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November 4, 2013

Craft beer, or crafty pretenders?

— Perched in the beer aisle, with their foil-wrapped necks and labels sporting tranquil nature scenes, Golden Knot and Crimson Crossing look like refugees from the wine shelf, misplaced by a supermarket clerk.

They're sold not by the six-pack, but in single 25.4-ounce bottles. And they don't taste like traditional beers: spritzy, light on the palate in spite of their nine percent alcohol, with tart, fruity flavors hinting of apples, pears, plums and blackberries.

In fact, the brands are beer-wine hybrids, fermented from wheat and kosher varietal grape juice: chardonnay in the case of Golden Knot, merlot for the Crimson Crossing.

Coming from a small regional brewery, such beers wouldn't raise eyebrows. Craft brewers are supposed to think outside the box. Dogfish Head in Milton, Del., has incorporated grapes in several of its beers, and Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md., has announced the forthcoming release of Vineyard Blonde, brewed with vidal blanc grape juice from Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, Va.

But Golden Knot and Crimson Crossing are part of the new Vintage Ale Collection from Blue Moon Brewing. That's a specialty division of MillerCoors, the nation's second-largest brewing company. These beers are brewed in 1,000-barrel kettles at Coors' mother ship brewery in Golden, Colo., according to Keith Villa, founder and head brew master of Blue Moon. One batch is enough to supply the entire nation.

"I actually created these beers back in 1995," says Villa, who was given free rein to fashion new recipes at SandLot, a 10-barrel brewpub at Coors Field, the Colorado Rockies' ballpark. "But back then, beer and wine existed in separate worlds."

America's beer palate has become a lot more eclectic. "We've served these beers at festivals in wine country on the West Coast and found wine lovers are turned on by our Vintage Collection," says Villa, who purposely omitted barley from the recipes to let the grapes shine forth.

As growth of the U.S. craft segment continues at a double-digit clip, MillerCoors wants a piece of the action. Besides the Vintage beers, Blue Moon premiered two other lines this fall. The Expressionist Collection consists of Belgian styles with a twist. Short Straw Farmhouse Red Ale, for instance, combines the spiciness of a saison with the sour fruit of a Belgian-style red ale in the Rodenbach mold.

The Graffiti Collection is a catch-all category that encompasses such free-style brands as Pine in the Neck, an IPA flavored with juniper berries, and Tongue Thai-ed, an ale spiced with lemon grass and basil.

Of course, MillerCoors continues to churn out oceanic quantities of Blue Moon Belgian White, which Villa touts as the best-selling craft brand in the nation. If you consider it "craft." And therein hangs a controversy.

The Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, which represents most of the 2,500-plus breweries operating in the United States, defines a craft brewery as "small, traditional, and independent." The association has employed the word "crafty" to describe corporate aliases such as Blue Moon Brewing and Anheuser-Busch's Shock Top Brewing, which (the group contends) can make consumers think those beers come from small, locally owned bricks-and-mortar breweries.

The BA's board of directors last month released a statement calling for transparency in labeling, encouraging all brewers "to disclose to consumers their ownership of beer brands, including the name of the parent brewery that owns the brand, on the brand's labeling to enable consumers to make informed buying choices."

Representatives of the large brewers contend there's no intent to deceive. So why call it Blue Moon Belgian White and not Coors Belgian White? Villa uses the analogy of auto companies setting up separate divisions for their luxury vehicles: "Nowhere in the advertising for Lexus do they mention the parent company, Toyota. But you don't hear people say, don't buy a Lexus, it's really a product of Toyota."

"I don't think we're trying to fool anyone," says Peter Kraemer, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of supply and its chief brew master. He says beer-savvy drinkers, the ones who care most about where their brew originated, are likely to have apps that will give them that information with a few taps on a smartphone.

It has been a smoldering issue, and the magazine Consumer Reports might have thrown more gasoline on the fire when it awarded its CR Best Buy stamp of approval to Shock Top Wheat IPA in a tasting of "craft" beers that appeared in its August issue.

In fairness, not all of the specialty beers flowing out of large breweries' tanks attempt to hide their origins. This week, Anheuser-Busch released its second annual Project 12, a variety 12-pack of three experimental lagers fermented with the Budweiser yeast. The packages and labels carry the Bud logo, and the beers take their names from the Zip codes of the plants where they're produced.

One of the three is Batch 23185, a bourbon-and-vanilla lager from the company's brewery in Williamburg, Va. Senior brew master Daniel Westmoreland created the recipe, aging the tawny lager on barrel staves from a Virginia distillery and sacks of Madagascar vanilla beans. He first brewed the beer in 2012 and upped the flavor this time around in response to customer comments.

Could Batch 23185 become part of the company's regular product line? An amber lager from last year's Project 12 assortment was rechristened Budweiser Black Crown and promoted to year-round status. "That would be the ultimate honor for a brew master," says Westmoreland, but he cautions that his recipe is labor-intensive and, needing one oak stave per barrel of beer, would require a large and steady stream of used distiller's wood.

Regardless of the size of the brewery, a beer can't be cost-prohibitive. It has to sell briskly enough to justify its continued production. That's a bigger challenge when you're brewing in increments of 500 barrels (the batch size in Williamsburg) instead of 25 or 50. Apparently, Shock Top Wheat IPA didn't make the grade. Ironically, the brand had been yanked by the time Consumer Reports bestowed its plaudits.

        

 

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