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What The Hell Does Craft Beer Mean Anyways? A New Definition Arises…

As I get ready to head to Washington DC for the first SAVOR festival, sponsored by the Brewers Association, I’ve been reflecting on the state of the industry and the meaning of American Craft Beer Week, which starts today. In the last several years, brewers, industry insiders, beer lovers, and others have debated the true meaning of the term ‘craft beer.’ The debate has at times been very contentious, and it continues to split the beer community into increasingly small, if quiet factions. To hear the history of how this term came to be, from the earliest usage by writer Vince Cottone to the politicalization by the Brewers Association, is to behold quiet a tale. And it also should serve to confuse and upset you a little bit.

I’m itching at this scab because my friends Todd and Jason Alstrom over at have released their own definition of craft beer. Their definition, which for disclosure sake I had a hand in debating, goes a long way, in my opinion, to rectifying many of the divisive problems needlessly created by the overly political definition propagated by the Brewers Association.
For the purpose of context, let’s review the Brewers Association’s definition of craft brewer.

An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional.

Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

This is the definition that many of the Brewers Association insiders have touted for several years now. The first time I heard it was from Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company. When he told it to me in an interview in 2005, this is how Koch defined craft beer.

ANDY CROUCH What does the term ‘craft beer’ mean?

JIM KOCH There is actually a definition. It is small, independent and traditional. Small meaning it is under two million barrels, independent meaning not owned by a big brewery, and traditional meaning you only use traditional brewing processes. No non-traditional adjuncts, no high gravity brewing and so forth.

And here illustrates a problem with the definition of craft brewer as set by the Brewers Association: it’s inherently malleable. It’s subject to revision and indeed has been quietly changed since its introduction.

Fast forward to 2008 and here is how the growing Boston Beer Company now defines craft brewer.

Samuel Adams® is proud to be an American Craft Brewer. An American Craft Brewer is defined as being Small, Independent and Traditional. We follow the Brewers Associations definition of a Craft Brewer but include a Craft Brewer who grows beyond two million barrels and continues to brew Craft Beer. We hope to be the first Craft Brewer to reach this threshold. Here is what we mean by “Craft Brewer”:

Small – Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria.

Independent – Less than 25% of the Craft Brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a Craft Brewer.

Traditional – A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewery’s brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

I’ve written at length about the problems I have with the Brewers Association’s definition of and attempted co-option of the term ‘craft brewer’ and the criticisms remain to the present day. At the heart of my critique is that the term suggests that if you qualify under the definition, that you per se make good beer. That is simply not true. And the two million barrel mark, even with its genesis in federal tax law, is also troubling as several smaller brewers are quietly attempting to use it to push Boston Beer out of the craft clubhouse. At least for me, I think it’s an uphill argument to convince beer enthusiasts that Boston Beer should not qualify as a craft brewer. That attitude simply smacks of competitive jealousy or a decidedly myopic view of the history of the development of better beer in the last twenty-five years and Boston Beer’s clear role in that achievement.

It is in this context, and in those described by myself and many others in dozens of articles on the subject, that I welcome BeerAdvocate’s new definition, not only of craft brewer, but more importantly of craft beer. Under their definition, smaller breweries can maintain their determined efforts to define themselves as being something other than that which is represented by the big three (and their subsidiary breweries) while also not decrying the considerable brewing efforts and talents of the bigger breweries. Let’s take a look at the simple definitions offered by BeerAdvocate.

Craft Beer

Beer brewed in limited quantities, often using traditional methods.

Craft Brewer

One whose primary focus is brewing craft beer, as defined.

In contrast to the unduly restrictive (and largely political) definitions offered by the Brewers Association, the BeerAdvocate definitions are left intentionally vague in several respects. The Brewers Association originally created its definitions to help refine the numbers in its annual production reports. Later, the definition came to shape that particular organization’s vision and advocacy efforts on behalf of its selected members. This simple definition alleviates a lot of the political purposes served by the prior definitions and allows ‘craft beer’ to grow unencumbered by unnecessary and needless constraints. While the Brewers Association may believe it makes sense to exclude the gains of brands such as MolsonCoors’ Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat from its numbers, the exclusion undersells the full extent of the rise of more flavorful beer in America. And it also undersells and debases the efforts of some pioneering breweries, including Redhook, Widmer, Goose Island, and Old Dominion. I still maintain that in a blind tasting that hardcore beer enthusiasts would be hard pressed to pick out the big brewer’s brands from those produced by members of the craft brewer’s club.

I welcome and accept BeerAdvocate’s new definitions and I look forward to discussing them with my fellow beer lovers this week in DC as we celebrate the success of true ‘craft beer’ in America.

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3 thoughts on “What The Hell Does Craft Beer Mean Anyways? A New Definition Arises…

  1. Not that I’m trying to plug my own site, but I think this is a fascinating issue and have dealt with it a few times (

    For my $.02, I don’t think the BA definition is any better.

    Why does there HAVE to be limited quantity? It seems to me that the primary recognition of a “craft” brewery is quality and art over quantity. But one can have that focus and still HAVE quantity. Granted the two don’t typically align, there’s no reason why they can’t.

    In speaking with most “craft” brewers, the “limited quantity” is less because they have some high-minded notion of keeping their beer rare, than that they can’t financially support releasing higher quantities.

    So, what’s “limited quantities”? 20000 bbls? 50000? 100000? 1 mil? 2 mil? 5 mil? And why that number over any other number? That’s why I think it’s better to just have a definition that exists irrespective of quantity or ownership.

  2. The limited quantities portion is an important way to differentiate between the market dominating products of of larger brewers and their smaller releases. BeerAdvocate defines this term to mean: “Limited Quantities – Refers to the volume of production per brand against the industry as a whole. To apply a specific volume would be arbitrary and subject to change, as fails to take shifts in industry volumes into consideration.”

    When things reach a point that Blue Moon outsells Coors Light, then we may not have a need for either definition any more…

  3. So a market dominating product can never be a craft beer? They are mutually exclusive? I just don’t buy that that is inherently true.

    I think “craft” is more of an evaluation of the quality of the product and the care in designing and making it.

    That quality and quantity don’t happen to correlate is more of a function of business than the nature of the beer ITSELF. And the phrase is “craft beer” not “craft business”.

    Moreover, a definition that excludes quantity in its entirety wouldn’t need to be revised “when things reach a point that Blue Moon outsells Coors Light” – Blue Moon either is, or is not, a craft beer. And how much they sell of it shouldn’t have any bearing on it.

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