What is Craft Beer?

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How do you define craft beer? That is most definitely a loaded question among novices and beer geeks alike. There is an official definition of craft beer and then there’s how we define craft beer in the real world.

When someone says “craft beer,” most of us have visions of a mustachioed and bearded guy wearing urban chic flannel, raving about the exorbitant amount of IBUs in his IPA or the decadence of the cinnamon-roll and vanilla ice cream aromas that waft up his schnoz when drinking a pastry stout.

I poke fun… but hey, I’ve been that guy and probably will be again. Just don’t call me on it!

Ken - April - Russ Melton - John Beer Snob at Diamond Bear

The Definition of Craft Beer

There actually is a definition of what technically is craft and what isn’t… at least in America.

The Oxford Dictionary defines craft beer as: “a beer that is made in a traditional way by a small company.” That’s pretty loose, but the Brewers Association is what the vast majority of the brewing industry follows for guidance on defining craft brewing.

The Brewers Association avoids strictly defining craft beer itself, but states that American craft brewers are those brewers producing under 6 million barrels of beer per year and that less than 25-percent of the company is controlled by an alcoholic beverage company that is itself not a craft brewer.

That number of barrels sounds huge, and in the craft world, 6 million barrels is a lot of beer for one brewer. But consider that in 2017, it was estimated that there were more than 1.6 BILLION BARRELS of beer produced in the world.  More than half of that beer was produced by one massive company: AB InBev (which owns Budweiser). 

So even the Boston Beer Co. (aka Sam Adams), with its more than 4 million barrels of beer in 2018, is considered craft. Boston Beer is big by craft standards, but not a macro-brewer akin to AB InBev or MillerCoors.

The Brewers Association breaks it down much further than that, defining Boston Beer and other craft brewers in the 15,000 to 6 million barrel range as regional brewers. Those brewers under 15,000 barrels then are sub-categorized even further, but are generally the ones that most of us think of when we think craft beer. They are those small local micro-breweries or even nano-breweries that do much of their sales out of the taproom, host cornhole tournaments and trivia nights, and are generally more community oriented.

Torching wood stave at Paradox

Brewers Association official definition of the American craft brewer:

An American craft brewer is a small and independent brewer.

What is a Small Brewer?

Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to rules of alternating proprietorships.

What is an Independent Brewer?

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

What is a Brewer?

A brewer is a company that has an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Brewer’s Notice and makes beer. (Basically, this means that the government has licensed the company as a brewer, regardless of size.)

(The Brewers Association actually breaks down the craft beer category even further – six different segments – but that’s probably so deep into the weeds for our purposes that it gets to be a little wicked. If you’re interested, however, you can check out the Brewers Association craft beer sub-categories by clicking here.)

Jason from Green Bus Brewing in his brewery in Huntsville Alabama

Why is the Brewers Association defining Craft Brewers?

So who the heck is this Brewers Association anyway, and why do they get to tell us what the definition of a craft brewer is or is not?

From the association’s own website: “The Brewers Association is a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit trade association. The association is an organization of brewers, for brewers and by brewers. More than 5,036 U.S. brewery members and 46,000 members of the American Homebrewers Association are joined by members of the allied trade, beer wholesalers, retailers, individuals, other associate members and the Brewers Association staff to make up the Brewers Association.”

(Full disclosure: April and I homebrew a bit, and we are card carrying members of the American Homebrewers Association, but that doesn’t officially make us beer snobs. That designation was bestowed upon us by our good friend John “the Beer Snob” Wells.)

Stout Scouts by John the Beer Snob

The Brewers Association’s stated purpose is “to promote and protect American craft brewers, their beers, and the community of brewing enthusiasts.”

Definitions be damned, Craft Beer is made to enjoy

Even so, why do we care what the Brewers Association defines as craft? Simply put, we don’t have to care. They’re going to do what they do whether you or I care or not. In fact, that’s the great thing about America and the craft beer revolution; it’s open to interpretation and we have the right to express ourselves about it. Yes, even our mustachioed and bearded pinky-in-the-air snifter swirlers (thank you very much) have the same right as you to define craft beer.

There is a lot of great craft beer out there, both from big and small brewers, but in general, we tend to gravitate toward the community of craft, which puts much more focus on the hands-on love of creation and sharing that creation in a space where you can often simply walk up and have a chat with the guy or gal that brewed the beer you are holding in your hand.

Hey, I’m still gonna be drinking Stone IPA or Deviant Dale’s IPA from Oskar Blues or Brewdog’s Jet Black Heart pretty much no matter how big they get. As long as they hold their customers dear and keep creating, I’ll probably be okay with it. (Just don’t sell to ABInBev. Bobby at Back Pew wants to punch Bud in the nose. I don’t like getting punched in the nose, even by association.)

But really, what makes craft, craft? You. I might have to fight you over Natty Light’s Strawberry Lemonade, PBR’s Hard Coffee, or Bud Light Lime being considered craft. But even the bigger regional craft brewers in the U.S. still tend to have a community focus and create new crafted flavors and variants with thoughtful intent, they’re simply just not as nimble as that two-to-ten-barrel brewhouse tucked into a neighborhood that is constantly playing with new flavors in between cornhole tosses.

Stout LIfe meetup at Broken Compass July 2019

This is Craft Beer!

Craft is the mustachioed, bearded snifter swirler. Craft is the session IPA crusher. Craft is the newbie off the street that looks like a deer in headlights staring at the confusing array of beers on the board.

As long as you’re good to people, there’s really not a lot of completely right or completely wrong in craft beer. Craft beer is good people making good beer for other good people to drink.

Stout Conversations – Woods Boss Brewing Company


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A Handcrafted Life – Bonsai Brewing Project

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