Since launching Food Republic in 2011, we’ve constantly (sometimes obsessively) had our eye on the producers of so-called “hand-crafted” beers and spirits. We’ve travelled from America’s heartland to coastal California in search of the most interesting beers, many times through the eyes of our man with the iron palate Joshua M. Bernstein (author of Brewed Awakening).
In early 2012 we released our first craft beer power rankings that have been updated every couple months by the editorial staff — and oftentimes passionately debated by industry insiders. (We’re dropping our latest rankings later this week.) Our increased awareness of craft brewing in America has been echoed by consumers. According to the American Brewers Association, the growth of the craft brewing industry in 2011 was 13% by volume and 15% by dollars. This is compared with the overall U.S. beer sales being down 1.3% by volume over the same period.
On the spirits side, we’ve traveled to industrial sections of Nashville, Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon to find interesting whiskey and gin — along with profiling the characters producing them. And we’ve convened in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, where the country’s best barmen and women pay tribute to the products being produced in what is the dawn of an American craft spirits renaissance. To the numbers!
According to data provided by the Distilled Spirits Council and Michael Kinstlick (CEO of Coppersea Distilling, who wrote a white paper on the topic), the number of craft spirit distillers operating in the United States has grown from 24 in 2000 to 52 in 2005 to 234 by the end of 2011. In data just released by DISCUS, craft distiller shipments were up more than 25% in 2012 with 739 new products brought to market in the same year (another record).
But you might be asking yourself at this point, what defines a craft beer or craft spirit? Why is Booker’s bourbon, a fine small-batch sipping bourbon produced by Jim Beam, not a craft spirit? And what about Sam Adams? It is available in gas stations and supermarkets around the country and listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Is it still considered a craft beer? Why yes it is.
For distilled spirits, the answer is pretty straightforward. According to DISCUS, if a company produces no more than 40,000 nine-liter cases a year, it’s considered a craft spirit. But for a company like Tito’s Handmade Vodka — a pioneering vodka producer based in Austin, Texas that produces over 200,000 cases annually — they fall outside the category. But if you talk to founder Bert “Tito” Beveridge, it’s obvious that even with a larger volume, there still is plenty of passion and “craft” in his potion. When we spoke to him last week, he was holding three test tubes from a recent batch, ready to offer his tasting notes. We’ll hear much more from him later this week.
As for the slippery “craft beer” designation, it’s as clear as a pint of oatmeal stout. The American Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as embodying three crucial characteristics: Small, independent and traditional. But the “small” aspect isn’t so small — less than 6,000,000 barrels (700,000,000 liters). The independent section is clear, as the bylaw states: “Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.” So when a company like Chicago’s Goose Island sells a majority share to Anheuser-Busch, it’s off the craft list. Is Goose Island, like Tito’s, a quality product? Ask the people searching high and low for a pint of 312. Later this week we’ll hear from former Goose brewmaster Greg Hall, who founded the company with his father in 1988 before selling for $38 million in 2011.
And then there’s the case of Samuel Adams. As one New York City beer bar owner put it point blank, “the craft beer number is at whatever Sam Adams is producing.” And true to the point, Sam Adams falls under the six million barrels number, which is considerable but still about 1% of American beer production.
But all of these stats and designations really take a back seat to what we care most about at Food Republic — and what we will be covering over the course of the next week in interviews, distiller profiles, product reviews, recipes, gear guides and power rankings.
Craft Beer and Spirits Week is about the beautiful liquid in the glass, and how that liquid got there (often in the most labor-intensive and painful way known to man). We’ll talk to group of nano-brewers making award winning blondes and IPAs in drafty warehouse spaces and the back of their garages, which echoes another revolutionary time in American cultural history. Some have called food the new rock, but it turns out that the new rock is a little bit harder. We hope you enjoy the week.