What is “Craft Beer?”

Written by Nick Brennan for chicagonow.com

There is quite a bit of contention out there regarding what is and what isn’t craft beer. Some define it based on tangibles like quality of ingredients, while others define it by looking at intangibles like the brewer’s passion for the art. Personally, I take a stand somewhere in the middle. High quality ingredients are a must and if production can be ramped up while keeping quality in check, that’s great. But there has to be more to it than quality…right?

While I think that “big business” brewers like SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch are capable of producing great beer, some of the magic tends to be lost along the way. Although they can get their hands on the highest quality ingredients at the lowest prices, profits still reign supreme in their decision making. Their passion lies in the dollars they’re banking, not in the beer itself. The marketing budgets alone for beers like Bud Light and Miller Lite are larger than the revenues of most craft breweries!

Though, the argument isn’t as simple as pitting “big beer” against the little guys anymore. By many definitions, the largest craft brewer out there, Boston Beer Company, the makers of Sam Adams, is no longer a craft brewer. Although they only use high quality ingredients and they’re very passionate about what they do, they’ve more than exceeded the production limits that the Brewers Association used to use to define a “craft brewer” (2 Million Barrels). In fact, they’ve now captured over 1% of the market share for beer sales in the United States, hardly making them a “little fish in a big pond.” Yet, you would be hard pressed to find a craft beer junkie who would say that “Utopias,” their American Strong Ale, isn’t a craft beer.

Furthermore, large regional craft breweries like Terrapin and Goose Island have recently been brought into the portfolios of the big guys. While Terrapin can be still be defined as a craft brewer because its owners retained more than 75% ownership, Goose Island cannot. Now that Anheuser-Busch has a majority stake in GI, they no longer meet the criteria, regardless of how great their product is. Yet, amid the rumors of watered down Honker’s Ale and 312, Bourbon County Stout remains a highly sought after brew.

So… my challenge to you is to define craft beer how you see fit. Large format brewers can, and do, utilize high quality ingredients to produce great tasting beer similarly to the little guys. However, their offerings tend to lack the locality and passion that so many craft beer aficionados out there appreciate. If you judge a beer on taste alone, your definition of craft will probably continue to expand as big business enters the marketplace. If you’re like me, and you want to take the intangibles into account, you’ll have to do your due diligence in making sure you know where your beer really came from going forward. While you can’t see, taste or smell the passion that comes along with being a craft brewer, there is certainly something special about knowing that you’re trying something that someone poured their soul into.

One Reply to “What is “Craft Beer?””

  1. I have asked myself this question many times. Saranac has been aroung since the early 1800s, as Matt Brewing, FX Matt and another name before the Matt family bought it. “Craft brewing?” Well, if you define by barrels/quantity alone, not. But, to me, that definition does not serve “craft beer” as a concept well. There was a brief “brewpub” operation just barely in Herkimer County, New York State. They had 3 beers, all wheat beers with different fruit extracts added to an extract product. “Awful” does not define it well. The word I should use, I will not. That’s “craft” brewing? No, it’s lazy ass brewing, worse in some ways than InBev’s Bud, or Miller, though perhaps not quite as cynical.They didn’t try to pass it off to the world, just to locals and those unfortunate beer lovers who stopped by. They did give craft beer a bad name. Unfortunately the biggies can brew swill, pretend it’s from some craft brewery, and give craft beer a bad name. Double their pleasure: attempt to smear the competition by pretending to be them, and create cheap product you can sell at high prices.

    That defines “unfair business practice.”

    Maybe we should just drop “craft” and call it all beer?

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