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Defining Craft Beer

defining craft beer
On a mild spring night in April, Brooklyn Brewery cofounder Steve Hindy sat onstage at the New York Public Library and tried answering one of the trickier questions in craft brewing. “Is Goose Island still a craft beer?” asked the panel’s moderator.

Hindy paused. New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan and Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian, the fellow panelists, kept their lips zipped. Until recently, the answer would’ve been a resounding “yes.” Since 1988, Chicago’s Goose has swum against mainstream lagers, introducing countless Americans to the flavorful pleasures of IPAs, saisons and barrel-aged stouts. But in 2011, the brewery was sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev. Overnight, the little guy became Goliath. “I drink Goose Island when I see it occasionally,” Hindy answered, somewhat unsteadily.

“That doesn’t quite answer my question,” the moderator chided.

“I would not say they were a craft brewer,” Hindy said definitively. Like a soldier losing his stripes, Goose Island was no longer considered part of craft brewing’s rank and file—no matter how many hops or bourbon barrels they use to make their beer.

Confused? So is everyone.

Thirty years ago, America’s beer market was basted in black-and-white. Big brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coorscranked out masses-pleasing lagers. Nipping at their heels were little guys like Sierra Nevada, New Albion and Anchor, collectively known as “microbrewers.” Often packaged in brown bottles, their small-batch ales were rich in flavor, aroma and hue—a marked contrast to clear lagers.

These days, perception is no longer so easily colored. Breweries such as New Belgium and Brooklyn are no longer “micro,” a term that’s a ’90s relic like Reebok Pumps. Today, breweries both massive and minuscule, from Australia to Alaska, are craft brewers. Piney IPAs, aromatic witbiers and wild yeast–inoculated ales are their stock in trade—but so are crisp pilsners and lawnmower-friendly lagers, formerly megabrewers’ main domain. With sales of their once-dependable beers eroding, brewing behemoths have responded by buying or investing in established outfits like Blue Point and Terrapin, as well as releasing brews that could pass for craft in a blind taste test—and even besting craft beers in competitions. At the same time, the Brewers Association has continually tweaked its definition of “craft brewer,” leaving long-running breweries on the outside looking in. And as the industry ranks swell so do concerns about quality—the same issue that helped pop the ’90s bubble.

The battle for craft’s future is brewing.


Define Line
It’s human nature to categorize, from branding a bespectacled trend-seeker a hipster or an IPA junkie a beer geek. Catchall terms, though messy, provide a framework of general understanding. When the likes of Boulder Beer and the Independent Ale Brewery (later Redhook) percolated in the early ’80s, the nascent movement was nameless. Around then, a computer-industry worker who moonlighted at Zymurgy magazine booted up a brilliant thought: “He said, ‘You know, these small breweries are kind of like microcomputers,’ ” Papazian recalls in Hindy’s The Craft Beer Revolution.

The microbrewery was born. Papazian provided parameters. A microbrewery made 5,000 barrels (around 155,000 gallons) of beer annually. Boundaries soon ballooned to 10,000, then 15,000 barrels, as growth outstripped definition. “We continued to call Widmer Brothers a microbrewery until we were at 60,000 barrels,” says Kurt Widmer of his brewery, which he and brother Rob founded in 1984.

“Micro” made sense for the tech trade, where miniaturization marks progress. American breweries were mushrooming, and caps mattered less than taste and talent. In a 1987 New Brewer article, Papazian classified a craft brewery as one that used “the manual arts and skills of a brewer to create its products.” Craft—that had a nice ring. As “microbrewery” lost steam, “craft brewer” gradually entered the vernacular. Instead of keeping the term nebulous, the Brewers Association trade group chiseled out a definition. In the BA’s eyes today, a craft brewer is small (producing less than 6 million barrels annually), independent (not more than 25 percent owned by a non-craft alcohol concern) and traditional—no corn syrup, please. These parameters encompass more than 3,000 breweries (more than 70 percent are association members), ranging from small-fry brewpubs like Brooklyn’s Dirck the Norseman, to the cultish Three Floyds and nationally focused Green Flash.

That list no longer includes Long Island’s long-running Blue Point, which sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) earlier this year. And what of Kona, Redhook and Widmer, three of America’s early micros? To solve distribution snafus and sell fresher beer, they partnered in 2007 to create the Craft Brewers Alliance. (Goose Island was also an early partcipant.) In return for distribution, ABI received a stake that bumped members over the BA’s investment threshold. They lost their craft-brewer title, but their recipes remained the same. Though the ouster stung, it did not alter consumer perception, says Kurt Widmer. “I can’t remember the last time someone asked me if Widmer is a craft brewer. I would bet that 99 percent of beer drinkers have never heard of the Brewers Association or their definition, or care about those things.”

