As the popularity of craft beer has grown over the past few years, it is not surprising that the world’s beverage mega-conglomerates have taken notice and sought to get in on the action as well.
While craft beer was once identified with small, independent, regional microbreweries, the term now encompasses a wide-ranging number of beers that seem to include almost anything that is not a traditional macro-brewed American lager. Everyone, it appears, wants to be crafty.
Some of the traditional macro-breweries entered the craft brewing arena by producing their own craft styles under a separate label, such as MillerCoors’ Blue Moon, while many others have taken to buying up successful microbrews. The acquisition of small, regional breweries by the brewing heavyweights has the great advantage, for beer drinkers, of distributing good (often great) beers from small brewers throughout the nation. We now enjoy unique beers from all over the country without having to make pilgrimages to their breweries.
However, as more and more microbreweries are acquired by the major brewing conglomerates, the question of what actually defines a craft beer has begun to come to the fore. In the United Kingdom, small brewers have requested that the government grant a special seal for their beers so that consumers can distinguish a brew produced by an independent brewer from those produced by an international corporation.
According to NPR, a similar move is underway in the United States, where the Brewers Association, a trade group of independent brewers, plans to issue an independent craft brewer seal for brewers that meet its definition of a craft beer, which includes being independently owned and producing fewer than six million barrels a year.
Another question regarding the mainstreaming of craft beers hit me as I was picking up 10-pound bags of grated cheese at my neighborhood Costco. In the beer section was a case labeled “Craft Brewed Ales” under Costco’s Kirkland brand. Have we really come to this? Generic craft beer? Well, for $19.99 a case — less than a buck a beer, pretty good for any craft beer — I thought I’d give it a shot and see what Costco had to offer.
To be fair, Costco has developed a good reputation for putting out a number of good wines under its signature Kirkland brand, and it is based in the Pacific Northwest, a haven for great beer, so I went in with an open mind (and palate).
The case contained a selection of four brews: an Indian pale ale, a session IPA, an American pale ale and a German-style Kölsch. All the beers in the Kirkland line are brewed by Bricks and Barley Brewing Co. in Wisconsin — another place that knows good beer — which specializes, it seems, in producing beers for grocery stores in the Wisconsin market.
As I had expected, the beers were certainly drinkable, if not very distinctive — in a word, they were pretty generic. The session IPA was the best — light with a hint of bitterness. The American pale ale was almost indistinguishable from the session IPA, but less bitter. The Kölsch was the most unique of the four, sweeter in a European mold. Along with the session, it was my favorite.
The only one I really disliked was the IPA, which seemed to be bitter for the sake of being bitter, without any other distinguishing flavors.
While nothing special to write home about, if you’re looking for some craft beers — whatever that means anymore — on a tiny budget, the Kirkland brand is worth a try.
(Photo | Flickr) Kirkland Signature beer, brewed in Wisconsin by Bricks and Barley Brewing Co. and distributed exclusively by Costco, toes the line of the definition of “craft beer.”