What is craft beer?

17 May 2016, By

What is craft beer?

No beer website is complete without a biased, ill-thought out craft beer definition, so I thought it was about time we added our voice to the dissonant chorus.

To be fair, we have quite a lot of experience in the field. Some of us have been importing and selling great beer since 1979, nearly two decades before the term craft beer was even coined. Back then we were bringing in exclusively Belgian beer. Belgian brewers don’t put much sway by the term “craft beer”, but that’s not to say they haven’t fought the same battles. In fact, Belgium’s beer industry is a wicked web of mergers, acquisitions, contract brews and partnerships. Did you know Leffe is brewed by AB Inbev, or that Palm once owned 50% of Boon, or that Duvel owns shares in Boulevard and Firestone Walker?

Generally though, the breweries have self-policed. There are no calls for a definition or protection for smaller breweries outside of lambic and Trappist breweries, who have very precise definitions. Instead they rely on the consumer knowing what they are buying. It’s much easier when Orval is available in some railway cafes, and when the average price of an artisan beer isn’t the same as a two-course lunch. As a result, Belgians know a lot more about beer than the average drinker in the UK, but it’s still not a given that people will know how to buy authentic beers. A more rigid definition or controls might be helpful to small brewers.

In the US regulation is completely different. There they have a strict definition, and passing the test can get you tax relief as well as support from the powerful Brewer’s Association, who give out everything from marketing help to wholesale advice, all the while promoting breweries wise enough to ask for it.

There definition is simple. Breweries must be “small and traditional”, using only ingredients that enhance flavour, making no more than 6 million barrels a year, and being no more than 25% owned by a company other than another craft brewery. That sounds very sensible on the surface, but it’s quite easy to unpick. For a start, that 6 million figure has been revised upwards several times as craft brewers have hit the previous threshold.

But now, being so high, there are a lot of AB Inbev, Constellation and SAB Miller breweries that are much smaller, but still not regarded as craft. Elysian, 10 Barrel and Devil’s Backbone are all kicked out of the club, while Sierra Nevada brewery, which is five times the size of all three combined, is still defined as craft. If you want a small batch, crafted beer, which is the legitimate choice? I have no idea any more.

The flaws of a craft beer definition

To me the American system is flawed. The definition does help put good beer in the hands of people who weren’t sure before, but it also might discourage them from trying world-beating beers – Ballast Point Sculpin, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid and Firestone Walker Sucaba for a start. Who is to say those beers will suffer as a result of their creators being bought out? As long as the takeover doesn’t result in breaking rules about traditional methods, who can’t the beer still be considered craft whoever the owner?

And what will happen when Sierra Nevada hit the 6 million mark? Will the definition be revised again, or will the BA admit that size isn’t everything? It seems bizarre that they choose this number and ignore the fact that many breweries producing much smaller numbers are doing so in less-than-reputable ways. Mikkeller and Omnipollo have made contracting brewing an art form, taking the inspiration from whichever brewery they go to, but most breweries use it to meet demand they could never hope to fulfil. And sometimes that means teaming up with the likes of macrobrewers to brew your beer. Currently the BA has no issue with this, implying it doesn’t mind who makes the beer, only whose label is on it. It’s a serious loophole.

So if the size is (to some extent) arbitrary and ownership not necessarily relevant, all we are left with is the traditional brewing statement. This one is inarguable. All craft beer has to be flavour focused, there is no way around that. If a brewer doesn’t want to make the best beer possible then he is barely a brewer, let alone a craftsman. Volume and ownership are the causes of problems rather than a problem in themselves – volume might cause a drop in quality, as might pressure from more price-sensitive members of the board. But that drop in quality will break the traditional brewing statement, so why do we need the other two rules?

Our definition of craft beer

I think we need to stop thinking about craft breweries versus macro breweries and instead on the quality of the beer. We can assign definitions to how beer should be made in order to get the craft designation, much like we do with organic or free-range. There are obviously sub definitions in each of these titles, but our definition of craft beer would read something like this:

  • -Made using quality ingredients
  • -Made using only ingredients that enhance flavour
  • -Made using processes that put flavour over costs
  • -Brewed under the supervision of those who own the rights
  • -Served in packaging or forms that promote freshness

Craft beer is what is in the bottle – any other definition is a distraction until it affects the liquid. This is the only way to ensure that the consumer gets a better beer every time. That said though, there are a lot of issues that will not be fixed by this solution. The most pressing, and the one that gets many brewers and retailers up in arms, is that it gives macro brewers the chance to ride on smaller brewers’ coattails. To that I would say that the best beers and breweries will still shine, and with drinking local becoming such a force, there should be a preference for quality, fresh beer and that education piece is down to the brewers themselves.

Another huge concern will be the power that recently bought-out breweries acquire over their former competitors. There is no doubt that Lagunitas and Camden Town Brewery will have huge competitive advantages – being able to secure better hop contracts, distribution deals and pay for taps on bars, but the current definitions do little to help this and the pressure to solve these issues has to come via legislation rather than artisan definitions. The market system is flawed, but a definition that fails to put good beer in the consumer’s hand is only going to back up that system. I believe that any definition focused on arbitrary size and ownership shares could be damaging.

When I ask myself what is craft beer, I still include breweries like Lagunitas, Ballast Point and most of Camden’s portfolio. I think you should too, for the good of craft beer and what is in the bottle.