score: 4.0/5.

Previous Two Roads Reviews:

Two Roads Route of All EvilTwo Roads Workers Comp Saison

 

Night Shift Mainer Weisse

I am unabashedly pro-Maine. Maine is the state where I was born and raised, and where I went to college. I love the Boston area and consider it my home now, but Maine will always be a special place to me. Now that the weather has started to improve I am starting to plan some summer trips up north, mostly to visit family and friends but definitely to try some local beer. It’s actually been almost a year since I’ve been to Maine, my parents have been on a cross-country Airstream adventure and that limits my reasons for traveling north in the off-season. The founders of Night Shift brewing also have connections to the state of Maine, and while their brewery is located in Massachusetts they brew at least one beer with Vacationland in mind. When you think of Maine produced food the first thing that comes to mind is probably lobster, but I can’t imagine brewing a beer with that as an ingredient (I really hope nobody tries). An underrated export are the small, sweet and tart local Maine blueberries. Night Shift uses these to make Mainer Weisse, one of the entries in their Sour Weisse series. Night Shift Mainer Weisse is brewed with blueberries and cinnamon sticks, and is available in the winter/spring in 750 mL bottles.

Night Shift Mainer WeisseNight Shift Mainer Weisse pours the color of a thin red wine with a mild pink head (that is a beer description I certainly don’t write every day). The scent is a mixture of fruit and a little acidity. The taste starts with a solid sour kick, not overbearing but you definitely feel it on your tongue. The blueberries add substantial flavor, and you can tell real blueberries were used, not the fake ultra-sweet blueberry “flavor”. This is complemented by a subtle hint of cinnamon. The beer is light bodied and very easy to drink, at 5.9% ABV it’s on the high side for the style but still not overly boozy. I love the Night Shift Sour Weisse series as an entry point for beer drinkers who want to try more sours. They are flavorful, but still approachable. This is one of my favorite beers in the series so far, and not just because of the name! Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5.

Previous Night Shift Reviews:

Night Shift Thunder Moon, Night Shift Morph IPA, Night Shift Ever Weisse, Night Shift Grove, Night Shift JoJo, Night Shift Taza Stout, Night Shift Simcoenation

White Birch Hop Session

My wife and I are home from the hospital with our first child and getting into the swing of things. It is definitely a huge life change, everything revolves around the little guy’s schedule. While being responsible for the life of another human being is a little terrifying, it is also a fun and exciting experience and we are enjoying every minute. With the hours devoted to helping with changings/feedings/cleanings/household chores etc., I haven’t had much time to drink beer let alone write about it. I’m actually writing this post with my son napping on my chest. The other issue I’ve noticed is that even a small amount of alcohol exacerbates how tired I am from the frequent nightly interruptions. I drank a beer while I was making dinner last night and by 7:30 I could hardly keep my eyes open. I know this will get better as I find my groove, plenty of fellow beer enthusiasts and writers are also parents. For the short term I think I’ll focus a good portion of my limited beer consumption on session beers, which allow me to enjoy the full beer flavor without the yawn-inducing booze. One session beer I recently enjoyed was Hop Session, the flagship session IPA from White Birch Brewing Company out of Hooksett, New Hampshire. Hop Session is brewed with a variety of West Coast hops and is available year round on draft and now in 12 oz. cans!

White Birch Hop SessionWhite Birch Hop Session pours a slightly cloudy orange with a moderate off-white head. The scent is solidly hoppy, floral and fruity. The taste features the distinct flavor of New World hops with notes of lemon, grapefruit, mango and pine. The hops also add noticeable but not overwhelming bitterness. Some session IPAs are too one note, omitting any malt flavor, but that is not an issue here, with noticeable touches of biscuits, bread and a hint of caramel. The beer is light bodied and goes down very easy, at 5% ABV it fits into many definitions of a “session beer”. The finish is dry and crisp with just a touch of floral hops in the aftertaste. This is a very tasty session IPA, well balanced with plenty of delicious and aromatic hops. Hoppy Boston score: 4.25/5.

Previous White Birch Reviews:

White Birch Belgian Style Pale AleWhite Birch Nyx American Black Ale

Hoppy Boston posts might be a little less frequent in the coming weeks…

I feel like I’ve hit my stride with the blog over the past year plus, adding some diversity and posting 2-4 times a week. Over the next few weeks/months my posts might be a little more irregular, and please forgive me if the writing/grammar takes a small turn for the worse. I have a pretty good reason for this though….

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Callum Francis Brawn, born May 6th, 2015 at 5:45 AM!