The big question surrounding craft beer at the moment is this: What defines a beer as a craft beer? Search in Google (the world's knowledge source) and you’ll find craft beer defined as such:
Craft Beer: A beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery.
This is one way of putting it, and this particular definition will probably be agreed upon by a large majority of the beer drinking world. However, in the age we could call “The Rise of The Craft Beer”, this statement can seem rather vague, and in the USA, where the craft beer boom began, they have delved deeper and established a criteria that needs to be met by breweries in order for them to be able to label their beers as craft brews; these are:
Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavour derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavoured malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
Taken from the Brewers Association Definition
These definitions are all well and good but with overall beer sales falling and craft beer sales rising –worldwide- it is no surprise to see mega breweries taking a keen interest in this emerging market segment and getting themselves a slice of the action by purchasing popular craft beer breweries. More noticeably this is happening in the USA, with Anheuser Busch and others beginning to cash in on the growth. When they buy these smaller breweries it is very rare that anything changes; they are buying the product because it sells and they are not about to change a working formula. This means that the smaller brewery, now under the wing of a mighty corporation, can no longer use the title “Craft Beer” to market their beverages. Wrong? Maybe.
Using the independence and annual production levels of a brewery as a gauge for who is allowed to use “craft beer” on their labels inevitably makes craft beer the sole product of microbreweries, excluding others from being able to title their brews like this; even if they do brew beer of the same standard (with that said, have we just retitled the microbrew?). But is there something besides production quantity and the size of the business by which we can define craft beer?
Defining Beer by Beer Itself
This is probably the part of the craft beer debate that, over the last decade, has been refined and, almost, put to bed; even amongst craft beer haters these points are agreed upon. These factors are what makes a beer a Craft Beer, setting it apart from your mass market Budweisers, VBs and Carlton Draughts.
Quality: If we are defining craft beers to be made solely by microbreweries, then it is quality which we are expecting to find within our product: beer made in small batches, with attention to detail by the brewmaster, and, most importantly, the use of high quality ingredients to produce a top quality end result. We don’t expect craft breweries to add adjuncts like rice or corn so they can produce more volume.
Taste: First and foremost, it is quality of taste that the beer drinker is looking for in his craft brew, and this can only come from the use of the finest quality ingredients; leaving the two invariably entwined. Like the use of top quality ingredients taste is a universally recognised feature of craft beer, it is often the defining factor in someone’s choice of beer and is the biggest reason as to why people choose to drink it, and to keep trying different varieties.
Innovative: We expect craft brewers to produce old styles with new or unique twists, personalized by the brewer to suit their ethics and their personal take on beer. They don’t have be insanely different or other worldly in their content and flavour, however they do need to bring something new to the drinker, to make him experience more than just drink his beer.
Cost: As consumers we expect to pay higher prices for a higher quality product, and beer is no exception to this rule. When looking at what is available down at your local you’ll find that the smaller, local brews are often more expensive than your world-renowned or nationwide beers like Heineken and Carlton, this is down to the above points: the quality of ingredients used, the taste of the final product and it's ability to make you stop, think and reflect upon it; all of these add up to a much finer, less generalised and, therefore, costlier product.
Other Factors to Consider
Those are the defining factors of craft beer that, it can be said, are universally agreed on by all beer drinkers. However, there are other factors that are used to define craft brewing and craft breweries (and therefore craft beers) that must also be considered in this debate.
One factor often brought to the forefront of this debate also relates to the point discussed at the beginning about defining craft beers by the size of the brewery (thus limiting their production to microbreweries); this point is one about the brewing method used by smaller brewers, often called a non-mechanised or traditional brewing method.
Advances in technology (centuries ago) allowed brewers to cut their costs and increase production by mechanising the brewing process, but the main benefit of this (for all involved) was that it ensured near-perfect consistency of the product. This modernisation is part of the, now much-improved method, still used by mega breweries. However, this method of production is something highly frowned upon within craft beer circles, not only because it is seen solely as a way to pump out as much beer as possible but also because it distances the brewer from the brewing process and takes away from the flavours and uniqueness you can discover in the final product.
Another factor included –less often- in the debate surrounding craft beer, and craft breweries, is their participation in their local community. Craft breweries are a part of their local community, they rely on them for survival, and, as such, we see them participating in many different ways: hosting homebrew competitions, donating to local charitable events, and also being seen in and around the community as active members. In short these craft breweries can often be found interacting with communities in ways big brands and mega breweries just don’t; they relying heavily on advertising and a brand name to sell their product to the consumers. This means that craft beer can come with that personal touch, not just those that come from the flavours and the quality of beer but also a personal touch that comes from neighbours and community members. For many it can also promote a sense of pride to be enjoying a beer in the local, made by a local.
Summing It All Up
So, why the debate? The debate surfaces because people who like good beer care about good beer and want to have a defining factor so that it can be recognised for what it is. Overall it is down to personal taste, and this can always be disagreed on, but those who partake in this debate realise that craft beer is not only about your palate; they believe that craft beer is an art form that must be recognised, to be enjoyed in its fullest form.
There are certain criteria that are universally applied to craft beer by its devotees and advocates, and it is the following factors which are universally recognised as being integral to craft beer:
- It must be made with high-quality ingredients and without adjuncts
- It must be unique in flavour
- It must intrigue the drinker and his palate
- It must be made using traditional, non-mechanised processes
Craft beer, in the eyes of many, is another way of saying quality and flavourful beer (something different) and, therefore, trying defining it by size of production is the point that is now at the forefront of the debate about craft beer: can mega breweries and big corporations produce “craft beer”? We believe that yes big breweries like Anheuser Busch can produce great craft beers, but, in doing so, they are taking away from some of the other qualities of craft beer; in essence, what craft beer means to the drinkers of good beer: supporting dedicated, hard working persons with whom they can feel a connection and also supporting and feeling part of a larger community of craft beer drinkers and brewers.
Does the entry of mega breweries into the craft beer world mean that the words “craft beer” could soon lose their significance? We don’t think so. The craft beer market is now booming worldwide, and it is no longer an uphill struggle for microbreweries and craft beer producers to enter the market. As such, big companies need to evolve with this “craft beer renaissance” in order to stay on top; it’s just good business.
But whatever they’re calling it or however you’re defining it, we are all currently basking in the evolution (some would say revolution) of beer like no one has before. So sit back, pick a bottle of your favourite craft and let your taste buds enjoy the ride.
Moved by this opinion? Stirred by what we’ve said? Drop a comment in the comments section below; we love a good debate, even better if it’s about beer!!
Unlike the Australian pale ale we discussed a few weeks ago the American pale ale has worked well to define itself and, in true American style, it is bold, boisterous and much shoutier than pales ales from elsewhere in the world. American pale ales are typically brewed with cleaner yeast and American hops, and it is these hops which really distinguish the American pale ales from their British and European counterparts.