What is craft beer?
There are hundreds of articles that attempt to define what is craft beer – or “what craft beer isn’t”. And I have read dozens of them but still struggle to understand my own craft beer definition.
- Does it have to be from a small brewery to be craft beer?
- Does it have to be local to be craft beer?
- Can an import be a craft beer?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve posted about why I drink Craft Beer, why I don’t drink non-craft beer, and the history and definition of the term Craft Beer but much of the context of the posts is dependent on what I consider to be craft beer in the first place.
So here is my opinion on the craft beer definition and what I think it takes to be craft beer.
Dissecting The Current Craft Beer Definition
Here is what I think is wrong with the most commonly accepted definition of craft beer provided by the Brewers Association.
The Brewers Association states that production must be under 6 million barrels per year to be considered craft beer.
First off, that is a ton of beer and anyone makes that much beer is no longer small. So this qualification doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, according to the TTB, 97% of US breweries produce less than 100,00 barrels of beer and only 15 of the over 4,000 breweries produce in excess of 6 million barrels. So most breweries are very small still.
I would argue that 100,00 barrels would be a more accurate description of small, if production is used a factor.
Volume should not impact how a beer is categorized. Yes, the large guys brew a lot more beet at one time and use more automated processes but that doesn’t mean the beer isn’t craft. I would think that automation makes the beer more consistent. Why would size of the brewery determine the type or quality of product they are making?
No more than 25% of the company can be owned/controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that isn’t a craft brewery.
So they use the term that is being defined in the definition? I think that is breaking some kind of grammar law. And based on this, they would rather a non-alcohol beverage individual or company be involved rather than someone that knows the industry.
So the point is the association does not want big beer companies to buy small breweries and still call their beer craft. AB InBev and other macro brew companies have been buying up craft beer companies. Many fear that they will use their influence over
distributors to control shelf space; forcing out small breweries.
While this fear is real; I fail to see how ownership determines how the beer is categorized.
The Brewers Association wants craft beer to remain a product that is made through traditional or innovative techniques.
While I think traditional and innovative are slightly contradictory, I understand their point. They do not want to consider flavored malt beverages as beer; mainly because they aren’t. But they also want to ensure that they recognize breweries that are not cutting corners or using low quality ingredients. They want to highlight those that are innovating with new flavors and ingredients.
The problem with many craft beer definitions is the agenda behind it. “Big beer” is trying to prove that their modern beer offerings and craft brewery acquisitions should be called craft beer. Smaller breweries try to distinguish themselves as higher quality and unique. Both have a lot at stake in how the consumer views what craft beer is or isn’t.
What Is Craft Beer: My Opinion
I really have nothing against the Brewers Association; I just think their definition of craft beer is focused too much on the company structure than the beer. So if I wrote a definition, this is what it would include.
Style and Innovation
The style of beer matters. Craft breweries should be able to produce beers of multiple different styles and the taste should fit the style. Their ability to produce a wide variety of beer shows their skill and mastery of brewing. Producing millions of barrels of a pale American lager is not craft beer.
And equally important, they must be pushing the styles they create to new levels. Craft brewers should be innovating. New flavors, styles and techniques should be used to produce cutting edge brews. The progression of the industry is built on brewers that craft the next big trends.
Craft beer should be of the highest quality. This may be the most defining characteristic of their craft.
The ingredients, brewing techniques, the packaging and even the marketing must reflect the highest quality. There should be a feeling that the brewery cares about your experience with their beer regardless of where you are drinking it.
The ability to produce great beer over and over again is what will separate the winners and losers in this industry. And as many breweries grow, maintaining quality will be a huge factor in their continued success.
I would love to know the true intent behind each brewery. I get it; these are businesses and they are going to sell beer to produce profit. But is there something deeper they are trying to accomplish?
Many small to medium sized breweries use their story to stand out. The owners and brewers are accessible and the public is able to hear their stories. Story telling is a powerful way to connect to customers and express the company’s intent.
Why do they make the styles that they do? What’s the story behind their name? How do they plan on reaching more customers? What organizations will they give back to?
Showing that they have the community’s interest in mind proves that craft beer is more than just a business.
In the end, what is craft beer?
Well, it might be something different to everyone. For me, it is about Style, Innovation, Quality and Intent. But the reality is all of this is subjective and what I consider to be craft beer might not be the same as you. And that’s ok.
I have no problem when someone says that Goose Island and Sam Adams are still craft to them. They both produce some amazing beers regardless of their size or ownership.
“Craft, to me, is a focused and intentional ever evolving process to make the best beer using the best ingredients.”
I think he nailed it and put into words what I have been feeling.
So no matter where it was brewed, how much of it was brewed or who owns the brewery; my qualifications are all focused on the final product – the beer.
So do you agree? If not, how do you define craft beer?