For those concerned about the “culture of craft brewing”, it seems that selecting a craft beer that represents your view is getting more complicated all of the time.
The tribulations of macro-brewers like InBev, Heineken and MIllerCoors buying craft brands like Devil’s Backbone, Lagunitas and Elysian are well chronicled. The Brewers Association’s outrage at these “crafty” brands masquerading as independent craft brands has resulted in the “Certified Independent” seal. This seal is intended to make it clear to the consumer which breweries are independent of the “big boys” on the assumption that if you knew, you’d avoid beers brewed under the macro-beer corporate umbrella.
For those that care but are not followers of the industry, finding out that Founders in Grand Rapids is actually owned by San Miguel of Spain and that Blue Point of Poarchogue NY is owned by Belgian megabrewer InBev can make some craft beer enthusiasts feel hoodwinked.
But now there is a new quandary for craft beer purists to consider – the growth of the “vanity brewery”. These are independent (for the most part) craft breweries that are created by people with the required capital to stand up the business but who didn’t come up as part of the beer industry and aren’t really concerned about profitability as a business.
In the past few years I have noted the surprising growth of the vanity brewery concept, put together by “custom home builders with excess capital” or “a group of doctors that wanted to create a brewery”. These are often much larger and well appointed than the facilities of their “boot strap” brethren – most of whom started as apprentices in other breweries or from a home brewing background with a dream and a second mortgage.
Why should this variety of craft brewery be of concern to the industry and the craft beer enthusiast? What matters is that it’s good fresh local craft beer from an independent manufacturer, right?
I think the best example of the problem occurred to me last week. I was in one of these huge shiny new craft beer houses in the Philadelphia suburbs, and while sipping on an IPA waiting for some friends I decided to take a look at Don Russell’s (Joe Sixpack’s) excellent craft beer blog and website “Philly Beer World”.
One of his lead articles was about layoffs at the Weyerbacher brewery, and some worrisome news about their profitability. If you have followed local craft brewing for a while, you know Weyerbacher as an early leader in our area, founded way back in 1995. They are feeling a major pinch from the saturation of craft brewers, breweries and tap rooms in the area. And these include “vanity breweries” who aren’t really concerned much about turning a profit (at least not for the near or medium term) and don’t feel any pinch from profitability or funding by the public.
If I were given the choice of patronizing a brewery that was painstakingly grown from the kernel of a dream with the owner’s blood, sweat and tears vs. a commercially manufactured turnkey establishment from a group of outside investors with money to burn, I know which one I’d choose.
But if you do care, how do you know it’s a “vanity”? You can try and surmise it by reading the “about us” section of the website and see if the owners are from other industries or are not described there at all. You can look at the facility and find out if it was built ground up for the purpose of being a craft brewery, and note the amount of start up investment in appointments and design. You can talk to employees, and maybe they will tell you the story (behind the story). But this is no guarantee.
Now, you may be saying as you read this: “If people love beer and want to build a business, hire brewers and staff, create good beer, that’s good enough.” After all, it’s the American way to take your money and do what you want with it, and if you do it well, people will come.
Then there’s the other side – what happens if we lose the older innovators like Weyerbacher, or maybe others like Stoudt’s or Penn Brewing in Pittsburgh? Will the vanity breweries stick around and add to the fabric of their local communities and craft brewing heritage like these venerable companies have? I think that it’s not likely that they will, and that’s the issue.
Not all beer is the same, not all brewers and not all breweries. If you care about who makes your beer, now do you have to look beyond the “independent” seal, and look for the commitment and meaning behind the independent brewery’s ownership? Is this idea just a reaction of exclusiveness or a slippery slope for the industry? Stay tuned, time will tell.