What is craft beer?
Defining the term craft beer isn’t easy and it seems like everyone has a different opinion. So when I decided to formulate my own opinion, I quickly realized that starting with understanding the history and other’s definitions would be a good place to begin.
The words we use have great power. And through marketing consumers are often convinced that one product is superior to another. The word “craft” is a great example. When I was a kid, the word craft meant scissors, glue and glitter. Today it means something completely different; it is a new standard that tells customers that a product has been meticulously made just for them. Even if that is a lie.
Handcrafted burgers must taste better than a standard burger. Craft hot sauce must be spicier than the typical hot sauce. And craft beer must be superior to plain beer.
But we know this is not always the case. There are bad craft beers and calling it craft doesn’t change that. So why do we use the term craft?
In the beer world, it is used as a means to include or exclude specific brands or types of beer. Regardless of whether that is fair, it is true and diving into the history of the term and the current definition of it helps me better understand why the term is important.
History of Craft Beer vs Microbrew
Just over a decade ago most small breweries were called microbreweries and they made microbrews. When did we change to using the term craft brewery and craft beer? Where did the term craft beer come from? I didn’t know either so I did some research.
Allaboutbeer.com does a great job in this article exploring the definition of craft beer by starting with how the term came to be. Shortly after World War II, the Brewers Association was formed to represent the interests of the large breweries. It continued this purpose for a few decades until the industry changed. In the 1970’s, more and more small breweries were being established because of a tax cut that lowered the taxes for small beer producers. This gave “micro” breweries a competitive advantage and spurred their many to open. Microbreweries was the term used for decades to identify these small (less than 2 million barrels per year) breweries.
Then in the 1980’s the term craft brewery was first used by a beer writer/consultant, Vince Cottone. He used the term to define the breweries that were producing small batch beer through traditional methods. He coined this term because microbrewery merely spoke to the volume of beer. Vince was more concerned with the methods used to brew than the amount of beer made. Cottone also created the term True Beer to define the type of beer these craft breweries were making. Eventually, that term faded and craft breweries were said to make craft beer.
Finally, the Brewer’s Association defined craft beer (more on that below) in 2005 as a means to help identify the group whose interests they were now representing. Since then microbrewery is a term that has slowly faded and will probably stop existing soon.
According to Oxford dictionary; craft beer is a beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery.
The dictionary definition speaks almost exclusively to the process as it focuses on “traditional” brewing methonds. However, it is lacking in specifics.
What is traditional? Is using modern hop varieties considered non-traditional? Are they referring to the German Beer Purity Law called Reinheitsgebot? If that is the case almost all American breweries are not craft beer. If not, then most would agree that we need more detail to understand the definition.
Small is another subjective term. What is considered small? And does volume directly determine if it is a craft beer?
While this isn’t the worst description, it is far from being useful in determining what breweries are producing craft beer.
Brewer’s Association Definition
This is the craft beer definition that most use. The Brewers Association uses three criteria for defining craft beer:
Small – 6 million barrels or less per year
Independent – Less than 25 percent owned/controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that isn’t a craft brewery
Traditional – Majority of production derives its flavor from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and fermentation.
This definition is much more specific and draws the line in the sand in some ways. However, it is noteworthy that since 2005 they have altered what “small” means . Small has went from 2 million barrels to 6 million barrels. This was done to allow breweries like Sam Adams to continue to be categorized as craft beer.
Also, the independent factor eliminates beer like Goose Island from being considered craft beer. That is correct, according to this the highly acclaimed Bourbon County Brand Stout is NOT craft because they are owned by AB InBev.
This is without a doubt the most widely accepted definition that we have but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it.
So what is considered craft beer?
So based on this information, what is craft beer? Or maybe a better question is what is not craft beer.
It is easy to say that Budweiser, Miller, etc are not craft beer. They are not small, independent or traditional. They use mechanisms to automate much (if not all) of the process. Driven by mass production, many will question their quality as well.
But what about their other brands? Goose Island and Breckenridge were once considered craft beer until purchased by AB InBev. Most definitions, including the Brewers Association, eliminate these brands because of who owns them.
Is Sam Adams still a craft beer? While they still currently meet the Brewers Association definition, many do not put them into the same category as smaller craft breweries because of their volume.
I have no doubt that the discussion about what craft beer is and is not will continue. The industry has changed over the past few decades. What was considered craft then is not the same today. It appears that our means for defining what craft beer is has flaws. I am concerned that much of the debate is more focused on ownership than quality of product. Many fear that the large corporate breweries can use their size, money and influence to control distribution and shelf space. But that seems like a separate issue or is it?
The goal of this post was to learn the history and the definitions more in depth. I will give my opinion of what craft beer is and is not in my next post. There I will do my best to provide some guidelines that are only motivated by my enthusiasm for beer.
Until then, what do you consider to be craft beer?
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