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What is craft beer?

Growth chart
Don’t expect me to answer that question. It was posed by Stonch at Lew Bryson’s Seen Through a Glass, and I started to comment there before I realized I was about to exceed a sensible length for comments.

The Brewers Association has a specific definition (scroll down on that page):

CRAFT BEER: Craft beers are produced with 100% barley or wheat malt or use other fermentable ingredients that enhance (rather than lighten) flavor. Craft beers only come from craft brewers.

And …

CRAFT BREWER: An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional. Craft beer comes only from a craft brewer.

So when the Brewers Association collects data and reports 11.7% growth in 2006 over 2005 it isn’t including beers from Yuengling, all-malt beers from Anheuser-Busch, Blue Moon from Coors and many others.

Over time that’s made compiling and comparing numbers a little easier. For instance, had the BA (then the IBS) included Michelob Specialty beers in its calculations in the late 1990s then craft beer sales would have appeared to take a giant leap of (a guess) 800,000 barrels in 1997. We would have been comparing apples to oranges. The number is a guess because A-B never released figures for its specialty beers. In other words, the BA/IBS couldn’t have included them anyway.

Likewise, Coors does not report sales of Blue Moon Belgian White. Except in 2005, when they confirmed production of 200,000 barrels (more than the entire production of all but six craft breweries). They haven’t made a similar revelation this year, but I’ve heard from somebody – not at Coors, but who should know – that sales more than doubled to 500,000.

Just for fun, let’s plug that into the chart above, increasing both the 2005 and 2006 figures and then doing the math. Presto. Growth of more than 16%. Does that difference matter? Probably.

That’s the equivalent of nearly 7 million cases of Blue Moon that people are grabbing at the grocery store or convenient store, often from shelves where few craft beers land. If those drinkers are anything like everybody else who drinks craft beer – and remember these people (who may be you) are paying a premium price for Blue Moon, haven’t read the BA definition, and (poor fools) think it is craft beer – then they are going to try other beers that cost more and aren’t advertised on television.

This is not a new discussion. Fred Eckhardt wrote a great column on this subject 10 years ago in All About Beer magazine. He began with a definition from Vince Cottone written in 1986 (less confusing times, perhaps).

Cottone, the first to use the term, “craft brewer,” was implacably uncompromising in what he meant by that name. “Craft brewery,” he said, “describe(s) a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally (and is) True Beer.” He also listed seven other small brewers as brewing “non-true” beers, including San Francisco’s Anchor (although a “craft brewery in spirit,” its beer was pasteurized), and six other small brewers who brewed malt extract beer. He had no patience whatever with “contract brewers.”

Eckhardt polled beer industry types in an effort to define “craft beer” and got answers that went beyond that. All of them are worth reading. For balance I suggest lingering words from Tom Schmidt of Anheuser-Busch:

I don’t believe there is anything such as “craft beer.” The use of the term may lead consumers to believe that beer made in some small, quaint place is much better than beer that is produced in a large, efficient brewery, where quality and consistency are the hallmarks. We all fight the same battle using the same raw materials. These supposedly “craft breweries” are finding that, to produce consistent products, they require process controls much the same as the larger breweries. Our brewmasters are (dedicated) “craftsmen,” not just brewing “engineers” who monitor the process from afar. Just because we are successful should not detract from the fact that we are also quality “craftsmen.”

But I confess that my favorite is from Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub & Brewery:

I wish that Vince Cottone had trademarked the term. (He would be) a good arbiter of what is and what isn’t “hand-made.” (He would reject) beers made in “micro-industrial” quarter-million barrel breweries and “fruit beers” made with 0.003 percent fruit-flavored extract. (If Congress were to legislate an appellation, the licensing board should include) Cottone, Carol Stoudt, Randy Reede and Teri Fahrendorf (to ensure) its integrity. Craft brewed (should) mean pure, natural beer brewed in a non-automated brewery of less than 50-barrel brew length, using traditional methods and premium, whole, natural ingredients, and no flavor-lessening adjuncts or extracts, additives or preservatives.

Yes, there are breweries using automation and producing beers I’d call “craft” with a brew length longer than 50 barrels, so feel free to quibble. But not with the spirit in which his definition was written.

11 Responses to What is craft beer?

  1. Loren February 21, 2007 at 5:25 pm #

    Good thing Greg prefaced with “flavor-lessening”…as there are a ton of good adjuncts and extracts used by some of the world’s most artisanal brewers.

