Craft Beer Astroturfing is a Beer Snob's Worst Nightmare

ByJeff Guertin

Consider this advertisement from Wisconsin brewery Leinenkugel's. What messages are being communicated here? The ad leads one to believe that the brewing operation is rustic (the phrase "out here" is spoken three times in 30 seconds and repeated in the trademarked tagline), local (with honey sources from "the county next door"), and above all small-scale (the company's employees are seen gathered around a campfire enjoying their product). Now, what does this endearingly Midwestern brewery's commercial and its small, independent connotations have to do with anything?

Let me stop you there. All those hand-sliced lemons and all that next-county-over honey are going into a product owned and distributed by MillerCoors (makers of both the Miller and the Coors brands of lager, if the lack of a space threw you off), which happens to be the second largest brewer in the country.

"Who cares?" you may ask. Why should it matter that a beer is brewed by a giant multinational conglomerate if people like to drink it? 

These sorts of advertisements not only mislead consumers about the origins of the product, but restrict their ability to drink the highest-quality beers, as similar mass-marketed, often inferior beers take up scarce space on the tap walls of bars and in prominent places on store shelves.

Allow me to back up a bit. For the last several years, aside from flavored vodkas that taste like a mixture of popular desserts and molten lava, the dominant trend in the consumption of the world's most beloved poison has been craft beer. Craft beer has seen an explosive increase in popularity since the early 1990s, with craft sales growing 15% in 2012 alone. It may help if I give a definition of what craft beer actually is.

The Brewers Association, which claims to represent America's small brewers, has three requirements for a brewery to be considered a "craft" brewery:

1. It must produce less than six million barrels of beer per year. Even the very largest craft breweries like the Boston Beer Company (makers of the Samuel Adams brand) are far below this threshold. This rule essentially exists to exclude the very largest beer producers.

2. The majority of its sales volume must be all-malt beers or other beers that only use additional ingredients to enhance the beer's flavor. This distinguishes craft beers from the flagship lagers of the big breweries, which use adjuncts like corn and rice to lighten the beer's flavor.

3. A craft brewery must not be more than 25% owned by a company in the alcoholic beverage industry which is not a craft brewer.

These strict criteria do little to explain why craft beer has become a force in the alcohol world to rival Key Lime Pie Volcanoes in a Bottle.

The craft beer movement emerged as an alternative to the long-entrenched mass-produced lager oligopoly and began to gain traction due to a focus on quality ingredients, bolder flavors, and a strong experimental spark. This stands in contrast to macrobreweries which have been producing barely-differentiable beers that are designed to be as inoffensive and neutral in flavor as possible, while minimizing the cost of production.

The multinational corporate brewers of America really just two enormous entities, MillerCoors and ABInBev have certainly noticed the rise of craft beer. An examination of these companies' portfolios reveals a slew of craft-like brands that often have little visible connection to the company that produces them. Take a look at Third Shift Lager's website or Blue Moon's site and try to find any reference to Coors, which produces the beers. AB's Shock Top brand is in a similar situation, although its site is significantly more loaded with images of orange slices that wear sunglasses and rock wheat stalk mohawks. This shrouding of the brands' origins is certainly by design, as a desire to buy local (or failing that, at least buying from small-scale operations) is central to the ethos of a great number of craft beer drinkers. Craft beer is certainly a grassroots movement, which makes these decidedly non-grassroots imitators guilty of astroturfing.

As if this misleading marketing wasn't bad enough, these beers are generally considered to be only a small step up from the macrobreweries' flagship ultra-light flavored pale lagers that caused the rise of craft beer in the first place. On major review sites like Beer Advocate and RateBeer, these imitation craft beers are almost universally panned by both the public and professional reviewers. One might rebut that these reviews are motivated by insider snobbery (or "hipsterism," if you like really overused words), but craft beer "sellouts" like Chicago-based Goose Island (which has been owned by ABInBev since 2011) still enjoy high ratings because the beers' recipes have not been changed dramatically, even if many connoisseurs are wary of the brewery's ownership. 

Beer junkies are generally aware of these mediocre corp-craft beers and avoid buying them. But what about the neophyte who took a sip of a friend's beer at a bar and liked the taste? Will that person avoid the macrobreweries' lower-quality pseudocraft beers? Their vast marketing campaigns and prominent shelf placement make this an unlikely scenario. Some of these craft newbies probably will not care who makes the beer, as long as the flavor appeals to them, but everyone deserves to know who makes the products that they buy.