What is a Craft Brewery? A decade or two ago the answer to this question was a simple one, exemplified by this definition in Wikipedia:
A microbrewery or craft brewery is a brewery that produces a small amount of beer. Exact definitions vary, but the terms are typically applied to breweries that are much smaller than large-scale corporate breweries and are independently owned.
Defining a craft brewery before the turn of the 21st century was much easier because before that time pretty much all the craft breweries were producing a relatively small amount of beer. Fast forward to 2015 and many are making much more beer than in the 20th century, and some quite a lot of beer. In fact, the craft beer industry continues to be the fastest growing segment in the entire US beverage alcohol industry. The evidence is that according to the Brewers Association, in 2014 for the first time ever, craft beer accounted for a double digit share of the total beer market with an 11% volume share of the marketplace (up from 6% in 2012) and growth of the craft brewing industry in 2014 was 18% by volume and 22% by dollars (compared to growth in 2012 of 15% by volume and 17% by dollars).
The Brewers Association has modified its definition over the years, with the current one stating: An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.
It qualifies small as annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (Interestingly, the “small” designation was at less than 2 million, but was increased to 6 million after Sam Adams topped the 2 million mark.);traditional as the majority of the brewery's output consisting of beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation (so no flavored malt beverages); and independent being less than 25% ownership by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer (such as A-B InBev).
The less than 25% ownership qualifier is a major sticking point, as many breweries we always considered craft are no longer completely independent. In the case of companies like Goose Island, Lagunitas, Firestone Walker and several others that have either been bought out or have been invested in by larger companies to help expand their brand, what do we call them?
Amidst criticism from the beer community suggesting smaller breweries were selling out, A-B InBev has increased its ownership of “craft” breweries over the years, as it noticed its share of the market gradually dwindling. Its infamous Budweiser 2015 Super Bowl commercial threw mud on its face as it lampooned beers made the “easy” way, such as a pumpkin-peach ale, a beer which actually existed, Gourdgia On My Mind—a pumpkin peach pecan ale—brewed by Elysian Brewing, a small Seattle-based brewery the behemoth company had purchased just two weeks earlier.
Many brewery owners have recently taken heat for selling off shares of part of their companies or entering into investment partnerships with the big boys, such as Lagunitas. After selling a 50 percent stake to Heineken in order to export his beer internationally, Lagunitas Founder Tony Magee was quoted in an article in ChicagoReader.com by Julie Thiel [http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/tony-magee-in... as saying “the word craft has outlived its usefulness…Craft is what craft does. Who your friends are has less to do with anything than what it is you do. There are a lot of people who feel very strongly that Anheuser-Busch has made Goose Island into a better company. More power to 'em. If you like what you're tasting, rock on.”
The term microbreweries was used previous to the word craft, but as several of those breweries became not so micro anymore the term craft came into use, but its usage still implied small, or smaller than the big boy macro-breweries. The question arises that if a company like Sierra Nevada, which is currently safe at more than a million barrels a year, grows to the point that it is too large to be considered a “craft” brewery, should it and other “craft” breweries be penalized by losing their “craft” designation for their eventual growth once they surpass the magic 6 million barrel mark (or whatever amount it eventually gets expanded to)?
It seems redundant and pointless to keep changing the definition quantifiers as our beloved “craft” breweries continue to grow. Perhaps the industry needs to come up with a new term to describe a beer that is primarily made with basic real beer ingredients of water, hops, barley and yeast that sports ample flavors that appeal to today’s enlightened “artisanal” beer drinker, regardless of that beer’s ownership or production numbers. But even the use of the word “artisanal” is problematic, as it implies a small production. At some point, as the industry continues to grow and possibly one day in the not-too-distant future equals or surpasses the market share of the macro-breweries, we will need to not be as concerned about size and ownership. Most consumers aren’t overly concerned about definitions or qualifications in any aspect other than does the beer taste the way they expect and want it to.
So, what does craft beer mean to you?
Bob Barnes is editorial director of The Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional, regional correspondent for Celebrator Beer News and writes the Top 10 Beer lists for Gayot.com. He welcomes your inquiries and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.