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Brewers battle over craft beer title

Warning – contents of this story contains heavy references to craft beer and The Sip warns it might offend some readers.

There is no easy way of putting this because the c-word is now causing friction in normally cordial brewing relations.

Craft beer is lot like Don McLean’s American Pie. For 40 years he refused to declare what the song was about. He preferred each listener to have their own meaning.

The same for what we called boutique beer 20 years ago. No-one, not even the industry can put a definition on craft brewing. As long as the big boys AB InBev, Kirin, Heineken, Carlsberg et al aren’t included that's OK. Just about everybody else can take on the mantle.

But in Australian brewing there is a wolf, or more likely a Lion, in sheep’s clothing. And their roar has started to irritate key parts of the industry.

A band of breweries that produce some of the most popular “craft” beers are prepared to shun the group that represents them.

The Sip understands the companies, stretching coast to coast, are considering withdrawing from the Craft Beer Industry Association until operations such as Little Creatures, Yenda and White Rabbit are kicked out of the guild.

Little Creatures, James Squire and White Rabbit are owned by Lion and Yenda is effectively controlled by Coca-Cola, who have a long involvement in beer distribution. Mountain Goat was recently bought out by Asahi.

Those seeking a change to the CBIA membership structure believe the breweries run by bigger corporations shouldn’t have a seat because of the business advantages they receive.

For instance, while smaller beer makers struggle to get on a tap at pubs it is convenient for Lion to use its vast resources to swing James Squire’s 150 Lashes Pale Ale on to a nozzle or two. Or thousand.

The issue has become so significant some CBIA members are withholding their annual subscription.

It is significant that in a recent survey by Aztec Australia, James Squire had 30 per cent of the Australian craft beer market. Little Creatures was third with 10 per cent.

The CBIA was set up in 2011 and eligible members had to produce less than 40 million litres of beer a year. So that would exclude Coopers which delivers around 80 million litres each 12 months.

However, key movers in the “craft” beer brethren want more emphasis on independence.

Craft beer definition The Sip

While the American Brewers Association has its own issues with a craft beer definition its terms are slightly different. To be part of that crew breweries have to be “small and independent”.

That means less than 25 per cent of each brewery can be owned by Big Beer. However, they do put a cap on craft breweries at around 700 million litres which is impossible to translate in the smaller Australian market.

A similar clause in the CBIA membership criteria could appease some of the disenchanted local teams.

The CBIA can't be accused of not letting everyone in their community have a say. A survey is now open to all member breweries which will enable the association to gather data and other intelligence on sales, marketing, growth and economic impact.

Such information is crucial to identifying future opportunities for all brewers across the country.

Hopefully one might put forward a good alternative to the word “craft”.

Even the Oxford Dictionary uses brewing in its definition examples – "Craft beer: denoting a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company”.

Yet that wouldn’t be exactly true for a lot of independent operations who have got plenty of bells and whistles in their brewhouses.

The Oxford Dictionary’s main outline says craft is “An activity involving skill in making things by hand”.

It would be folly to suggest some craftiness isn’t involved in Big Beer brewing or those at Little Creatures and Yenda don’t get the palms dirty in producing their wares.

Little beer versus big beer on The Sip

Little guys against the big beer tide.

Maybe “independent” is the name we’re seeking. In the US that befits 99 per cent of the number of 5000 breweries across the 50 States.

Those wise men from that famous English university deemed independent to be “Free from outside control; not subject to another's authority”.

That sounds more like the mark.

Maybe there should be a group for those brewers who aren’t financially flush but want to stand on their own and make the beers they want.

After all BA president Bob Pease said at the Great American Beer Festival that it was the little guys who were the association’s focus.

“There is no craft beer definition at the Brewers Association but there is a craft brewer. Small independent and traditional,” Pease passionately declared.

“We make a conscious effort to not make descriptive comments about beers that are made by Coors, AB Inbev and Coors that would have formerly met our definition of craft brewery. We have nothing but respect for those products.

“But and it is a big but. There is a difference and that is our job to highlight the difference between breweries that are small and independent and those that are backed by big corporations.

“They have advantages in the marketplace such as distribution, access to raw materials, that 99 per cent of the small independent brewers do not.

“And that is who we go to work for everyday at the BA.”

It will be interesting to watch the tug-of-war ensue.

However, “indie brewery” has a nice sound to it.

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