Schell’s Beer: Craft, or Crafty?

Schell’s Beer: Craft, or Crafty?

Schell’s, Minnesota’s oldest beer maker, fights for the right to be called “craft” beer.

The Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group that represents small and independent beermakers, recently mounted a campaign against brewers that it says eat into craft brewers’ profits through deceptive marketing.

The association set criteria and disseminated a list of those that didn’t make the cut. To the surprise of many, it included New Ulm-based August Schell Brewing Company.

Such brewers are “attempting to blur the lines between crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers,” the group says. For example, many don’t know that Blue Moon is a product of MillerCoors, because it isn’t labeled as such.

Schell’s, Minnesota’s oldest brewery, introduced all-malt beers in the 1980s, well ahead of Minnesota’s craft beer boom. It wasn’t deemed “craft” because more than half its volume contain “adjuncts” (cheaper non-malt products typically used to lighten flavor). Under the association’s definition, breweries using such methods are not considered “traditional.”

In an online rebuttal, Schell’s Assistant Brewmaster Jace Marti called it “downright disrespectful” to deem the family-owned 153-year-old brewery “not traditional.”

In the 1800s, Schell’s began brewing lagers with corn “out of necessity,” when quality malting barley was sparse, and it has adhered to its recipe “out of tradition,” Marti says. Likewise, Schell’s has maintained the formula for Grain Belt, which it acquired in 2002 and accounted for more than half of its 130,000-barrel production last year.

The Brewers Association pulled its list after “a lot of questions in the blogosphere,” according to Paul Gatza, the group’s director. It will be replaced with a list of breweries that meet the group’s criteria, which Gatza acknowledges contains “some subjectivity.” But he contends his group’s definition helps customers make informed decisions.

Gatza admits that Schell’s makes “craft beer” but says that alone doesn’t make it a “craft brewer.” While the distinction may seem like semantics, Marti says the effective blacklisting of Schell’s has a material impact on sales.