So What is Craft Beer Anyway?

Craft beer is hard to define, and as the industry expands, it’s only getting more difficult. The top result of a Google search offers this vague definition: a beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery. The Free Dictionary lists two definitions that don’t shed much more light, mentioning distinctive flavors, regional distribution, limited quantities and small and independent.

The Brewer’s Association, a trade group set up to “promote and protect American craft brewers, their beers, and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” defines craft beer by three attributes: size, ingredients, and ownership. To be a craft brewer one must produce 6 million or fewer barrels of beer annually and have a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Finally, the craft brewery cannot be owned or controlled by more than 25 percent by a non-craft brewer.

By this definition, Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company), which brews more than 2 million barrels per year, is a craft brewer. In fact, the Brewer’s Association changed its annual barrel limit from 2 million to 6 million in 2011 in order to accommodate Sam Adams. This means that Goose Island, which produced about 360,000 barrels (as of 2014) per year but is owned outright by Anheuser-Busch InBev is not a craft brewer. On the other hand, brewers such as Southern Tier and Sweetwater, which are owned in part by private equity companies, are still considered craft. Confused yet? I sure am.

It’s no surprise that the makers of Bud want to cash in on the craft experience, even if its commercials often poke fun at the trend. But the idea that once a “big-box” brewer owns a craft brewery it’s no longer craft is irony at its best.

Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired eight craft brewers since 2011, including the aforementioned Goose Island, Blue Point Brewing, and Breckenridge Brewing. Not only that, but it’s also in the process of taking over SABMiller, a deal which will include divesting of SABMiller’s stake in MillerCoors, which would be transferred over to Molson Coors Brewing. Mergers and acquisitions!

But how can craft beer be defined only by numbers and percentages? What about quality? What about craft? Experimentation is one of my favorite things about the craft movement: I love a brewery that takes risks and brews with odd ingredients like grape must, such as Dogfish Head Noble Rot, one of my favorites.

Sam Adam’s Boston Lager is the best-selling craft beer in the US, and it’s a good beer, but it’s not a very exciting beer. That’s not to say that Sam Adams isn’t innovating, with limited releases and the nitro project. But are they brave enough to experiment with oddball styles like Gose and sours? (I’m loving Jammer, Sixpoint’s take on Gose.)

What the Brewer’s Association leaves out of its mission are the beer drinkers.  Shouldn’t a customer know what level of craft they’re buying?

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