Craft beer is booming, but what does “craft” even mean anymore? The Brewers Association, craft beer’s trade organization, offers this definition on its website, “An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.”
Concise as it may be, there’s a lot to unpack in this somewhat contentious definition. Size, first of all, is relative. Some of the micro breweries that began sprouting up across the country around the 1980s aren’t so small anymore. In 2014, Sierra Nevada increased its capacity to 1 million barrels a year, yet still falls under the BA’s definition of “small” at under 6 million barrels annually.
Independence here means no more than 25 percent of a brewery can be controlled by another alcoholic beverage company that is not itself a craft brewer. Which is to say nothing of capital investment firms or other corporations owning as much as they want, while respected brands such as Ballast Point, Lagunitas, Goose Island and Founders no longer meet the criteria of a craft brewery.
Traditional, in this context, is used simply to exclude flavored malt beverages from the category, a requirement nobody really seems to have a problem with. Things get even more convoluted when you consider that the definition defines craft breweries, not craft beers, and that it isn’t even a legal one to begin with. Suffice it to say, it’s a confusing time to be a craft beer drinker.
So, what does all this mean? To find out, I visited Aardwolf Brewing Company and spoke with General Manager, Preben Olsen, and Head Brewer, Michael Payne, to pick their brains about the ever-changing landscape, and more importantly, what it means for the beer drinker and the liquid in their glass.
Aardwolf, now in its fourth year of operation, fits squarely within the BA definition. Despite their local popularity, the brewery only produces around 1,500 barrels a year, a mere fraction of what some of their larger competitors are capable of producing in a single week. They are 100 percent independently owned and their beer is produced in a “traditional” fashion. Taking it even further, you can only find Aardwolf on draft in the greater Jacksonville area and their bottle releases are extremely limited. In fact, Aardwolf may be the perfect example of a modern craft brewery.
“We’ve become known as an experimental brewery,” Preben said. “We’ve done a lot of sours and adjunct stouts, but with that said, if you look at our core offerings, it’s a pretty traditional — Belgian Pale Ale, a session IPA and a light, dry stout. And we always have hoppy beers on tap because they’re the biggest seller.”
Point being, Aardwolf is nimble and innovative, quickly able to adapt to industry trends and consumer demand while acquainting their clientele with new and forgotten styles.
“We use a combination of old-world classics and newer, experimental styles as a conversation piece,” Preben explained of Aardwolf’s approach to educating customers and developing their brand.
A glance at their current tap lineup confirms this. Styles that a larger brewery would never take a chance on, like the obscure, but traditional, Lichtenhainer (a tart, smoked German beer that few other American breweries have attempted) shares space with Early Bird Special, their beloved imperial stout flavored with coffee, cinnamon and vanilla. Eater of Dreams, a sour beer brewed with cascara (dried coffee cherries), is also on tap.
Independence is ultimately what enables Payne to brew only the kinds of beers he’s interested in brewing. As Preben tells it, they enjoy the freedom of answering only to themselves and their customers.
“We don’t have stakeholders we have to report quarterly earnings to, and we aren’t beholden to the bank to achieve certain margins,” he explained.
That is how a beer like Hipster Popsicle is able to exist at all. The slightly tart and salty gose-style beer is traditionally rather cheap to make, but with the addition of plenty of cherries, it becomes something that wouldn’t make sense on paper to the bean counters in the back room of a mega brewery. Yet, it’s a taproom favorite and something the brewery is happy to make, even if it isn’t the most profitable.
In a rapidly expanding market, you might expect competitors to fight one another tooth and nail for valuable tap lines and shelf space, yet the spirit of community is strong in the craft beer world. Brewers are often seen chumming it up at beer festivals, sharing ideas and techniques rather than concealing trade secrets. “It’s a friendly competition where everyone is essentially challenging each other to make better beers,” Preben said.
As he tells me this, a phenomenon which seems truly unique to craft beer, unfolds. On this day, Evan Miller of Civil Society Brewing is in town to brew a collaboration beer that combines elements of each brewery’s individual style and technique. “They’re very well-known for their hoppy beers at Civil, so we decided to lean into that,” Payne said.
The beer in question will be a hoppy lager, bringing together Civil Society’s knowledge of new world hops like Azacca, Lemondrop and Hull Melon with Aardwolf’s expertise in brewing old-world styles.
Perhaps more important than the state of craft beer today is where it’s heading. Expect even more mergers and acquisitions as Big Beer fights to retain its control of the market by tempting brewers with dollar signs. Don’t be surprised to see prices drop as these breweries take advantage of economies of scale and increase their production. But as Preben and Payne see it, true craft beer isn’t going anywhere. “I think moving forward, we’ll see more smaller breweries opening rather than larger ones,” Preben speculated. He pointed at newcomers like Hyperion and Southern Swells here locally as evidence that the future is in niche, neighborhood breweries.
Whatever happens, the future seems bright for craft beer and especially for craft beer drinkers. “There’s definitely a shift towards drinking better beer,” Preben concluded. In the end, I’d say that’s a situation in which everyone wins.