Is there such a thing as “Craft Beer”

craftbeer

What do these beers have in common?

 

Sharp’s Doombar

Goose Island IPA

Worthington White Shield IPA

Granville Island ‘Thirsty Farmer’ Saison

Leffe Brune

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The answer is that they are all delicious, well made beers by individual brewers who seem to care about the product that they make. Oh they also happen to be owned by two of the largest international mega brewery companies in the world; companies that most ‘craft beer’ fans treat with contempt, and are unlikely to be ordering any of their more visibly ‘industrial’ brands anytime soon. Those two companies are Molson Coors and AB Inbev. AB InBev are known for probably the most famous brand of beer in the world – Budweiser. Molson Coors own the  ’silver bullet’ (coors light to you and me) as well as the top selling domestic range of lagers in Canada from North Americas oldest continually operating brewery – Molson.

These companies do not make craft beer, surely.. according to the (American) Brewers Association and now the guys at Brewdog, craft beer can only be made by a craft brewery, and AB InBev and Molson Coors are definitely NOT craft breweries.

James Watt and Martin Dickie have tried to define craft beer in the UK because,no definition exists as such. They are looking for SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) , CAMRA and the community as a whole to come together and define what ‘craft beer’ means in the UK. They point to the US and the Brewers Association’s (BA) definition as an example of how the US ‘defines’ it.  The roots of the BA lie in representing small brewers, but now the maximum output per year for members is 6 million US barrels (7.04  million hectolitres). This would be one huge brewery, hardly ‘small’. The Brewdog boys think 500,000 hectolitres annually is a suitable size limit for a ‘craft brewery’. SIBA (formerly Small Independent Brewers Association) reserve full membership for breweries who produce 200,000 hectolitres or less (above this then only associate membership is permitted) alongside provisions ensuring full independence from the big boys.

This brings me to my main point – does size matter?eoc_growler

There is no guarantee that small breweries, by anyone’s definition, whether that be 7 million hectoiltres or a nano-brewery producing less that 10 hectolitres annually will produce beer that is any good, let alone be defined as ‘craft’

For me it is about the beer, and its ingredients. Adjuncts seem to be important to many people when working out a definition. Are they used to enhance or reduce flavour? asks Brewdog and the BA. A brewer that uses rice (such as Budweiser) would argue that it does enhance the flavour by giving the beer a clean crisp taste that an all malted barley beer cannot give.  Craft beer fans would say it reduces flavour to the point where the drinker can barely taste anything.

It tastes great, but is it a craft beer?

It tastes great, but is it a craft beer?

So where does it leave us on defining what is and isn’t a craft beer? Well, one man’s craft beer could be another’s mainstream swill, so who am I or you to define it for everyone else?  I think that giant megabrew companies can own brands or companies that can make craft beer; the five at the top of the article are examples where they have bought up great breweries that produced great beer and still do.

Can the same beer made with exactly the same recipe in the same brewery by a great brewer one day be considered “craft brewed” and then as the shares are bought up by Coors Molson or AB InBev suddenly be industrialised swill? The beer has remained the same, just the ownership has changed!

The answer is that there is always going to be a large grey area that may well be impossible to define, and to try and put hard and fast rules may well be a fools errand. I thing it is worth defining “Independent breweries” and perhaps size as well. ‘Regional, Small, Micro and Nano’ might be worth defining if only to inform for the consumer, as well as qualifying for particular beer festivals that feature for example, just nano-breweries or just independent breweries.

Pigeon-holing a broad term like “Craft Beer” is trying to define different peoples perception of an ethos, quality, flavour, ‘honesty’ and artisanal-ness among other terms. It is not possible in my opinion and we should only try to define what is quantifiably definable, and I think size and independence as well as declaring a list of ingredients is what we should be aiming towards as they are far more useful and interesting things for the drinker to know as he or she sups on a tasty brew.

