The definition of craft beer


There is seemingly no craft beer debate more constant–and arguably more annoying–than the ongoing debate over the meaning of the word “craft.”

Every few months or so since 2005, when the board of the Brewers Association first voted to draft a definition of what a “craft brewer” is, it seems like the debate again rears its ugly head on twitter or on the blogosphere and we are treated to a now-familiar littany of opinions from beer writers, websites, advocates, brewers, and bar stool pontificators on what exactly “craft beer” means and whether or not we even need such a term.

Local beer blogging’s resident grumpy old man, Alan McLeod, got me thinking about this frustrating debate again earlier this week when he brought the topic up in a post about the similarly elusive quest to define craft beer’s looming (or is it?) “bubble.”

In his quick revisit of the “craft” debate that has enjoyed renewed vigor since the BA began arbirtrarily changing its definition so that Samuel Adams continues to meet the terms, McLeod ultimatley reasons that “[The word]” now includes so much meaning – so many meanings – that it no longer has little specific meaning.”

McLeod also touched on the thoughts of famed spirits writer Lew Bryson, who in a recent interview pleaded “Just call it beer. It’s beer,” and McLeod likewise revisits a 2014 Toronto Sun piece by his occasional co-author, the esteemed Jordan St. John Esq., who landed on a similar conclusion when he opined that ““Craft beer” has served its purpose as an idea and we need to move past it.”

And so it is not without due respect to these and the many other beer experts who have asked rhetorically “who can define craft beer” that I say to them today: Well, I can.

Because here’s the thing, for all our belly-aching that the term “craft” has become as meaningless as a term as the god-awful food descriptor “artisinal” it really isn’t that difficult to nail down as a concept.

For one thing, it’s fairly easy to see what we mean when we say “craft” because we all seem to agree, unoffically, on what craft beer is not.

For starters we can likely all agree that craft beer is not big beer. In all our myriad interpretations, we seem to be ready to accept that “craft beer” is not a product created by those mega-companies that create profit-driven, easy-to-drink watery beer. We all likely already use “craft beer” as a convenient shorthand to differentiate the stuff from mass-brewed industrial lagers when we’re in bars and among drinking friends, right? That part seems easy enough.

But I will suggest that craft beer is also not, for example, a signifier of “good beer.” Mainly because what the hell does that even mean? My idea of good beer is certainly not always going to be yours, and vice versa.

Craft beer is also most certainly not a synonym for “well made” beer, because, again, what the hell does that mean? For all its faults, it would be tough to argue that Budweiser, for example, is not “well made.” The end result may taste of beachwood-aged liquid marketing, but surely each batch of Budweiser is executed with precision to deliver a remarkably consistent product that is inarguably “well made.” Yet even someone with massive head trauma inflicted by a Clydesdale’s hoof would give pause to calling the King of Beers “craft beer.”

So while we may want it to be a signifier of “quality,” it is largely impossible for craft beer to be defined by how “good” it tastes or how “well made” it is.

You still with me?

Because here comes the hard part: The term “craft beer” is also not a signifier that the liquid in your bottle or can was brewed with a special kind of passion enjoyed only by those who embrace making beer for the sheer love of brewing. In other words, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, dear craft beer evangellical readers, but “craft beer” as a philosophical ethos is almost entirely bullshit.

And take a minute with this, because it might be the biggest stumbling block we’ve had to defining this term: Those who would seek to define craft beer seem largely to be those who want to attribute some mythical, holier-than-thou quality to their beverage that infers the intent of the person who brewed it as wholly removed from things like “profit margins,” “running a business,” or “making enough money to eat food.” And if that is our definition, we’re likely left mostly with just homebrew and, with apologies to your last pumpkin-spiced Okoberfest garage marzen, no one really wants to just drink homebrew.

So if we abandon these romantic notions, and see that “craft beer” is not really an intention, a philosophy, or a level of quality, we can see it is quite simply a handy signifier of a category; and thus quite easy to define.

So (finally) I’ll do just that. Here’s my proposal for the definition of craft beer:

Craft beer is beer brewed in small quanitities by independent companies.

And because people will clearly nitpick, here are my working definitions of the terms packed within:

I’ll first define beer per the Oxford Canadian dictionary as: an alcoholic drink made from yeast-fermented malt etc., flavored with hops.

I’ll define small quantities as: Small, comparitively speaking, in reference to the brewing industry in Canada as a whole. Let’s put that at the fairly-large 2010 BA cutoff of two million barrels, meaning Canada’s largest craft brewer, Big Rock, still comes in well under the definition of a craft brewer (and still will after they commence their Ontario operations).

