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What is craft beer?


Craft beer in small tasting glasses awaiting delivery to customers
Fumiaki Yamazaki/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Question: What is craft beer?
Answer: Remember back in the nineties when beer brewed by small, independent brewers was called microbrew? It seems kind of odd that the name fell away. It was a great little word that perfectly described the new kind of breweries that were gaining market share back then. Everyone knew exactly what it meant and that we could expect innovative and exciting beer that came to us with the microbrew name attached to it.

The word fell mostly out of use for a couple of reasons. First, it is actually a legal term that precisely describes breweries of specific sizes in the US. To be considered a microbrewery, a brewery had to produce a limited number of barrels of beer, a very limited number. Second, the term just stopped making sense as “micro”-breweries like Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) and Sierra Nevada with national distribution and plenty of brand recognition simply stopped being micro.

Then another term arose, craft beer. Originally, I quite liked this term. It seemed generic enough but absolutely perfect in describing the sort of beer that I liked, beer that is crafted instead of manufactured. I’m not sure who coined the phrase but Brewers Association made it their own by precisely defining it. A craft brewer, they tell us on their website, is one that is small, independent and traditional.

Small is where this definition really gets to me. Once again, we’re tying a brewery’s ability to brew our kind of beer to its size. Worse yet, that number of barrels brewed per year happened to be the same as a tax bracket that the federal government uses to determine how much a brewery pays in business taxes. While the Brewers Association’s number was never formally tied to the government’s number, that I’m aware of, it seemed to give the impression that, like microbrewery, craft brewery was a legal definition.

Once again, small doesn’t really seem to count with breweries like those named above even though they are part of the Brewers Association. In fact, one of those breweries recently brewed more barrels than the prescribed number and the Brewers Association changed it’s definition.

Also, who’s to say that a big brewer can’t make good beer? I realize that craft beer doesn’t necessarily equal good beer but that is certainly the impression that I get from it.

I don’t mean to be hard on the Brewers Association. I actually quite like the organization; it has done a lot to improve the beer scene in the US. And, I even understand why they felt the need to define craft beer this way. As an advocacy group, they have to clearly define what it is they are advocating. Even though we all know what microbrew or craft brew means, defining it exactly is a little tough to do.

So, what’s a hair-splitting writer like me to do? I’ve tried to avoid using craft beer when I talk about this category of beer but that’s very hard to do. Much of the time, I find that I can substitute good beer for craft beer but that seems too generic in certain cases. Well-brewed beer is too clunky and just using the word beer doesn’t always make the distinction that I want to make.


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