7 comments to Is there such a thing as “Craft Beer”

  • LuskusDelph

    Size doesn’t matter one bit.
    Brewing itself IS a craft. Unfortunately, despite what the trade associations want us to believe, the word “craft” is not always synonymous with “quality” (especially apparent lately with so many new breweries popping up). It is nothing more than a marketing term.
    The reality is that there is plenty of shitty beer out there that calls itself “craft”.

  • I totally agree! My only problem is I will probably keep using the term in articles as most people kind of get what I mean! I think it is foolhardy to try and legislate what is and what isn’t as that is sure to cause arguments down the line. It is a useful shorthand for non macro industrial adjunct lager etc however….

  • BeerLearner

    Regarding size – According to Gary Lohin, Brewmaster of Central City Brewers & Distillers in Surrey, BC; Canada, in the book Beer Quest West (penned by John C. Stott), Lohin says: “We want to make sure that we take the necessary time to produce a very good beer. That’s what Sierra Nevada and New Belgium did in the United States. They produce a great deal of beer, but they’re still craft brewers.”
    What about larger scale breweries such as Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, even Dogfish Head. Those guys & gals move a lot of volume so would they be considered “craft”? Now it’s boiling down to subjectivity.

    Regarding adjuncts – the definition of one according to the German Purity Law is “anything that is not malt, hops, or water” According to Foods Standards Committee in the UK, they define a brewing adjunct as “any carbohydrate source other than malted barley which contributes sugars to the wort.” (p. 161, Handbook of Brewing, 2nd Edition, Priest & Stewart).
    Does that mean that anything with fruit, cocoa, cocoa nibs, chocolate, candy sugar or any other additions are considered adjuncts? If so then, I’m confident that many a craft beer geek/nerd/aficionado/crazy person then has a few adjunct favorites whether it be fruit beers, winter warmers, or Belgian brews from our funky monk friends. So technically the Trappist Monks use adjuncts so how come there’s no hate-on crusade for them?
    So does using an adjunct disqualify one from being ‘craft’? If so, then someone better get going and start re-writing the BJCP guidelines right away. They have a category for Adjunct Lager but wouldn’t that mean they’d have to separate other categories into Adjunct Ales? That would be a monumental undertaking for sure.

    I think it’s merely that the Big 3 (we know who they are) don’t readily publicize what they put in their brew. Funny, I see nutritional info on WATER, of all things, but not a can of Bud. Why is that? I believe the average craft beer lover just wants transparency regarding the ingredients makes up their beer.

    Maybe instead of the term ‘craft’, we need to embrace the term ‘artisan’ but even that isn’t entirely accurate.

    Great read BW. That’s not an easy topic to write about for sure. Well tackled my friend.

  • Good to hear from you Jason! I hope the brewmaster course is going well! I think the adjuncts question is an interesting one. According to some (BA and the Brewdog peeps) they should be permitted as long as it enhances flavour. What qualifies as an enhancement is a very subjective thing. As I said in the article above, I`m sure Bud would argue that rice and corn enhance the flavour of their beer. `Enhance` doesn`t have to mean bigger and more flavour, it can mean `improve`. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…

    BTW please feel free to contribute again. I`d love a piece on becoming a brewer!

  • Sure! I’d be happy to post a piece. I also have a blog I’m trying to get off the ground: BeerLearner Blather. http://beerlearnerblather.blogspot.ca/

  • Russell Peterson

    Have you tried Goose Island IPA since AB bought them out? It’s a very dull beer with little hop character. Honkers Ale, Harvest Ale and Ten Hills Pale Ale are also very pedestrian. I never got a chance to try those beers when AB didn’t own them, but I would imagine they would have been better than what they are now.

  • Thanks for your thoughts Russell. You may well be right on the flavour of the beer and it would be hard to compare the before and after without having the correct brewing recipes. The point is a broader one of the difficulties in defining “craft beer” just in terms of size. There are small independent breweries that produce not very good beer and Mega international breweries that produce well crafted beer. I don’t have a definitive answer, just opinions that try to argue that an absolute definition may be impossible.

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