    Good stuff Stan.


  2. Alan February 21, 2007 at 5:31 pm #

    Because I have no imagination, I will repeat what I wrote at Lew’s which is this. I would also suggest that microbrewery and craft brewery describe different things. The first is objective and about scale, the second is about quality and in the eye of the beholder. If someone claims their infected, stale or dull brew is indicative of “craft” I will beg to differ regardless of the size of the place. Hand-made similarly suffers from the lack of determination if the hand has made something that is actually better than the bulk that is available.

    And – while I am at it – what is wrong with taking on the word “fine” or “great”. Why can’t we all shout “I hunt out great beer” or “I drink fine ales and lagers.” I am a fan of those who make it well and spit (pittouie!) on those who make crap. Because I am a fan (not a guru or a consultant or a brewer or a distributor or anything else) I have the luxury of (not to mention much recreation in) wallowing in my subjectivity on this point. But anything else is mere puffery, the sort of claptrap that is good for promotional statistics that ultimately tells me nothing.

  3. Stan Hieronymus February 21, 2007 at 6:53 pm #

    Good point, Alan.

    Along with the release of the statistics (the 11.7% growth) all BA members got a template so they could send a press release to their local paper with their own production figures, suggesting they are part of a national trend.

    Of course what they should be talking about is how good their beer is (which can include the context of the brewpub, if that is what they are).

    As to using the word “great” I must admit I had fallen in to the trap of saying “better beer” until listening to Greg Koch speak last June at the National Homebrewers Conference. His point was you shouldn’t settle for anything less than great, nor should you let your friends.

  4. Alan February 21, 2007 at 7:28 pm #

    I took a newbie beer fan pal to the last beerfest I was at. He had a Blue Moon white and then an Allagash white. He said that first one was ok but this stuff is great. He was right and stuck to the Allagash. Great is the minimum I have time for – not the most expensive or the rarest. Just the great.

  5. Stonch February 22, 2007 at 12:59 pm #

    Stan, thanks for writing this article – i’ve really enjoyed reading it. Good links too.

    Interesting that the definition of craft beer put forward by the Brewers Association restricts “craft beer” to being that produced by “craft brewers” small, independent, traditional). In the UK, where the debate tends to centre around “real ale” more than anything else (admittedly not the same thing as craft beer at all), CAMRA do not make reference to the type of brewer in their definition.

    The Brewers Association is very restrictive at first glance, protectionist almost, but maybe when one looks at the bigger picture perhaps it makes sense. In the US context (vast market), would it be true to say that a truly national-scale brewery will be on such a large scale as to preclude small-batch, specialist brewing?

    But on the other hand of course, a macrobrewer that owns and runs a micro operation will it be able to do so. I am thinking of the Museum Brewery in Burton, owned by Molson-Coors but producing some great beers (No.1 Barley Wine, P2 Imperial Stout, Worthington White Shield). I note that Museum wouldn’t fit the definition of a craft brewer – it isn’t independent.

  6. Lew Bryson February 22, 2007 at 2:14 pm #

    Stonch makes a point that plays loudly to me: is this about the brewer, or the beer? I don’t drink breweries.

  7. Stan Hieronymus February 22, 2007 at 2:33 pm #

    To your question about being national and brewing in smaller batches, Samuel Adams (selling north of 1 million barrels) is available in every state. Of course if you stop in the adobe bar down the street from me the bartender will spend some time fishing around in the cooler to find a bottle that’s well beyond its freshness date.

    The scale a single A-B plant operates it is mind-boggling, and they have 12. But they also have 50% of the market.

    Considerably less will do. Craft beer – and we’ll use the BA definition for the moment – isn’t 4% of the market. And it’s national. Just 1,400 breweries instead of one.

    I should point out we piddling with a term here that holds little sway with most of the people who drink “craft beer.” The are more likely to recognize “microbrews” on a sign, be it a retail store or a pub advertising it is different that the spot down the road.

    As Lew points out these terms are compromised. But the search for better ones has been going on for a dozen years 9or 20) and nobody has submitted a better one.

  8. Chris O'Brien February 23, 2007 at 11:36 pm #

    Alan and Lew,

    You guys speak as if a beer can be separated from it’s brewery. Sure, if you’re talking about blind taste testings where the point is to evaluate taste and aroma qualities, that’s one thing. But no one actually drinks beer that way (except a few of us nerds).

