THIS is the Definition of Craft Beer

People are stressing over craft beer these days. They’re saying it is irrelevant, or that it’s jumped the shark tank or gone mainstream. All of which is probably true, to greater or lesser degrees, but fails to address the central point. Which is that craft beer is simple to define.

But first, let us look at what craft beer is not. It is certainly not what the Brewers Association defines craft beer to be*, which is to say it has little to do with size or ownership or, saints preserve us, tradition. Craft was never the BA’s to define, so there is no reason we should arbitrarily accept their understandably self-serving definition.

(Two notes: “understandably self-serving” because, let’s face it, their raison d’être is to function as an industry representation and lobby group for small breweries, aka craft breweries. And it was never theirs to define because what is to my knowledge the first verifiable instance of its use, in Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, was published in 1977, long before the BA came into being.)

It is also not “revolutionary,” “honest” or – spare me from this word, please! –  “authentic,” as the fellows from BrewDog seem to think. And neither is it evil-in-a-keg, as the hierarchy of the U.K.’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) sometimes appear to believe.

Simply, craft beer is beer created from the perspective of producing great tasting beer. Not beer that will fit a certain market segment or beer that should appeal to males aged 21 to 29 or beer that will be at its best when served a degree or two above freezing temperature, but beer designed to be full of flavour and character. Period.

Craft beer = birra artigianale = bière artisanale = cerveja artisanal artesanal=  cerveza artisanal = (I think) håndværk øl. It’s beer for the world of beer drinkers who care about the taste and character of what they’re drinking, whether it comes from one of the largest brewing companies in the world or the person brewing in their restaurant kitchen down the road.

Size and ownership and ingredients can have an impact on whether a beer might be defined as craft or not – big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev have consistently proved themselves to be poor stewards of brands brewed for flavour rather than for perceived market appeal – but mostly they are matters of personal politics. Which is not to say that these factors are unimportant, just that they are not specifically what defines a beer as craft.

Centuries ago, brewers produced the best-tasting beers they could manage, hoping that others would agree and thus purchase their wares. When CAMRA fought back against the rise of bland keg ales and lagers, they were in effect defending that ethic, just as early American microbrewery operators were emulating their spiritual ancestors by brewing beers with greater flavour and character than what was flooding the market at the time.

And today, from Seattle to Singapore and Rome to Ribeirão Preto, craft brewers are still supporting that same idea, and in so doing shaking the very foundation upon which the modern beer market has been built. So I guess yes, maybe craft beer is a bit revolutionary, but it’s still principally about flavour.

* Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association wrote me to express the following: “One factual point–the Brewers Association does not define craft beer. The Brewers Association defines a U.S craft brewer.” I countered that it could be argued one begets the other, but his point is well taken. Essentially the BA is providing membership criteria rather than seeking to define craft beer as an entity. This note is added two days after the original post appeared.

19 Replies to “THIS is the Definition of Craft Beer”

    1. Exactly! I’ve tasted a lot of mediocre, poor and bad craft beers. Just because it’s craft doesn’t mean that it’s good.

  1. People can try to define “craft beer” all they like, but they can’t make anyone else accept their definitions. The only way to answer the question “what does craft beer mean” is to find out what people mean when they use the term. No doubt it will be found to mean more than one thing.

    1. What the consumer means by craft will necessarily vary person-to-person, for sure. It will always be thus, with pretty much everything. Hell, folk these days can’t even agree on the use of the word “literally”!

    2. I can’t agree with the suggestion that the meaning of a word is stuck with however people tend to use it. We have the ability to influence that meaning, to use it the way we think it “ought” to be used.

  2. As I’ve already said. To me a beer is craft when the person making or selling it tells me so. What I want to buy is good beer, after all. As for the rest, if adding a couple of words more on the label or their website helps those who make good beer shift a few more bottles, good for them.

