How do I define craft beer?
This question vexes me. I continually try to move past the, “I know it when I see it,” definition most of us use. (ABInbev High End is not craft beer but Oskar Blues CANarchy is). I create a definition in my mind and then I correct it with 10 different exceptions.
Let’s begin at the beginning and start with, “What do I think of when I think of craft beer?”
The first thing I think, when I think of craft beer, is the mindset. The very simple yet important thing that separates craft brewing companies from big beer companies is the idea that beer is more than just a commodity to be sold.
During the period in the American beer industry between 1933 (the end of Prohibition) and 1979 (when homebrewing became legal), brewing beer was treated the same as manufacturing tires. Beer was simply a product to made as cheaply as possible and sold with as big a margin as possible. Quality, taste, and creativity were barely tertiary thoughts.
Craft beer begins with the idea that the beer is the important thing. This whole enterprise started because a bunch of guys who spent time abroad for school and in military service came back to the US and wanted to drink better beer. English pubs and cask ales and German bier halls and fresh lagers created a thirst in these people. Charlie Papazian’s seminal, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, coined the phrase, “better beer” and the resulting mindset of making beer for beer’s sake instead of treating it as a simple commodity is the is the cornerstone of what craft beer is. At least it should be.
The second thing I think craft beer has to have is creativity. Alongside that should be a sense of fun and adventure sparked by the creativity of its brewers. Sometimes that creativity can vex me when I’m just looking for a nice pale ale and I have options that range from hibiscus goses to BBA chocolate stouts. However, it is that creativity and need to push boundaries to come up with something new and awesome that makes craft breweries different from big beer companies.
The Brewers Association has a definition of what a craft brewery is as part of its membership requirements. I don’t necessarily follow that definition because it is a definition that fluctuates as needed. That isn’t a shot at the BA, but it is a simple acknowledgment of how running an organization like the Brewers Association can be a fluid adventure. The BAs charge is to speak for the small independent brewers in this country. Sometimes that means you make exceptions to keep some brewers (Boston Beer and Yuengling) and sometimes that means you create rules that exclude others (ABInbev High End brands).
My definition doesn’t rely on numbers or ownership. The first two parts of my definition focus on the liquid in the glass and how that is the focus and how I get a sense of creativity and adventure with every sip. The final part of my definition touches on the business side. A craft brewery is a brewery whose business practices are not malicious and predatory. Craft breweries do not see the beer business as a zero-sum game. For a craft brewery, this isn’t a simple dialectic of win or death as it is for big beer companies.
While all breweries, at least the ones with an actual business plan, want to be successful and want to make money, they also have a sense of collaboration with other craft brewers where they try to promote not only their beer but all beer. They try to work together and promote craft beer and make sure consumers get better beer.
We know the big beer companies don’t look at it the same way. We have the Department of Justice and various state attorneys general investigations and fines to prove it.
In sum, my definition of craft beer is, a beer crafted with the idea that the beer, the liquid in the glass, is the most important thing. It is a beer that embodies a sense of creativity and adventure. Finally, it is a beer from a brewery that cares more about the beer community as a whole and making sure drinkers get better beer then they do about crushing the competition and making a quick dollar.