PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- As much as certain factions within the U.S. beer industry would like to portray it as a pitched struggle for hearts and minds between big brewers with bigger market share and small brewers just scraping by, the American beer marketplace is more like a high school cafeteria overrun with cliques.
There are the popular kids at Anheuser-Busch InBev and MolsonCoors , whose products get dismissed as pale and vapid by their detractors but still account for more than 75% of all U.S. beer sales. Then there are the imports who thumb their noses at American brewers even as sales of Heineken and Diageo's Guinness brand decrease stateside. Finally, there's craft beer: the nerds and geeks who suddenly became the cool kids to hang out with, but whose clique keeps flexing the entry requirements based on who they like.
The queen bee of the craft beer set is the Brewers Association, the Denver-based industry trade group that brings together breweries, home brewers and local brewers guilds for cool parties such as the Great American Beer Festival and keeps track of growth within the industry. Oh, and it totally gets exclusive access to the industry slam book that dictates who is and isn't craft.
Boston Beer produces more than 2 million barrels of brew a year -- more than Mike's Hard Lemonade -- and makes malt beverages including Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard cider. They can't be craft, right? Wrong. The Brewers Association raised its "craft" production limit to 6 million barrels from 2 million just to accommodate its Samuel Adams brand.
But Red Hook and Widmer have decades-old craft brewing roots in the Pacific Northwest and produce less than 700,000 barrels of beer a year combined. Surely they, as members of the Craft Brew Alliance , must be craft brewers, right? Wrong. Just as the Brewers Association revised production numbers to keep Samuel Adams in, it revised ownership criteria to keep Red Hook and Widmer out. By the Brewer's Association's standard, no more than 25% of a craft brewery can be owned by a brewery that is not itself craft. Anheuser-Busch owns a 32.2% stake in the Craft Brew Alliance and serves as its distribution partner.