What is a “Craft Beer”?

What is a craft beer?

Which ones are “craft beers”?

I received a press release today from the Brewers Association, “a trade organization dedicated to small and independent American craft brewers.” The Association has started a “Craft vs. Crafty” campaign, trying to get the word out that you might not be drinking a “craft beer”, as the Association defines that term, even though it appears to be one. Here is how the Brewers Association explains it:

“Witnessing both the tremendous success and growth of craft brewers and the fact that many beer lovers are turning away from mass-produced light lagers, the large brewers have been seeking entry into the craft beer marketplace. Many started producing their own craft-imitating beers, while some purchased (or are attempting to purchase) large or full stakes in small and independent breweries.

While this is certainly a nod to the innovation and ingenuity of today’s small and independent brewers, it’s important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft.

However, many non-standard, non-light “crafty” beers found in the marketplace today are not labeled as products of large breweries. So when someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it’s from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it’s made by SABMiller. The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that is 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Bush InBev, and several others that are owned by a multinational brewing and beverage company.

The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking.”

I don’t like the sound of that. Is the Association calling for some sort of labeling requirement? “Warning: This beer is manufactured by a big, faceless conglomerate. You should not think this is a craft beer.”

That’s just silly, and I think the Association is confusing definitions and missing a point here. The term “craft brewer”, as the Brewers Association is trying to define it, has its roots in the tax code, by which breweries making less than two million barrels of beer per year are given a break on the excise tax. But it does not follow that because a brewery doesn’t qualify for a tax break, it can’t produce a craft beer. I don’t qualify for the Homeowners Property Tax Credit, so does that mean I’m not a homeowner? In my world, the IRS doesn’t get to define what constitutes a quality, craft beer. This is America, damn it.

I’m glad that the big boys are recognizing that beer drinkers are becoming a more discriminating lot, and I welcome them to the craft beer market. The reality is that if one of the big boys wants to sell a high quality “craft beer”, it will likely be produced in large quantities — that is their business model and they have the distribution channels to move more beer. We tend to think of a craft beer as coming from a small brewery utilizing quality ingredients, but the recipe and ingredients can be scaled, and the beer doesn’t cease to be a craft beer at some arbitrary production number.

Equally foolish, how does ownership percentage dictate what is a craft beer? For example, if struggling Brea Brewing Company persuades Anheiser-Bush InBev to buy a 51% interest in the brewery so that Brea Brewing can continue to make its truly awesome beers, then beers like its famous Hoppy Easter are suddenly no longer craft beers?

The problem is that the Brewers Association wants to use the definition that a “craft brewer” is one with an “annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less and no more than 25 percent ownership by an alcoholic beverage industry member”, and doesn’t want anyone to use the term in a way that doesn’t match that definition. No, Brewers Association,  that is the definition of a small brewery, or call it a small craft brewer if you prefer, but size of the brewery does not dictate the “craft” going into the beer. “Craft” is defined by Webster’s simply as “skill in doing or making something .”

Groupon Code for Craft Beer

Coincidentally, here is a Groupon from my favorite cigar lounge, touting Blue Moon as a craft beer.

Incidentally, the number had previously been set at 2 million barrels per year, following the tax code, but last year the Brewers Association slapped its forehead and said, “What were we thinking? What we meant to say was 6 million barrels. Yeah, that’s the ticket. You’re still a craft brewer if you’re making less than 6 million barrels per year.” Many suspect this was done to keep Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams) in the fold, but whether that is true or not, it shows the arbitrariness of defining “craft beer” by the amount of beer put out by the brewery.

So, the Brewers Association’s definitions of “craft brewer” and “craft beer” are officially rejected. Here is my definition of a craft beer, and I hereby proclaim that any brewer that creates a beer that matches this definition may call itself a craft brewer, at least as to that beer:

“‘Craft beer’ refers to any well-made, interesting beer sporting ample flavor and quality ingredients without overuse of adjuncts such as rice and corn.”

Yes, I cringe when I hear someone say, “I’m a big craft beer fan, I drink Blue Moon all the time.” I would much prefer to see craft beer fans supporting their local breweries. But thank God that when I go to a bar with just a few taps, I have the option of getting a Blue Moon or Shock Top, and not just Bud or Miller.

By all means, Brewers Association, encourage your members to prominently exclaim on their bottles that they are true craft beers as you define that term. And by all means, promote “drink local beer” campaigns to get beer lovers to support their local breweries. But don’t call for the major brewers to adopt your definition of what constitutes a “craft beer” and proclaim that what they brew is not worthy of that designation. That’s just not true beer lover behavior.

Be sure to also visit the discussion of what constitutes a craft beer at OnBeer.org, where it is agreed that the size of the brewery does not define whether it produces a craft beer.

Also, here is a great video that captures the attitude of people who want to make beer something elitist. Here the self-proclaimed beer expert opines that “craft beer sucks” and only beer from “nano-breweries” is acceptable. Kind of like what the Brewers Association is trying to do. Listen for the names of the beers near the end. Very funny.

One Response to “What is a “Craft Beer”?”

  1. Be sure to visit our website before we are bought out by Unbecoming. http://www.breabrewing.com

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