5 Reasons the Craft Beer vs. Big Beer Debate Needs to End

Photo Composite: © Michael Snell / Alamy; © iStockphoto

Beer tempers once again flared last week when renowned, James Beard-decorated chef David Chang came out in favor cheap beer, proclaiming “I Hate Fancy Beer” in an editorial published by GQ. Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster and craft beer mainstay Garrett Oliver quickly shot back with an editorial of his own, not surprisingly stating, “I Hate Crappy Beer” (also published – ahem – by GQ).

I may not have any Michelin stars or published beer books, but I have been a beer lover and writer for my entire life, and with all due respect to two men I highly respect, I have my own opinion: I hate the craft beer versus big beer debate. I’ve never thought the debate was completely fair to either side, but especially now, when craft beer has made so many strides, the argument feels especially past its prime.

Here are five reasons why it’s time to lay the great beer debate to rest:

1) The Quality Argument Is Invalid

In 1978, just 89 breweries were left in America; it had been a long and steady decline from the over 700 places that had popped up after Prohibition. But that was nearly 40 years ago. Last year, the Brewers Association counted just under 3,000 breweries, the vast majority of which are relatively new, small brewers. Granted, craft beer by its nature uses more high quality ingredients, but do you think all 3,000 breweries are making amazing beer? Of course not. Assuming some craft breweries aren’t out there making “crappy” beer is as flawed as thinking that big breweries like Miller and Coors don’t care about the quality of their product.

2) The Taste Argument Is Invalid

But let’s be realistic: When people talk “quality,” what they really tend to mean is “quality of taste.” By 1978, breweries had consolidated, but so had tastes, with Americans favoring fizzy yellow lagers. Another way for new brewers to gain a foothold was to espouse on the awesomeness of ales and other unique beers. Convincing consumers to shift their palates was an uphill battle, so over the years, craft brewers banded together to push these less popular styles – defining them as being better than the “bland” beers that were currently in favor.

But again, times have changed. At this year’s Great American Beer Festival, 279 beers were entered into the “American Style India Pale Ale” category. The once unique IPA has become almost as painfully ubiquitous as its yellow fizzy counterparts. Even big brewers have jumped on the IPA bandwagon. Anheuser-Busch bought out Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery in 2011, adding (among other craft beers) a well-established IPA to their roster.

So yes, though craft beers used to taste different than the norm, which could be considered “better,” the “us versus them” idea of “unique” versus “bland” is outdated. Nowadays, consumers have seemingly endless options. There’s plenty of everything to go around, whether it be a new unique sour or a “classic” Miller Lite.

3) Beer Choices Are Situational

Speaking of different styles, not every beer is fit for every occasion. David Chang, for instance, talks about how “cheap beer and spicy food go together like nothing else.” Of course. A light lager is great for palate cleansing. You know what doesn’t pair well with a Bud Light, though: a chocolate tart. Here’s where something like Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout might be more fitting. In many ways, being one-sided with beer would be like taking a permanent stance on white versus red wine. Sure, you may prefer one, but both have their place in the right occasion – be it a food pairing, or even the weather.

4) Cost Shouldn’t Create a Permanent Stance

The idea of comparing “cheap” versus “fancy” is also problematic. Cost doesn’t speak inherently to any sort of specific beer. The world has plenty of good bargains and expensive crap.

Still, let’s assume that craft beer is more expensive and mass market beer is cheaper. Following the wine analogy, would you ever take a firm stance on cheap wine versus expensive wine? Only a real jerk would complain after seeing an inexpensive bottle of red broken out at a dinner party. In lieu of an argument, a good guest would simply drink it, or at worse, politely decline. Similarly, who’s going to bitch about being poured a glass of Montrachet because they only indulge in Two Buck Chuck? Different people have different opinions on how money should be spent, but taking a stance on your drink choice based on its price (cheap or expensive) means you’re willing to overlook an even more important factor: the actual product itself.

5) The Whole Debate Makes Both Sides Sound Silly

Time was when craft needed to fight against the big breweries. The system was stacked against new brewers entering the market and getting to consumers. But those days are waning. In fact, the tables have somewhat turned. For instance, South Carolina recently overhauled their beer laws trying to woo craft beer maker Stone. “Small” breweries are becoming big business.

Yes, craft beer still holds only around an 8% market share. And yes, the big boys still have plenty of advantages small brewers don’t. But though craft beer has yet to win the war, all you have to do is look around you to see they are winning the battles. Even sports stadiums, old stalwarts of light beer drinking, have made room for smaller brewers.

In the current climate, craft breweries going after Budweiser is starting to sound like steakhouses attacking McDonald’s. Likewise, bad mouthing craft brew drinkers completely ignores the ground swell that has occurred in the past three decades. Proponents of both sides should recognize that they’re simply the yin and yang of America’s beer culture.

For decades, the US tilted towards a market glutted with big brewery made lagers. Now, the market is correcting itself, making more beers styles available to more people. It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about finding the proper balance of coexistence.

America has come a long way in rebuilding its beer identity since 1978, quickly becoming one of the world’s most respected beer producers, but don’t forget that Budweiser has 138 years of history behind it as well. We shouldn’t have to choose between the two.

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