January 14, 2011

What Does "Craft Beer" Mean? What if it's on Onion Rings? And Does ConAgra Really Have to Care?

Editor's Note: The following blog post has nothing to do with art, though it concerns issues of package design and branding often addressed on this blog. If you're just here for the label art and want to skip this, no hard feelings.

So it all started when a friend, knowing I'm obsessed with craft beer and a big fan of onion rings, bought me a box of these:
As you can see, the note on the box declares them to be "Craft Beer Battered."

Now, for those of you fried-food Philistines, these are high-end onion rings. This is not some normal, frozen-aisle bag of stuff. Alexia is home bar food for ballers, generally to be found in yuppie-frequented places like Fresh Market and Whole Foods. Alexia may be owned by Deathstar-sized food magnate ConAgra, but this is their posh line.

That marketing to discerning palates (I use the word even in a non-art post! Different spelling, but still...), combined with the promises of small batch hoppy deliciousness augmenting the noble onion's inherent flavors, certainly excited me, but only as much as the knowledge that I was patronizing one of the great small businesses that make up my beloved beer industry, even in the purchasing of gifted frozen snacks.

Like anyone, I was curious. To make such a claim, I figured Alexia would enjoy trumpeting the brewery or breweries it used. Perhaps a small, snow-covered microbrewery in Vermont, or one of the many hop-fueled firms of the Pacific Northwest? Which fine beverage maker sent its out-of-spec beer to Alexia for a second life as a delicious batter?

Alas, such information was nowhere on the box. Nor was there even really an acknowledgement that Alexia had made a claim to use a specific type of product.

No worries. To the Interwebs I went, and found the contact form. It's an oddly specific question, I realized, so was it really surprising that Alexia didn't feel the need to tell yuppies which craft beer was used?

I received the following response to my polite query (I centered it for you, for dramatic effect.):

Dear [Pour Curator],

Thank you for your email concerning our Alexia® Beer Battered Onion Rings.

The information you requested is proprietary.


Consumer Affairs
Ref:  053169732A

Okay, now you've done it. Before, when it was just a thing, Heather, I didn't really care. But now you've told me it's a secret.* I am officially intrigued.

*I understand why companies want to keep recipes and such proprietary; I really do. But let's just make it clear that these onion rings were in no way Earth-shattering enough that I think Alexia is at serious risk of someone copying the model and selling a competing brand of $7-a-box frozen onion rings. And, even if I were secretly trying to copy their model, would letting me know that you get your beer from Silly Spy Faces Brewing Company, or even a network of small breweries within 100 miles of the ConAgra headquarters in Omaha, NE, help me do that in any way at all?

Let's take a moment to remind the art people reading that the Brewers Association recently voted to raise the ceiling on "craft brewery" production from 2 million barrels to 6 million barrels, largely to keep Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams) among their ranks*. This annoyed some people, but generally was accepted as a fact of life (namely, that you don't kick out your most powerful lobbying partners for being too successful). So the major trade group got together, looked at the definition of their central term, and redefined it.

*I haven't contributed my two cents yet, but since we're on the topic: To me, a brewery becomes not a "craft" brewery when the main business of their facilities changes from experimentation and development of flavor to quality control. I don't think that happens at a certain number of barrels exactly, but it's probably very hard to do at over 20 or 30 million barrels or so. In any case, Sam Adams clearly (to me) isn't anywhere close to there yet. While every brewery worries about quality control, craft breweries dedicate most of their energy to ingredients and trying new things with beer, and Sam Adams is no different. They keep unveiling new lines and beers, they force their employees to homebrew, they never shut up about flavor in their ads... they're still craft brewers to me. For that matter, I can't see why Yuengling isn't, according to the new guidelines. Do they use adjuncts too heavily? Someone help me out here, please, in the comments section.

