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How Yuengling and Schell's Became Craft Beer

While the new definition technically won't go into effect until the Brewers Association compiles its stats for 2014 in February, the mere fact that it's changing is a huge deal for the group and the craft beer community in general. The Brewers Association's Board of Directors includes some of the most influential names in craft beer, including Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, New Belgium Chief Executive Kim Jordan, Dogfish Head creator Sam Calagione, Deschutes Brewing leader Gary Fish and Allagash head Rob Tod. Those are some of the longest-tenured individuals in this corner of the industry, and their craft brewer definition's impact on small legacy brewers likely wasn't lost on them.

Of course, the fact that many of those brewers were on the Brewers Association membership rolls probably didn't escape anyone's notice either. The biggest motivation, however, likely came from those pre-Prohibition brewers themselves. They were hurt not only by the "Craft vs. Crafty" op-ed that the Brewers Association had penned for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2011, but by the accompanying graphic that called out those breweries by name. Jace Marti, a sixth-generation brewer from August Schell, would have none of it and took the Brewers Association to the woodshed in a written response. Marti reminded BA that August Schell and other, older breweries like it were using maize to compensate for subpar, four-row U.S. barley and that such improvisation and dedication to quality were what craft beer was supposed to be about.

That caught somebody's attention. The board started asking its member brewers what they thought and revisiting not only the craft brewer definition, but the association's mission, purpose, core values and beliefs. As it turned out, the use of adjuncts not only wasn't a huge deal, but was something that some craft brewers had been dabbling in anyway. The consensus was that craft beer wasn't supposed to be Germany and that beer recipes shouldn't be limited by laws that once held that country's beer ingredient list to water, hops and barley.

"One of the arguments that I think was pretty convincing was that the idea that adjuncts don't fit into craft brewing is largely sort of a loose reinheitsgebot kind of concept like the 16th and 17th Century Bavarian and brewing tradition, yet our core values and beliefs talk about how we are stewards of 10,000 years of brewing history," Gatza says. "They didn't really jibe."

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In short, craft beer was supposed to stand in opposition to homogenous large-scale brewing such as that conducted by Anheuser-Busch InBev, MolsonCoors and SABMiller. It wasn't supposed to ban rice or corn or wage war against lager and pilsner.

"As craft brewers have innovated and explored new recipes, the idea that we should take rice and corn out of that toolbox didn't fit with our spirit of innovation either," Gatza says. "I think there are a few high-profile craft brands out there that probably are using rice and corn or some other simpler sugar."

One of the bigger issues, however, was that the Brewers Association's stance was causing some fracturing among small brewers at a time craft beer could least afford it. The Brewers Association had been sponsoring the Small BREW Act in Congress and pushing for tax breaks for brewers that produce 6 million barrels or less. Meanwhile, the Washington-based Beer Institute industry lobbying group had been supporting the competing BEER Act that would give tax breaks to all brewers, but in various increments based on production. The Brewers Association's proposal draws a firm line between "craft" and importers/big brewers, but it looked shaky when BA was actively deriding small brewers as "crafty." The board of directors knew it needed those small brewers' support but, according to BA's statement, "to change horses in the middle of the Congressional session could have burned the association's ability to get Congressional co-sponsors for any legislation, perhaps for a couple of decades."

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