Definitions will never please everyone. And classifying the rapidly evolving brewing industry has proven to be a rocky challenge. As Sam Adams was about to crest the then–2 million barrel cap, the restriction was raised to 6 million barrels in 2010. More recently, in 2012, a debate arose among craft brewers around the use of adjuncts like corn and rice, which can lighten body and flavor. Not traditional, was the reasoning. The shots were fired at megabrewers, but smaller breweries were caught in the crossfire. “Just because we make an American lager, doesn’t make us one of the big guys,” says Schell’s assistant brewmaster Jace Marti.

Founded in 1860, Minnesota-based Schell’s is America’s second-oldest family-owned brewery, bested only by Pennsylvania’s Yuengling. When the brewery’s German founders immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century, they found American barley harsh and too high in protein; corn added a moderating influence that created the quintessential American lager. Tradition. “Corn is one of the most traditional ingredients in American brewing,” says Notch Brewing’s Chris Lohring, who makes the Mule, Corn Lager. “Beers, over time, became bland by consumer preference, not corn or rice.”

Responding to the outcry, the BA revised its guidelines earlier this year, allowing for brewers who make beers with “traditional” ingredients like corn and rice. “During the 10,000 years of brewing, it wasn’t just all malt,” explains Brewers Association director Paul Gatza. “It did not meet the smell test for a brewery like Yuengling, which has been around since 1829, to not be traditional.” Despite the accommodating definition, Schell’s has decided not to rejoin the Brewers Association. “To this day I have craft-beer drinkers [at beer festivals] that say, ‘Why are you here? You’re not a craft brewery,’ ” Marti says.

Instead, Schell’s self-identifies as a producer of “German craft beer,” making beers including hoppy pilsners, unfiltered hefeweizens and tart Berliner weisses. “What we’re doing is every bit as craft as anyone else,” says Marti, who takes the setback in stride. “We’ve been through worse. Prohibition was not fun.”

A Crafty Move
The story of craft beer is often presented as David downing Goliath with a slingshot full of hops. Turns out it was a pretty smart tactic.

The Reagan era and a health fad ushered in low-cal beers, with Spuds McKenzie stoking a party-hearty thirst. Flavor lost ground to frosty refreshment, and brands’ sole distinguishing characteristics were advertising campaigns. “There were beers, and then there we were with these weird beers,” says Notch’s Lohring, who cut his teeth at Boston’s Tremont Brewery. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam and Brooklyn Lager were odd ducks adrift in a pilsner pond.

Strange birds attract attention, and over time, craft brew clawed out a small perch. As a retort, big brewers rolled out the likes of all-malt Miller Reserve, Coors Eisbock and Red Wolf Lager. None had quite the impact of SandLot Brewery, which opened in 1995 at Coors’ namesake Denver ballpark. Fittingly, the breakout hit was developed at the field. Brewer Keith Villa had just returned to Denver after garnering his brewing Ph.D. from the University of Brussels. Smitten by Belgian styles, he created the uncommonly hazy, orange-driven Bellyslide Belgian Wit. “Fans fell in love,” he says, “We knew we were onto something.”

For the next decade, the beer that became Blue Moon Belgian White was hand-sold from market to market—a craft-beer origin story to its core. “I would drop off boxes of oranges and cutting boards at bars, and tell bartenders about how garnishing with an orange would bring out the orange peel used to brew the beer,” Villa says.

In the late ’90s, I visited a Boulder dive bar where the beer selections were basically Lager A or Lager B. Bored, we bought a pitcher of new-to-us Blue Moon. It was smooth, citrusy and seriously easy drinking. Around me, fellow twenty-somethings happily consumed the cloudy curiosity. For many drinkers, I imagine Blue Moon was a gateway to a flavorful galaxy of beer. Today, a witbier; tomorrow, an IPA. “We’re proud to have invited countless drinkers into the world of craft and to have been a driving force in craft’s growth,” Villa says.

For craft brewers, Blue Moon and ABI’s Shock Top are a mixed blessing. On one hand, they can crack markets wide open. For the first 12 years that Portland, Maine–based Allagash Brewing made the Belgian-style White, the brewery couldn’t give it away, founder Rob Tod told me a few years back. “We were banging our heads against the wall.”

A turning point was the national success of Blue Moon, which invested advertising dollars and resources on making a hazy beer both acceptable and mainstream. Conversely, megabrewers’ marketing muscle and deep pocketbooks can be intimidating to smaller brewers. “The big guys have been playing around with our segment for the past 30 years,” Hindy said at the talk this spring. “Now they’re playing hardball in our segment. It’s a compliment, but it’s also a challenge.”

