Who is Craft Beer?

At the risk of dead horse abuse, I submit another consideration of the term the beer-appreciating community in the US has come to know, love, and #.

A recent blog post mused that “craft beer” is identifiable without need for the label, that one knows it upon sight. Indeed, in the words of Lagunitas Brewing Co., Beer Speaks, People Mumble.

The “craft” of beer, of course, is old. Even the University of California has been teaching brewing longer than you might think, as evidenced by this snippet from an Aug. 12, 1920 edition of the LA Times:


To jail for practicing a “forbidden craft” in the very Kern County that now produces “outstanding” IPAs. Many celebrate homebrewer/craft brewer Jack McAuliffe; perhaps we ought also celebrate Tex Smith, homebrewer-renegade.

The term “craft” also implicates the artisan craft guilds that controlled brewing in Germany centuries ago, wherein apprenticeships produced the next generation of brewers as in other artisan trades. In the early 90s, the term “craft beer” was already used to refer to beers made by brewpubs and small breweries in US publications, including a 1993 Wall Street Journal article about craft beer injecting life into an otherwise “flat” beer industry (sound familiar?), which explained the term as “beers made by microbreweries.” To some, that is probably still the working definition. Particularly where the term is used generally without distinguishing between true microbreweries and larger craft breweries: it’s all “microbrew.” As far as I can tell, that is not the case here in Southern California, but observing  Twitter suggests to me that it is the case in some places.

Of course, the Brewers Association has employed a more sophisticated definition to advance the interests of its constituents–many being microbreweries, all allegedly being “small.”

To illustrate a rise in the use of the term, the ProQuest database (newspapers and magazines) finds 3 uses in 1993; 6 in 1994; 33 in 1995; 125 in 1998. It dropped to 46 hits in 1999, to a low of 23 hits in 2003. In 2005, the number of hits jumped back to 100; by 2008, 450; so far in 2013, 634 records bear the term. The term “craft brewer” exhibits a similar pattern, though used less often.

An easy way to use the term is how the Wall Street journal used it: beer made by small breweries. As used by the Brewers Association, it has specific aims, but it still does little to describe the beer itself:

“I’d like a beer, please.”

“What kind of beer?”

“A craft beer, please.”

“What do you mean, a craft beer?”

“You know, a beer from a brewer that is small, independent, and traditional.”

“Okay, well, that’s all my beers. So we’re back at square one.” (We’re at a craft beer bar, of course.)

Some have indicated confusion from explanations that the term, as used by BA, does not speak to a beer’s quality. While it is true that most fans of craft brewers equate the term with the production of “good” or “quality” beer, as opposed to beers like Budweiser or Miller Genuine Draft that are the opposite of “good” or “quality,” a casual glance at the occasionally vicious nether-regions of the BeerAdvocate forums will indicate how adept craft beer drinkers are at expressing the lack of quality they find in brewers and beers that otherwise qualify as “craft.” Of course, no one should expect every offering from every craft brewer to be universally good and of high quality. That’s not the nature of the way things work. Brewers themselves have a different perspective than a casual imbiber on “quality,” and many remark on the quality of mass-produced light beers, often described as a style that is very difficult to make well (whether you like a well-made one is a different question).

So if the term doesn’t really describe any particular beer (other than to indicate what market segment produced it), nor indicate any given beer’s quality, what does it do?

It includes and excludes industry members:

Quite simply, setting the “small” limit arbitrarily at 6 million barrels per year or less (minus “flavored malt beverages” such as say, Twisted Tea) includes the vast majority of brewers in the United States, and excludes certain you-know-whos.

The same goes for “independent.” It includes the vast majority of brewers in the United States, and excludes a different but overlapping set of you-know-whos. Redhook, Widmer (craft brewing pioneers), and Kona (CBA) notoriously fall victim to the 25% ownership-by-non-craft-brewer line that means “not independent, so not craft.” Of course, many of the beers produced by these brewers are otherwise indistinguishable from craft beers, particularly Widmer’s smaller batch offerings. Which is because they are indistinguishable, at the beer level.

