It sounds like an easy answer… but its answer can actually be quite elusive. Ask five different people and you might get five different answers. “Good beer.” “Quality beer.” “Independently owned beer.” “Small brewery beer.” “Good ingredients, hard work, small quantity, good tasting beer.” Are all of these answers right?
Definition… Definition… Definition…
Let’s start with the Brewer’s Association definition of craft beer:
Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness. Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events.
Is that all there is to it though? I think we can all agree there’s a bit more depth to the definition of craft beer than this. With this definition breweries like Anheuser-Busch or Coors or Heineken would fall under the purview of ‘craft beer’. (Shudders).
Digging a little deeper, Brewer’s Association gives the following:
Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to rules of alternating proprietorships. …
Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
This helps us narrow it down a bit more. Now we have a quantity amount (no more than six million barrels of beer) and an ownership detail – less than twenty – five percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
These numbers will certainly pop up in different ways for different reasons (the amount produced, ownership, etc.).
Interestingly enough, in my search for deeper meaning and knowledge and truth on the subject (a normal day of soul searching and internet searching for myself), I’ve encountered several articles, one of such was from Dictionary.com itself, entitled “What Does Craft Beer Really Mean?” They give some background information on the term “craft beer”:
Beer is an alcoholic beverage made by brewing and fermentation from malted barley, oats, or other grains, and flavored with hops (or historically in some cases, herbs) for added taste. Generally speaking, a craft is “an art or trade that requires a special, usually manual skill.” The term has evolved into an adjective to describe a food or beverage made with such abilities. It’s an old term, first recorded before the year 900 and stemming from the Old English cræft (“strength, skill”) and related to the German Kraft.
In 1987, in a guide book to breweries of the Pacific Northwest, Cottone explained his reasoning for selecting the word craft to describe such career zymurgists, writing, “I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally.”
The phrase caught on quickly, popping up in industry trade magazines and at conferences, eventually making its way into the title of the annual Craft Brewers Conference in 1996, a yearly gathering of American artisan brewers. By the end of that decade, the Institute of Brewing Studies— which eventually was absorbed into today’s dominant brewing industry trade group, the Brewers Association—formalized a definition of craft beer.
They go on to list the four criteria that the Brewer’s Association requires for a craft brewer, which are:
have a federal brewer’s notice – a license to brew beer
only sell beer made with less than 10% adjuncts (such as fruit, chocolate, coffee, or other non-traditional beer ingredients)
do not use artificial ingredients
no ownership of 30% or more by a large macro brewery
Now this article was written in 2020 and references that this is a 90’s era criteria. Noticeably, the 30% has been moved to 25% as shown above.
The 10% adjuncts and the ‘no artificial ingredients’ have also become… well… a bit flexible over the years. Ask several breweries how they make their sours and you might find some interesting information that may or may not go against the above criteria.
Wikipedia has a very large an in – depth article on Craft Beer and Craft Breweries on their massive encyclopedic site. Their opening paragraph on the Craft Beer page reads:
Craft beer is a beer that has been made by craft breweries. They produce smaller amounts of beer, typically less than large breweries, and are often independently owned. Such breweries are generally perceived and marketed as having an emphasis on enthusiasm, new flavours, and varied brewing techniques.
The microbrewery movement began in both the United States and United Kingdom in the 1970s, although traditional artisanal brewing existed in Europe for centuries and subsequently spread to other countries. As the movement grew, and some breweries expanded their production and distribution, the more encompassing concept of craft brewing emerged. A brewpub is a pub that brews its own beer for sale on the premises.
They have the article broken down into sections on countries / regions, as well as style of breweries, and even go so far as to discuss non – alcoholic beers.
So is it really that simple?
So is the definition really that simple on what makes beer “craft beer” rather than beer? Sort of. Yes. Maybe. Kind of. Yes and no.
Clearly the best source of what qualifies as craft beer and a craft brewery is the Brewer’s Association. That is going to the top of the academia field and asking “etymology” is or “existentialism”. While you will get a relatively concrete definition; there will be some flexibility.
There is also some room for debate, and many still do. You will also notice how the field goal posts get moved over time.
Posted back in April 2022, the most recent “Top 50 Craft Breweries by Volume” from the Brewer’s Association shows the top fifty largest producing craft breweries as of 2021. The top ten are:
D.G. Yuengling and Sons Inc.
Boston Beer Co.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
Duvel Moortgat USA
Bell’s Brewery Inc.
Artisanal Brewing Ventures
Stone Brewing Company
SweetWater Brewing Co
As of 2020 it was reported that Yuengling produces 2.6 million barrels of beer per year (annually). (Also for reference, Troegs Independent Craft Brewing Company comes in at number 24, and produces around 118,000 barrels a year (as per a Beverage Master article from October 13th, 2022 — Troegs: Not Your Ordinary Brewery.).
What Is Your Definition of Craft Brewing?
This is where the fun is. We all have our own ‘personal’ opinions on what craft beer is. It probably roughly follows along with the Brewers Association’s guide and criteria, but yours or mine might differ a little. Some don’t consider Yuengling and Sam Adams craft beer (anymore). You might have different requirements than the Brewers Association; maybe yours is more stringent, or perhaps yours is looser.
I’d love to hear what your personal definition of “craft beer” and “craft brewery” are; let me know in the comments section here on the blog. It will be very interesting to see everyone’s personal views and takes on what craft beer and craft brewing is to them.
For More Information
Some of the articles we researched and linked here in this article can be found here:
Thank you all for reading! Kind of wanted to pop this article out the other day when the idea hit me, but spent more and more time researching and reading and stuff, and tried to fit it around Scarlet (my one month old) Emma’s naps and fussing. So here it comes today, just a day or so later than I intended.
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