The Brewers Association is responding by presenting the argument as “craft versus crafty.” Martin House Brewing’s Pretzel Stout? Craft. Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat? Crafty. The difference isn’t the ingredient list—it’s ownership. “There are times when people talk about Blue Moon or Shock Top and they don’t understand that large brewers own them,” Gatza explains of identifying breweries that are less forthcoming about provenance. “The consumer has a right to know.”

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, my corner stores are plastered with posters touting “Craft beer sold here!” The listed brands regularly include Goose Island, Blue Moon, Shock Top and even Corona. Is it time to call in the marketing police? “Legally, anyone can call themselves whatever they want,” Gatza says. “We don’t define craft beer, we define craft brewer.”

Quality Control
In the early days of America’s brewing revival, quality was a key issue. Subpar brews, combined with bad business plans and fickle consumer tastes, burst the late-’90s bubble. Survivors doubled down on quality. Better beer helped them grow bottom lines, revenues in turn reinvested in labs and superior equipment. “From a quality assurance standpoint, being big has allowed us to do things that being small did not,” Widmer says. “Our beer’s quality goes up every single day.”

With more than 3,000 craft breweries in America, and nearly 2,000 more in planning stages, quality and consistency are again a concern. Making a beer once is simple; making it 100 times is tricky. “If you are starting a brewery,” Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele said at this spring’s Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, “please, for God’s sake, hire someone who knows what they’re doing.”

A bad craft beer, whether from a garage nanobrewery or national brand, can reflect on everyone. It’s the downside of Davids banding together. “People who put out substandard beer affect all of us,” New Belgium’s Jordan says, recounting a recent visit to a new brewery with forgettable beer. “Collectively, we own this brand of craft brewing.”

Maintaining impeccable standards is all the more urgent given craft brewing’s looming threat to mainstream beer. If you want to discuss unimpeachable quality, then you talk about ABI and MillerCoors: calling their beers lousy is a popular sport for craft hard-liners, but that misses the mark. “Their beers are not crappy,” Jordan says. “They make some of the most technically excellent and consistent beers in the world.” Imagine if they applied their considerable resources to the craft sector?

These massive brewing ships are already charting a new course. At last year’s Great American Beer Festival, MillerCoors won eight medals, including an award for SandLot as the large brewery of the year. Moreover, the company’s AC Golden division releases highly regarded sour beers, plus a pleasantly hoppy IPL—an of-the-moment India pale lager. ABI is uncorking Budweiser variants like the Dry Hopped Coastal Pilsner, while February saw the first new Busch offshoot in 15 years, Signature Copper Lager.

Then there’s the runaway success of the Shock Top family of wheat beers, which sprung from a seasonal release concocted by brewmaster Florian Kuplent, who sits in a unique position. Sure, he helped develop Shock Top’s precursor, Spring Heat Spiced Wheat, but he also left the company to launch St. Louis’ Urban Chestnut. And wouldn’t you know it: the Bud vet’s bestseller is Zwickel, an unfiltered Bavarian-style lager. Crafty becomes craft—not that Kuplent cares for the term. “To the person drinking beer, ‘craft beer’ is somewhat meaningless,” Kuplent says. “The local approach and being a part of the community are more important, but it’s also about making good beer.”

Flavor. Quality. A local, not a multinational, approach. Those sound like fine principles to describe the modern beer movement. For the foreseeable future, though, “craft” will be sticking around. Like an Internet meme, craft beer has gone viral. London, Berlin, Auckland, Beijing: everywhere you travel, you’ll find a self-proclaimed craft brewery. “We don’t define craft for other countries,” Gatza says. “I was always under the opinion that brewers in their own countries would find their own word to describe what they are doing.”

What these brewers are accomplishing is shaking each country out of its drinking doldrums. Craft beer is not on a divine crusade to kill American lagers—“They are part of our culture and our fabric, and they will always be there,” Schell’s Marti says. “There’s a time and place for every beer.”

Instead, “craft” is shorthand for taste and freedom. Want to make a strong ale with mangos and habaneros, or a porter with smoked pig skulls? Founders Brewing (Mango Magnifico) and Right Brain Brewery (Mangalitsa Pig Porter) did. Craft says anything is possible. No one eats meatloaf for dinner every night. The days of one drinker, one brand are dwindling. Beer is an endlessly thrilling smorgasbord. Call it craft. Call it crafty. Or maybe, just maybe, simply call it beer.

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