The “traditional” element is really the only element that deals with what as well as who. It also smacks of gerrymandering. Whose natural response to the question, What is a “traditional” brewer?, would be: well, naturally, one who has “an all-malt flagship or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers [that] use adjuncts to enhance rather than to lighten flavor.” Some have vehemently challenged this notion of “traditional,” including August Schell Brewing. Still, this is the closest the three elements of definition get to describing the beer. It is still inclusive and exclusive.

Start with the first prong: all-malt flagship. No rice or corn in the brewer’s main beer. Well, that excludes several you-know-whos, including some that would otherwise qualify under the small and independent elements (Yuengling, for example). I wonder if it would also dispose of a brewer whose flagship wit includes un-malted wheat . . . probably so, but that brewer would likely be saved by prong two. Even if a majority of the brewer’s beer involved some un-malted grain or adjunct, they could be saved by the subjective “enhance not lighten” part of prong two. Who gets to decide whether an adjunct “enhances” rather than “lightens” flavor? The seeming decisiveness and clarity of the definition crumbles here. What if to make the body more “crisp” <in other words, to lighten–see certain famous double IPAs> also serves to enhance?

These elements are phrased in a manner that sounds dispositive of the issue, but BA throws in some additional “concepts” the weight of which in determining craft brewer-hood is not clear: innovation, traditional ingredients, non-traditional ingredients, community involvement, individualistic approaches to connecting with customers, integrity that derives from freedom from substantial interests by non-craft brewers, proximity (10 miles) to the majority of Americans.

It is important to remember that the Brewers Association is “a passionate voice for craft brewers.” They advocate for business and legal purposes in venues far removed from the world of beer festivals and bottle shares. Their success in doing so may in part be reflected in the increasing overlap of those worlds, with politicians increasingly stopping by breweries for photo ops. The general paradigm of advocacy, though, has BA climbing the hill in Washington to seek support for lower excise taxes for its constituents, for example.  They are tasked with seeking policy changes that benefit particular entities within an industry. That is why the term is more concerned with answering the “who” question than the “what” question.

It would seem to follow that only a craft brewer can make “craft beer.” But does that have to be the case? BA does not purport to define “craft beer,” only craft brewers. Some would say big beer attempts at “crafty” beers cannot be craft beer because they do not come from craft brewers.

In a recent post, Melissa Cole (@MelissaCole) discusses why attempts to define “craft beer” make little sense in the UK. Her post reveals two issues with transporting “craft beer” definitions to the UK. First, she discusses the historical differences in beer-making created by Prohibition that allow the the United States’ nascent brewing revolution to stand in stark contrast to the industry as it had developed post-Prohibition into the 1970s. No such stark contrast exists in the UK that one can use to trace the boundaries between what is “craft beer” and what isn’t. Second, the elements of a “craft brewer” are also unique to the brewing industry in the United States–the Brewers Association does not purport to advocate (at least not directly) for any breweries in the UK. Even though the craft brewer definition could technically be applied anywhere, they list only US craft brewers on their site.

And what about homebrewers? They are not craft brewers either. Is their product relegated only to consideration as “homebrew”? The line blurs when craft breweries hold contests and then brew the winning homebrewer’s recipe. Is it the recipe and ingredients, or the fact that the equipment happens to be sitting on licensed premises that makes the end product “craft beer”? I would argue this reveals the reason BA focuses on “craft brewer” and not “craft beer.” A workable definition for “craft beer” is more elusive and less useful when it comes to advocacy. Legislators want to know who policy changes affect and why those parties should be affected.

The parallel between the “craft brewer” definition and the BA’s advocacy mission reveals itself in the group who would benefit from the passage of S. 917/H.R. 494–the Small BREW Act: the Act will redefine a “small brewer” in federal taxation terms (previously 2 million barrels/per year) as one who “produces not more than 6,000,000 barrels of beer during the calendar year.” That would be huge for you-know-who.


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