    No, we live in an interconnected world. Whether we call it “great” or “fine” or “magically delicious” beer — the best ones are far more than what’s in the glass.

    The better beer movement (or whatever we want to call it) is about excellent brewing quality, to be sure. But it is also about the value of process and experience, and the importance of taking beer back from the corporations that have boiled it down to a meaningless commodity.

    Great beer is about community and socialization, about experiencing something that elevates us from the mundane, and that connects us with each other and the universe (sheesh, I really sound like a beer zealot now).

    By the way, Lew, I’ll be up in southeastern PA next weekend visiting Victory and Sly Fox and maybe Iron Hill. Aren’t you in that neck of the woods? Care to join me for a beer? I’ll also be leading a tasting at Tria in Philly that Thursday, called Beer Is Divine (proof that I am a beer zealot!). Email me through my blog if you want to hook up.


  9. Alan February 24, 2007 at 2:17 pm #

    “Great beer is about community and socialization, about experiencing something that elevates us from the mundane, and that connects us with each other and the universe (sheesh, I really sound like a beer zealot now).”

    I don’t disagree, Chris, but average beer does the same thing for most people. As Pete Brown would argue in his anti-preciousness way, most people do not drink craft beer and still get the social benefit of beer. When I go to my brother-in-law’s place and sit around a garage with his Laker buck a bottle beer and his buddies, it is social and a place apart from the day-to-day. As a result, I have to understand what craft beer really adds to that equation for me. It adds something but I have to watch out carefully that it does not add snobbism. Worshipping at the alter of craft brewers than craft beer is veering a bit too much down that path.

  10. Stan Hieronymus February 24, 2007 at 7:56 pm #

    I don’t think Chris is talking about worshipping the brewer or brewery as much as “the importance of taking beer back from the corporations that have boiled it down to a meaningless commodity.”

    I’ll write more about this once I finish reading his book.

    Chris, as part of my manifesto I put great premium on place (where’s it brewed, where the ingredients come from, etc.) but if we’re going to call something a great beer it has to be a great beer.

    That’s why Lew’s statement is flat-out brilliant.

  11. Lew Bryson February 26, 2007 at 4:37 am #


    “You guys speak as if a beer can be separated from it’s brewery. Sure, if you’re talking about blind taste testings where the point is to evaluate taste and aroma qualities, that’s one thing. But no one actually drinks beer that way (except a few of us nerds). No, we live in an interconnected world. Whether we call it “great” or “fine” or “magically delicious” beer — the best ones are far more than what’s in the glass.”

    No. I really disagree at a deep level with that, because I approach beer from different angles. I’m not talking about blind taste tests. I’m talking about last weekend, when I took a sixtel of bock to my bro-in-law’s house, and we drank it. We didn’t take notes on it, we didn’t drink it blind (or deaf, for that matter), we just stood around in his kitchen and out in his driveway (freezing-ass cold and two feet of snow, grilling dinner), and drank it. And it was great.

    At that point, which I would say is a prime and classic beer-drinking moment — four guys, drinking delish beer for no other reason than that they wanted to drink some beer and talk about their lives — it didn’t matter one bit where the beer came from, or the business practices of the brewer, or the sustainability of the barley farm. All that mattered was how the beer tasted.

    There ARE other times when all the rest of it matters, when I’m drinking from a different angle, or when I’m making a purchase decision. I’ll make those decisions on food: organic, artisanal producer, non-chain market. But I won’t buy inferior products just because they’re organic/artisanal/non-chain. I’m buying for taste. Is it good? Yeah? I’ll buy it.

    When the beer’s in the glass…the beer’s the thing. I make the same point to number nerds: when I’m drinking beer, I don’t have the IBU, the Lovibond, the ABV, the AA, the carbonation levels. All I have is the old Mark I Palate and Nose, For the Assistance Of. I don’t know the rest of it, and when the beer’s in front of me, I don’t care. I’m getting tucked into it.

    Beer is separated from its brewery every time a truckload of it rolls out of the brewery gates, whether it’s headed down the road to the local tap, or headed across the country, or headed to the harbor to cross the ocean. Beer is deracinated every time someone drinks one without knowing the brewery ‘story.’ I love the story, and I buy beer because of it sometimes. I believe how the beer is made, and how the ingredients are grown, is important. But the taste is paramount. Otherwise, I think you’re veering close to marketing.

    I would be happy to discuss this over a pint, though! E-mail me, and I’ll take a look at the calendar, see if we can swing something. Good to see you coming to town.

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