So the decision to redefine was a straightforward process, in some senses, if a bit politicized in the blogosphere. But it demonstrated to me that the folks at the Brewers Association were savvy, political thinkers who understand limits, benefits and value of having defined industry terms (I already knew that, really, but we're building a narrative here). So I emailed them. What protections or limitations does the term "craft beer" enjoy when not extended to a brewery? Is it something as hotly debated as among the beer blogosphere? Is it like "organic" or "gluten free" which have debated meanings? Is it like "champagne" which has to be made in a specific way from specific grapes in a specific region of France? Or can Alexia just use this term with impunity while bathing unsuspecting onions in Pabst spillage?

I did not get a response from the Brewers Association's equivalent of "Heather," but from Paul Gatza, the organization's president. He was kind enough to answer my questions succinctly:

Hi Greg. Thanks for your question. We use the craft brewer definition for our annual statistical tracking of brewers. How anyone uses the terms craft beer or craft brewer in marketing is not something we police. It is not a term that would be eligible to be protected legally I think.

Note the lack of Ref #. (Just kidding, Heather, I'm sure you're a very nice person just doing your job, and I thank you for your response).

A couple of things about Gatza's response: While technically true, I'm sure we all understand that the expansion of the definition to 6 million barrels represented more than than just statistics tracking. By keeping larger members in that statistic, the industry represented by the advocacy organization (whose purpose is to: "To promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts") grows, as does its clout when negotiating real things like tax breaks for small brewers. But again, we all get that because we're smart people and that's not the point.

The point is that the term, for all we can hem and haw about it, has no legal definition. I might quibble a little in a theoretical sense with Gatza's claim that it wouldn't be eligible for protection (any term can be protected if one spends enough time and money lobbying Congress to protect it), but his point is that the word has no legal meaning, so anyone can use it in any way they want.

That means you can start selling anything made with spilled seconds of Michelob Ultra and say it was made with "craft beer," and there's nothing illegal about it. Not to mention, you don't even need to reveal what beer you use, since it's a trade secret (it's a little ironic that "craft beer," about which people can not stop bickering, is not actually intellectual property, but which brewery's beer gets shoved into batter is proprietary IP).

So, if you're out, and you're tempted to purchase some of ConAgra's high-end Alexia brand frozen snacks, please realize that it is entirely possible they have used the term "craft beer" to sell their product without any involvement in the craft beer industry at all. This will not discourage many of their consumers, I'm sure, and I seriously doubt if this blog post will have any impact on the earnings of Alexia. Bust isn't that evidence that ConAgra is big enough that they can either tell us what craft breweries they deal with, or stop using the term just because they can?

Anyway, if there's a point to this post other than venting my frustration, it's a reminder that arguments over terminology have their place, but that place may be seem enormous in one circle and totally irrelevant in another. If the meaning of a term like "craft beer" is primarily symbolic, and carries no real force of law, then our own interpretations of that term are really the ones that matter, anyway. If you don't think Sam Adams is craft beer and that means you don't want to drink it, then don't. And if the fact that they crossed into 2 million barrels changes it for you, well, you're a little strange, but it's your tongue, liver, and 5 bucks. When anyone can use the term however they want for the grand purpose of selling onion rings, maybe we should remember that we're all on the same general side of the craft beer battle, and curb some of the anger at the Brewers Association for making their own determinations.


  1. I'm speechless, which is no small accomplishment. Great post.

  2. "(Craft Beer) is not a term that would be eligible to be protected legally I think."

    Sounds right to me. The word "fresh" on packaging (unless it's meat or produce) doesn't mean squat. "Cage-free" doesn't mean the living conditions for the animals don't suck, it just means there are no cages. And "natural," except on meat, can mean pretty much whatever the manufacturer wants it to.

    ConAgra (and other magnates) can say all kinds of misleading things on packaging. And, yeah, I think that's worth talking about.

    Excellent post - thanks.

  3. You went nicely farther than I did, contacting ConAgra. Their was response was oddly predictable, if a little bit more "big brother" in its tone than I might have thought prudent from a P.R. point-of-view. But I guess when you're that big you really don't think you have to be civil or forthcoming.

    As for Yuengling, I grew up not too far from the brewery. When you visit them, they proudly talk about the corn they use in their recipes, so I've always suspected that's the reason they've been excluded from the BA ranks. That, and they pre-date craft beer by around 150 years.