Defining Craft Beer

What’s a craft beer nowadays, anyway? Does it even exist?

by Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Illustration by DWITT”

I think it’s time for so-called “craft” brewers to stand up from the kids table and start demanding a seat with the adults.

In August, Merriam Webster added the term “Craft Beer” to its famous dictionary. The publisher’s definition of the term – “a specialty beer produced in limited quantities” – sparked intense conversation among the nattering nabobs of the beer blogo-twitto-facebook-o-sphere. It certainly is not the first time this debate has raged. Attempts to define and label this thing we now call “craft beer” are almost as old as the thing itself.

Before there was craft, there was micro. A microbrewery was defined in the early 1980s as one producing less than 10,000 barrels of beer annually. That number was soon revised up to 15,000 barrels where it still sits today. But a definition based solely on annual production volume seemed an insufficient characterization of the beer-brewing counterculture that was then starting up. It said nothing about the philosophy of this new breed of brewer or the beer that was being produced.

The first person to link the terms “craft” and “beer” was Vince Cottone in his 1986 Good Beer Guide: Brewers and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest. He called these upstart breweries “craft breweries” and labeled their product as “true beer.”

I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally. I refer to this beer as True Beer.

Cottone’s statement established some of the core-concepts in the effort to define craft beer; small, traditional, handcrafted, and uncompromised.

The Brewers Association honed these concepts when it created its own definition of craft brewer. It assigned a limit to “small,” construed “uncompromised” as independent from the large, industrial breweries, and equated “traditional” with all-malt beers.

An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

A certain amount of mental contortions are necessary to fit these definitions to the current realities of the beer world. Take the idea that craft brewers are small, for instance. The Brewers Association has adjusted the definition of small upwards on a number of occasions, mostly to keep Sam Adams in the craft category. While 6 million barrels is peanuts next to the volume of beer produced by Anheuser-Busch, for many people – particularly for fans of craft beer – it would be a stretch to call a brewery of that size “small.” Six million barrels is a lot of beer. At around 2.5 million barrels annually, even Sam Adams doesn’t approach it.

Does size even matter? Is it necessarily a problem for a brewery to become large if the quality of the beer remains the same? Indeed, one thing that countless brewers have told me is that brewing is a volume business. One of the things that scale brings is greater consistency. If a larger brewery can make the same great beer more consistently, isn’t that a good thing?

Also, beer making is an industry, an industry that I for one hope to see grow. As happened in the 19th-century, as the industry grows some small breweries will become regional and some regional breweries will become national. We can see this happening already, just think about Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, or Deschutes. Stone Brewing Company is even looking to open a facility overseas. Limiting membership in the craft category to breweries only under a certain size limits the potential growth of craft beer. If the beer is good, don’t we want more of it to be made and consumed?

And what of tradition? To the Brewers Association, traditional beer is all-malt beer, with only limited allowance made for the use of adjuncts “to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” But both the Belgians and the English have been adding simple sugars to their beers for centuries, in both cases at least in part to increase fermentability, resulting in beers with lighter body, and a drier profile, especially in high gravity beers. So is this centuries-old practice not traditional? Is it enhancing flavor or lightening it? Is it “craft?”

If you go back to Cottone’s definition, traditional also includes brewing methods. But the process of brewing is pretty much the same now as it was for paleolithic brewers. Whether you’re brewing in wooden vats and tossing in red-hot stones or operating a modern, state-of-the-art system, the basic steps are the same; mash, boil, ferment. What practices exactly are we to call traditional? It could be the “handcrafted” part. But does this preclude breweries like Summit or Third Street whose fully automated systems mean that brewers essentially push a button and the beer gets made? That’s an oversimplification, but you get the point. Is it the amount of actual physical labor and hands on attention required that defines it as craft or is it the quality of the product that results from the labor?

What’s interesting in these definitions is that there is no explicit mention of product quality. The implication is that beer from breweries that are small and traditional is somehow better simply because of those attributes. I can say from personal experience that this most definitely isn’t the case. There are plenty of small, independent breweries making traditional, hand-crafted beers, and doing so badly. If they haven’t mastered the craft should they still be called craft brewers?

Finally there is the part about independence, a clause aimed at excluding breweries like Blue Moon that are subsidiaries of the macros. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I do wonder what it means for former craft breweries like Goose Island, which was stripped of craft-club membership when it was purchased by AB-InBev last year. Little has changed in Goose Island’s actual product. In fact, from what I saw in visits with Brewmaster Brett Porter both before and after the deal, I get the impression that the purchase has been a net gain for the brewery. The resources provided by the new parent company have allowed such process improvements as a clean room for Brettanomyces fermentation to reduce the possibility of contaminating other beers and a huge expansion of their already huge barrel-aging program, creating a much larger supply of the popular Bourbon County Stout. Nonetheless, although the product hasn’t changed, they are no longer a “craft brewery.” But are they still making “craft beer?”

The main point of these definitions of “craft” is to differentiate the micros from the macros and to keep the macro-industrial breweries out of the craft game. I understand the need for this in the beginning. American beer culture had been decimated and beer had become a singular, tasteless draft. There was a need to differentiate; to be the teenager raging against the status quo. But it is in this differentiation that my biggest issue with these definitions lies; they define craft beer primarily in opposition to macro-brewed beer. It’s like women labeling themselves “not men” or African Americans calling themselves “not-whites.” The self-identity of the one is rooted in and dependent on the other. The result is a kind of self-ghettoization; in the case of beer, a willful relegation to the specialty aisle. “We aren’t that, which you, 95% of beer drinkers, call beer. Therefore we will remain over here to the side where you will never have to cast your eyes upon us.”

But I think it’s time for so-called “craft” brewers to stand up from the kids table and start demanding a seat with the adults. Craft beer has outgrown its adolescence. It’s now a full-fledged industry. Although still only a small portion of the overall beer market, it is the only segment of that market that is seeing growth; double-digit growth quarter after quarter even as the overall beer sales are in decline. And as has been demonstrated in Minnesota and other states across the country, “craft beer” is beginning to wield a certain amount of legislative clout as well. The big brewers are taking notice.

Instead of trying to define craft beer, the industry should begin moving toward dropping the label altogether. After all, what the so-called “craft brewers” make is just beer. It’s not some freakish specialty beverage; it’s beer in its entire diverse splendor. It is rooted in and builds on the histories, styles, and traditions of the world’s great beer cultures. In places where a healthy beer culture survived the 20th-century, it is what is called “beer.” So rather than trying to define themselves as the other, so-called “craft” brewers should start rebranding themselves as the norm. Stop saying, “We’re not that.” Change the message to “We are that. What we make is beer.”

Illustration by DWITT


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