PintfulPintful

Pintful: Mother Earth wades into craft beer label debate

john.frank@newsobserver.comJune 4, 2013 

  • What’s On Tap Mystery Brewing Tasting

    6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Bottle Mixx in Raleigh

    The Mystery team from Hillsborough will pour three beers for $10 at the Raleigh bottle shop in the Brennan Station Shopping Center, 8111 Creedmoor Road. Info: bottlemixx.com.

    Fruit Beer Tasting

    7-10 p.m. Wednesday at James Joyce Irish Pub in Durham

    The bar is offering a chance to taste the fruits of the season – in beer form, of course. Six pours for $12. Info: jamesjoyceirishpub.com.

    New Belgium’s Tour de Fat

    10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 15 in Durham

    Hosted at the Diamond View Park, this event from the Fort Collins brewery features all sorts of beer revelry, including a parade of bikes. It also raises money for local nonprofits. Info: facebook.com/TourDeFat.

Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston describes its mission this way: “Two guys with roots in a family town set out to make great beer brewed close to nature.”

It’s a similar story to dozens of craft breweries in North Carolina. Small, independent and community oriented is the credo in the craft movement – and it tastes good.

But as craft beer surges, the mega brewers, like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors, increasingly want a piece of the action. Now when you look at the cold case or the bar taps, it’s becoming harder to tell a craft beer from its “crafty” brethren.

Mother Earth wants to make its origins clear. The company would put the Brewers Association logo on their bottle labels to signal their bona fides, becoming one of the first craft breweries in the nation to do so. Consider it the equivalent of Martin Luther’s theses tacked to the church door.

“When you are drinking Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, you are not drinking a craft beer, but you don’t know that because there is no reference that it is made by SAB Miller,” wrote Trent Mooring, Mother Earth president and co-founder, in a recent statement announcing the label change. He also noted that Shock Top Belgian White is produced by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

The move puts the small Eastern North Carolina brewery in the middle of a national beer fight about what constitutes a craft beer and whether big brands are misleading customers. The dispute escalated in December when the Brewers Association, a trade group that represents craft breweries, issued a missive saying the macro beer makers “appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.”

The trouble, in their minds, is two-fold: big beer making brands that emulate craft beer, such as Blue Moon, and multinational companies buying craft breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch owning Goose Island Beer or a Costa Rican outfit controlling Magic Hat and Pyramid.

“We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking,” the statement read.

In a recent interview, Mooring said he took his cue from a blog post that suggested craft breweries put the Brewers Association logo on their bottles. “So we did it,” he said. The association gave the brewery permission, and the company is working the new labels into their stock.

But what makes the debate so complicated is how you define a craft brewery and craft beer.

The Brewers Association says a craft brewery is small, independent and traditional, producing 6 million barrels a year or less. It also limits the investment of big beer companies in the craft breweries to a 25 percent ownership stake. (All North Carolina craft breweries qualify under the association’s standards.)

But by its nature, the definition is a bit arbitrary. Yuengling, a family-owned regional brewery, is excluded, but Sam Adams, now available in 30 countries, is a member. Both are roughly the same size in terms of production, but Yuengling uses rice or corn in its beer, making it nontraditional in the association’s view.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the beer world is divided like that,” said Win Bassett, the former director of the N.C. Brewers Guild. “Beer is a unifying community beverage, but there’s this rift that tears apart the community a little bit.”

It may sound like blasphemy, but Bassett said he doesn’t mind drinking Blue Moon. “Craft is an evolving definition. It’s a personal definition, too,” he said. “I don’t really care what beer it is. If I enjoy it, I like the taste ... I’m going to drink it.”

Lonerider Brewing owner Sumit Vohra said he doesn’t shun beers based on ownership, either. “It’s a difficult subject because its emotionally charged,” the Raleigh brewer said in a recent interview.

To him it’s about focusing on quality, not on what other brewers are doing. “I’m not trying to fight against that,” he added. “Instead let’s focus on what we do best.”

Erik Lars Myers at Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough is more alarmed. He is worried about big beer companies using their muscle to push craft beers off shelves and out of bars. “I feel it is probably one of the most pervasive and dangerous things chasing the craft beer industry,” he said. “Drinkers don’t think about it.”

What I’m drinking

A recent trip to Washington, D.C., netted a six pack of DC Brau’s Corruption India pale ale. Beyond the great name, and the political trivia on the can about “the corrupt bargain” between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, it’s a bright and resinous West Coast-style IPA that is worth a quick road trip north. Find it in Virginia at Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke beer havens – and obviously the nation’s capital.

Info: dcbrau.com.

Stats: 6.5 percent ABV, 80 IBU, about $10 a six pack.

Contact John at 919-829-4698 or jfrank@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @ByJohnFrank.

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