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What exactly is craft beer?


Beer cafe in Tokyo. There are many taps of craft beer.
taketan/Moment/Getty Images
Question: What exactly is craft beer?
Answer: Craft beer is one of those things like hard core pornography. It is difficult to define but we know it when we see it. Craft beer is a term that has come into use primarily as a way to describe what that kind of beer it is not - yellow, fizzy, industrially brewed lager. Contrasting it to the pale lager that floods the beer marketplace is the probably the best way to say what it is.

Why do we need the term at all? Remember back in the '90's when everyone was talking about microbrews? That term commonly meant the same thing that craft beer does today. But then somebody had to go and look it up. Microbrewery is a legal term and specifically defines how many barrels of beer that a brewery can make. For example, Missouri Liqour Control Law, Section 311.195 restricts a microbrewery to ten thousand barrels or less per year. That is fairly limiting and the industry soon realized that many of our favorite new brewers were graduating beyond that point so to continue to call the kind of beer we liked microbrew was imprecise. And, as you know, beer geeks are still geeks and geeks hate imprecision.

We needed a new term. That is when "craft beer" came into use. It was a good term because it was not legally restrictive and we all knew what it was, or at least what it was not.

Then the Brewers Association defined it.

I like the Brewers Association. They have done a lot for the cause of good beer in the US. Besides their annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the Brewers Association helps new breweries with advice and resources. They help growing breweries to build their business and even export beer to other countries. The Association regularly publishes great beer books about brewing and beer styles as well as reporting on the state of the industry.

According to their website, the Brewers Association's purpose is "to promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts." In order to do so, craft beer had to be defined. Again, from the website, a craft brewer is "small, independent and traditional." Still a pretty soft definition, right?

We will set independent and traditional aside and focus on small. Once again, barrels per year must be counted. The association went with a number that seemed reasonably out of reach, two million. That number also happened to coincide with Federal tax code, brewers making less than two million barrels a year got a break on their taxes as a small business growth incentive.

You can probably see the next step coming. A craft brewer grew beyond that two million barrel mark. Boston Brewing Company, maker of the Samuel Adams line of beers, peaked over the line in 2010. So, now, craft beer suddenly small means six million barrels to the Association.

I really do not care about that. The Association has a mission and if moving that line helps them to accomplish I say let them.

My problem is with the term itself. Why should we qualify the beer we like craft, micro, boutique, specialty or any other word? In doing so, we create a subcategory making it secondary or less than the rest of the beer out there. What about those beers that cannot fit that category but are still good? I like Guinness. But, there is no way that it can fit in the same box as the beer made at my local brewpub. It is owned by a multinational liquor company and can hardly be called "handcrafted." It is still good beer.

Then there are beers that easily fit the craft beer mold. A brewer can be small, traditional and independent and still make bad beer. Trust me on this, I've tasted a lot of them. Somehow, they are better appreciated because they are craft brewers but they still brew bad beer.

Without the term, though, how do we talk about the phenomenon? The "craft beer revolution" does not make much sense if it has called the beer revolution.

I think drinker education is the answer and it is happening. It is becoming more and more common to find that average beer drinkers - the non-geek kind, I mean - to know a handful of beer styles and to have at least some experience with them. For now, I guess we need to keep using the phrase craft beer but, I look forward to seeing that when a dude orders a beer in a bar that he then has to specify the style.

Check out some craft beers at a beer festival near you:

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