Getting to the bottom of the craft beer conundrum

FRITZ KUCKUCK AND MARIA GRAU
Last updated 15:01 25/01/2013

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It's barbecue season, so we've been out to friends' places a bit lately. And we have been getting a new question - something like, "My brother bought some new beer I've never heard of before. Is it really craft?"

We understand their confusion with the explosion of new, unfamiliar brands. We just bought a bottle of Coconut Porter, and in looking at the label, couldn't be sure if it was genuine or faux craft. We resorted to the internet to find out it was indeed a 1200-litre batch made for a craft beer enthusiast.

But "is it craft?"is a difficult question for us to answer, since there isn't really one clear definition of "craft beer".

In the US, the most commonly accepted definition is "small, independent and traditional". In New Zealand, since our three biggest producers are small by US standards, the ownership and traditional questions loom larger.

Conglomerate breweries know that there is a certain cache to being small. That is one of the reasons they often create or buy brands that give them craft cred. Others oppose this trend.

We saw well-regarded craft beer bars reject Emersons as soon as they sold to Lion, regardless of promises to maintain quality. But it really depends what your goal is in seeking craft beer.

Are you looking for the best flavour? Do you try to support local business? Do you want the most natural ingredients?

But we have a bit of conundrum here. Start locally, with Founders. They just sold their brand to one of the top three - Boundary Road is owned by Independent Liquors, which is majority owned by Asahi. But, as John Duncan described to us, his family still owns the brewery and restaurant and still makes the beer. They will still make the craft product, just with more access to the market.

McCashin's, likewise, has a strong partnership with Hancock's, a liquor distributor. They are quickly becoming one of the largest producers in New Zealand, but their factory is still family run. Hancock's has just released their own beer brand, but it's made in "Main Road [Stoke], Nelson." Move over the hill to Moa in Blenheim, and they have pursued cash through many avenues - first by entering a distribution partnership with TWE (the NZ distributor for SAB Miller), but also by going public. They don't claim their first goal is to make an artisanal product, yet they make some excellent, experimental beers.

It probably sounds a bit hokey, but we often choose beer that has "soul". We buy beer being made with passion by someone who can't help trying to make the best, most interesting product.

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That said, since we also make our own beer, we won't pay any price for that. Bigger producers can use scale to bring out consistent products at lower cost, but often sacrifice quality along the way. We support the US move to require beer to indicate who is making it. This reduces deceptive practices, and lets consumers make an informed choice.

BEER NEWS: Sadly, we won't be going to Christchurch for the Great Kiwi Beer Fest on February 23. Hopefully it lives up to last year's huge success. It's not too late to get tickets, so find out for yourselves.

- Nelson

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