Vail Daily column: Craft beer vs. beer | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Craft beer vs. beer

Andy Jessen
Ale with Altitude
Vail, CO Colorado

The beer at your local liquor store has come a long way. Selection has evolved beyond the “usual suspects” or the beer your dad drank; instead you now have an inspired selection of beers with artistic labels, creative names, and flavors galore that come from places just down the street to places you didn’t even know existed.

While the labels, names, styles and colors of the beer are all very different, the Brewer’s Association defines a craft brewer simply as one that is small, independent and traditional. What does that mean?

“Small” breweries make less than 6 million barrels of beer per year. For some perspective, the largest craft brewer, Boston Beer Co., produced 2.25 million barrels in 2011, while the smallest made less than 10. An “independent” brewery is owned and controlled by individuals who have limited or no ownership of a non-craft brewery. And a “traditional” brewery uses mostly traditional beer ingredients – malt, barley, and hops. Adjuncts (things added or used in place of those ingredients) are only used by craft brewers to enhance flavor, rather than lighten it.

Craft breweries use different, higher quality ingredients; they focus on a wide-variety of small batch beers; and, they’re owned by individuals that only work with craft beer. Another critical difference is that most craft beers are not filtered or pasteurized, allowing the full spectrum of flavor to remain in the beer. The result is a shorter shelf life – meaning the beer you’re cracking open was brewed and packaged very recently to ensure the best taste possible.

Beyond these physical differences, there exists a multitude of more subtle distinctions.

Most craft breweries are within walking or biking distance of you, meaning you have the opportunity to see the product made, and taste it at its absolute freshest. Craft beer is now a major influence on our local and regional economies. While the small brewer segment accounts for less than 10 percent of total beer sales in the United States, it holds more than 75 percent of the jobs in the overall brewing industry.

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Craft brewers are showing up on every corner creating new, unique and quality products in environmentally and economically sustainable fashion. We like to think of ourselves as “intensely inefficient” in the sense that we’re using much more labor to produce much less product than the most widely available commercial brews.

Craft brewers also spend more on ingredients and utilities per beer, generally leading to a higher price tag. We recognize that more beer can be made more efficiently with giant automated systems that actually eliminate jobs. We also know that we could make cheaper beer by using alternative ingredients to increase profit margins. But universally, craft brewers have decided that making a better beer is more important than making commercials, so we watch our ingredient budgets balloon much faster than our marketing ones.

The craft segment grows rapidly each year, even each month. If you live in Colorado, chances are a new brewery is planned within 10 miles of you. So stop in for a pint to meet the person that chose the ingredients and developed the flavors in the glass of liquid courage before you. Embrace the different aromas, flavors, and feel of the beer, and look forward to a lifetime of unique beers for your drinking pleasure.

Andy Jessen is a 2007 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law and has been licensed to practice law in Colorado since October 2007. Following law school, Andy moved to Eagle County for a job in local government and to justify fatter skis. His entry into the wonderful world of beer came courtesy of a mad-science type roommate boiling random recipes in his garage. Andy lives in Eagle with his wife Amanda and his dog Sugar.