I’ll define independent per the BA as well because that seems as good a definition as any: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery shall be owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

So there you have it. Craft beer defined.

Some things worth noting: You’ll likely note that I have opted to drop all reference to how beer is made. This is because, frankly, who gives a shit how beer is made? Traditional, experimental, automated, hand-made, blah blah blah. Advances in technology mean that the way beer is made is bound to change often, so why limit craft brewers in the way they are allowed to make craft beer? If you’re making your beer using robots that run on kitten blood, under my definition above, you can still be called craft beer.

I also purposly left in the “etc” from the Canadian Oxford definition of beer because I like the way it leaves some wiggle room. The BA used to require that brewers use only barley malt for their flagship beer, rather than rice or corn. They have lifted this requirement, and I too feel like the Canadian definition of Craft Beer shall allow such additives and any others with the inclusion of “etc” above.

I’m sure there will be a conversation about my proposed definition (indeed, that might even be a welcomed by-product of this post given that voting for the Best Beer Writer in Ontario at the 2016 Golden Tap Awards has just opened) but I honestly don’t think this is a bad a working definition.

Yes, this definition means that a shitty, contract-brewed beer made on a fully automated system can be craft beer while the boutique, small batch brewery making beer traditionally but that is actually owned by Molson or Labatt is not craft, but I’m really OK with that. “Craft beer” can still mean something. But we just need to accept that, yes, craft beer can be shitty, just as *gasp* large breweries can occasionally make something that tastes good.

11 thoughts on “The definition of craft beer

  1. This nicely eschews the dog’s breakfast the BA made of “traditional” by making “traditional” mean “innovative and traditional” which includes “everything” and is therefore “codswallop.”

    I am basically in favor of the idea that small, independent breweries have no monopoly on quality. However, for products of equal quality, the benefit to the consumer of buying a local product where the profits stay in the community is greater. Do yourself a favour and buy a craft beer. Your profits won’t be extracted to please shareholders on a quarterly basis.

  2. A coupla’ rambling thoughts: I would rather have my local brewery owned by another brewery than venture capitalists or banks…perhaps that is just me. I agree the word ‘craft’ is so hollow now that it approaches meaninglessness.

    I embrace technology in my brewing, but I resist certain things….things like exogenous enzymes, fining agents, drinking beer from plastic, pasteurization when not necessary, etc…..again, that is perhaps just me. I would not define myself by these things.

    I resist labels and boxes. I do my own thing. I make good, balanced, drinkable beer for my patrons. I think about not just the company I work for, but as much for my consumers. This is my job. I am a brewmaster. I make beer the way I want to encounter it in an ideal world according to my own perceptions and tastes. I will not defend that nor will I judge others in the pursuit of their product and the practice of their craft. Why would I? If I don’t like your beer, I won’t drink it. Seems quite simple to me.

    I drink local because it means a lot to my community and fresh beer is most often better. I have no particular desire to buy my bread from a couple of thousand kilometers away. What could be the point of that?…

    Well done…you really engaged me on that. Well said skipper. Thanks for your provocation. I hope it further resonates. The topic begs discussion.

    1. Yes. I know it might be difficult to lump, say, Bellwoods Brewery or Stone City Ales into the same category as folks who really just put a can wrapper on Great Lakes Lager, but, for me, if “craft” is to mean anything, it really needs to be about size and independence. Policing craft brewers based on our beliefs and ideals, their intent, etc. is pretty difficult.

      Unless you’re a blogger, of course.

      (Or we could just add an asterisk for contract beers: Craft beer*)

  3. All decent points, I do believe people care about who makes their beer and why they make it, but those things do not necessarily make the beer ‘good’ because being a “Craft beer” does not = being a ‘Good beer’, which should really be subjective and a matter of personal taste. Being ‘Craft’ or ‘Independent’ should mean something concrete so those who pretend to be something they are not (small, local, independent, whatever) could still be good to may people, but quite clearly deceptive in their other claims.

    But most of all, what the words CRAFT or anything else stand for and the approach brewers take, should be clearly defined and articulated by the brewers themselves (or even their ‘association’ if one ever was to emerge from the shadows….).

  4. Finally someone else said what I’ve been saying about a big brewery and “craft”: it takes skill or “craft” to turn out that stuff consistently. That and the fact that a lot of “craft” beer is not good have been the reasons I hate the term “craft” beer.
    I’m with the person who said “just call it beer.” That said, if we are stuck with the term, then your definition is a good one.
    Now kill the term “session” beer.

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