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Why Success Is Killing the Craft Brew Industry

Stocks in this article: BREW BUD SAM TAP

That's wonderful, but it also doesn't tell a whole lot of the story. While the number of breweries in the U.S. has exploded from fewer than 100 in the 1980s to more than 2,400 today, the older, bigger craft breweries are still fueling a great deal of the "craft" segment's growth. They're also completely different animals, with Boston Beer and the Craft Brewers Association accounting to shareholders as publicly traded companies and New Belgium, Sierra, Oskar Blues and the other East Coast migrants now playing a hand in local and interstate politics, policy and economics.

Compared with the industrial park tasting rooms, bike-up garage stands or even small brewpub operations throughout the country, they're enormous. While the craft label is conferred as a show of respect and an indication of a brewer that's still experimenting and trying new products, it's also way too small for its outsized pioneer breweries.

Even Boston Beer founder Jim Koch has a saying that he's fond of using whenever the craft debate comes up: Beer is beer. He quotes his father and grandfather as saying "all beer is good -- some beer is better, but all beer is good." It's also the crux of the Beer Institute's arguments for cuts to beer excise taxes across the board, but has gone largely ignored by the folks at the Brewers Association.

Listen, we get it: Everybody wants to save some cash and small brewers who've been at this for a while might not be so keen on sharing the wealth with the big brewers who made it tough for them to carve out a place in the market. Understandable. But to take brewers whose reach spans a continent and whose output is measured in the millions and tag them with the same craft label you'd apply to a small-town barrelhouse is not only disingenuous, but sells those bigger brewers short.

Kids who were born when Boston Beer and New Belgium were founded are now drinking-age adults. They've never known a world without these brewers or one where there was no alternative to light lagers such as Bud, Miller and Coors. To them, beers such as Sierra Nevada, Widmer, Saranac, Brooklyn and some of the other full-grown small breweries aren't "craft," they're just beer.

Wasn't that the point, making good beer and interesting styles a default rather than the alternative? Isn't that a win? If not, then what exactly are craft brewers fighting for? With each scuffle like this, the answer seems less clear.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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