This column is focused on “craft” beer, as opposed to the big brands that still dominate beer sales worldwide. The terms “craft beer” and “micro-brew” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are actually distinct from one another. Micro-breweries produce less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year, while craft beer can be produced by breweries of much greater size. So what exactly is “craft beer?” The Brewer’s Association (the trade group for craft brewers) offers their own definition that many folks (including me) take issue with. They say a craft brewer must be small, independent, and traditional. By small, they mean annual beer production of no more than two million barrels of beer—Boston Beer, maker of Samuel Adams, is teetering on the brink of this limit and has about a one percent share of the U.S. beer market. Many local brewers produce less than a thousand barrels a year. By independent, they mean that no more than twentyfive percent of the brewery can be owned by a big brewery like A-B, Miller, or Coors (the Big Three). Traditional is the hardest to pin down, as they state a traditional brewer is one that has “an all malt flagship” or which uses “adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor”—a subjective matter. That’s a dig at the Big Three who use adjuncts (corn or rice) to lighten body and flavor and increase mass appeal.
I think the best way for me to start is to point out where I disagree with the “official” definition. The “small” qualification is an easy target. Two million barrels is an arbitrary number (determined by tax law, not philosophical agreement among craft brewers). And it’s one that Boston Beer will pass very soon. If Boston Beer sells 1,999,900 barrels this year and 2,000,100 barrels next year, do they magically become “non-craft” in twelve months? What about the year they sell three million barrels? Four million? Ten million? Why can’t craft beer be produced on a very large scale? What if twenty years from now Dogfish Head or Stone are producing that much beer? I think every craft brewer would love to see the day when craft beer sells as much as the Big Three, but that will never happen if bigger brewers are excluded from being craft by definition.
In my opinion, the “independent” qualification begs questioning. If you don’t accept the premise that a larger brewer is excluded from being craft by definition, then having a larger brewer own more than 25% of a smaller brewer doesn’t impact the craft-ness of the smaller one. This part of the definition was specifically inserted to exclude certain craft breweries that sold portions of their business to one of the Big Three. It reflects the culture of American craft brewing, in which one of the highest virtues is brewing for maximum flavor as opposed to brewing for the widest audience. And since the Big Three have long focused on the latter rather than the former, their influence is seen as a taint. I think the question before us now is whether brewing for maximum flavor will continue to be mutually exclusive to brewing for the widest audience. Will we see the day when a brewery offering five or six different ales and lagers of varying maltiness and hoppiness will reach just as many consumers as the breweries offering essentially one light beer today?
And the “traditional” qualification is a muddle. Considering how long American breweries have brewed with corn, I think one could make a very convincing case that the practice is very traditional. Not only that, but I suspect the folks at the Brewers Association would agree one of the greatest strengths of American craft brewers is their penchant for defying tradition, using unusual ingredients and techniques. Why make “traditional” one of the key components of your definition of craft brewers if you admire their abandonment of tradition?
What then, is my definition of a craft brewer? I say it’s about attitude, passion, and respect for beer. None of that is quantifiable, so it would be useless to the Brewers Association when they compile statistics on the brewing industry (I love their statistics, by the way). But it’s how I think about craft beer. I respect any brewer that has a passion for what he does and respects beer as something to be savored and appreciated like good food. I think the source of many craft brewers’ hostility towards the Big Three is the perception that they have turned beer into a soulless commodity used only for maximum profit. No doubt many people at those companies have viewed beer like that over the years, although I’m confident not all their employees feel that way. And certainly, craft brewers are in the business to make money and the ones who don’t combine business acumen with their passion for beer don’t survive. But craft brewers care about their beer even apart from (and usually more than) its ability to profit them financially. It’s not merely a business, it’s an art and a craft.
Ultimately, I’d say craft beer is like pornography in that you know it when you see it. While I disagree with the Brewers Association, I understand the importance of having a definition that can be measured when you are tracking an industry an in objective way. Appreciation of good beer, however, is entirely subjective.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and coorganizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.