So what is a craft beer?
It’s a topic that has a lot of people’s knickers in a knot these days. And ironically, the driver behind the controversy is the success craft brewers have been having. Some have been so successful that, the argument goes, they’re too big to be craft. Others have been bought - totally or partially - by the big boys, which, according to the Brewers Association, makes their product ineligible to be called craft beer. There’s a bill in Congress involving taxation on breweries that would likely kick Sam Adams out of the club because of size.
But, really, what makes a craft beer ‘craft’? As much as anything, I’m afraid, it’s perception and, as much as I hate to say it, snobbery. Sam Adams still makes some terrific beers – but many craft fans don’t consider it craft anymore because it’s easy to get and the guy next to you at the bar (who obviously doesn’t understand the intricacies of beer the way you do) might be drinking one. Well, I’ve been to the small brewery in Boston where they develop their beers and what I found was a handful of talented folks throwing grain by hand and founder Jim Koch deciding when a beer is right.
Yes, the beers are then mass-produced elsewhere. But does a sophisticated production line rule you out? The brew house at Stone was one of the most automated I’ve ever seen, yet founder Greg Koch says, if anything, it made their beer just a little cleaner. And nobody questions Stone's place in the craft world.
And then there’s the ownership question. Some craft brands have clearly gone downhill after being bought. Others have not. And what about partial ownership? The Brewers Association guidelines say that, to be defined as a craft brewery, less than 25% of the company can be owned or controlled by a non-craft entity. Well, late last year Founders announced it had sold a thirty percent stake to Spanish brewing conglomerate Mahou San Miguel. So, even though most craft beer fans consider Founders to be one of America’s best craft breweries, technically it isn’t one. And any tiny startup brewery run by an eager home brewer who doesn’t yet have the hang of consistently producing great beer is a craft brewery.
Perhaps our definition should change. What I’m looking for isn’t craft beer, it’s great beer. By any name.
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