  3. Anyway, there’s a couple of things I don’t quite agree with. First… “Centuries ago, brewers produced the best-tasting beers they could manage,” How do we know that? I feel that what we call pre-industrial brewing has been over romanticiced. I’m sure that, just like today, there were brewers that tried to make great tasting beers, but there were also many others for whom it was just a job, and they only made beer as long as people would drink it. There is a reason, after all, why mass production took over the world so relatively quickly.

    “it’s still principally about flavour”. That’s another thing. It requires us to get into the minds of the brewers to know their intentions. How can we be sure that a given brewery made a Motueka (or whichever the hottest cultivar happens to be this week) IPA because the brewer likes the taste, or simply because it was the hottest hop cultivar of the day? And does it really matter if the beer turns out to be good? Is it possible taste if a beer was born from a focus group, a FB survey or any other sort market research tool, or from the creative mind of a brewmaster?

    So, you see, that’s the thing with craft beer. At the end of the day, for us, consumers, it doesn’t really matter, as far as the beverage is goes, it’s just another brand, no different in nature to “Premium”.

    1. Targeted marketing is a fairly new construct, Max, so I’d say it’s a safe bet to state that people centuries ago were simply trying to brew the best beer they could, all other factors being equal. I mean, what’s the alternative? Someone deciding to knowingly make shit beer and hope that people will buy it anyway?

      As for flavour in the modern sense, I talk to a lot of brewers and they all get jazzed about flavour. So yes, I am to a certain degree inside the minds of brewers and saying that the great majority of their beers are born of a desire for great flavour. Also, I can taste a focus group beer from a mile away…

      1. You are relying on assumptions about the brewers of yesteryear. I’m sure there were plenty of rubbish brewers, just like there are today, that were able to thrive because in some places there wasn’t much of a choice, but then again, that’s also an assumption on my part.

        As for flavour. You are speaking from own experience (and I believe what you say it’s true), which is hardly that of the average consumer of alternative beers. I’m trying to speak as one of those consumers. And, like every consumer, I evaluate beer mainly by what I have in my glass. I also understand that there are many people out there who believe that beers that you and I may qualify as bland, marketing driven swill, are for them full of flavour. I know of beers that were born just to follow a hot trend, but they were still really good.

        Anyway, and just to play a bit, how would those beers made by Sam Adams and BrewDog based on a sort of referendum among their fans fit in your definition of craft? (I’m a bit tired, so sorry if I didn’t make myself too clear)

  4. Well put Stephen.

    For many ‘Craft’ beer drinkers (not all), there is something more than ‘taste’ and ‘brewer’s intent’.

    When I started brewing professionally, I was made to understand that ‘craft’ brewers owed their very existence to the mediocrity of large brewers. That mediocrity left a hole in the market that ‘craft’ brewers filled quite successfully.

    It was also explained to me that ‘craft’ brewers kept things simple and should not turn to ingredients/processes to speed up the process, make the process easier or cheaper (exogenous enzymes, corn syrup, cheap sources of extract, hop extracts, pasteurization, high gravity fermenting etc)

    This distinction was valid and separated `us` from `them`. Consumers could count on this. `All natural. No additives or preservatives.` was a common marketing tag.

    I have never left this `philosophy`behind. I cannot say the same for many other ‘craft’ brewers. This is merely a comment, not a judgement.

    Perhaps beer consumers don`t care anymore. Perhaps they rely upon us brewers to keep it real. I don`t know.

    I do know that there is no really useful definition of `craft` to either consumer or brewer. The strangest thing I find is the reticence of `craft` brewers to define themselves by either ingredients or processes.



    1. Thank you for the catch, Fabio. I knew that, but I think I was overridden by Word’s autocorrect mechanism.

  5. Interesting article thanks. I happened across your page when I was searching for a definition for craft beer after being suprised and disappointed to read that Samuel Adams would be represented at the Windsor Craft Beer festival. Never thought a company so large would be considered a “craft brewer”. Apparently according to the Brewer’s Association they ARE. Glad I can have my own opinion.

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