I read this article recently and it got me thinking again about what is “craft” about craft beer. In an earlier post, I said that I believe “craft” is about how and why something is made, rather than who it is made by; I still believe that.
My day job is in an industry that sometimes seems to thrive on splitting hairs over semantics and being overly pedantic about terminology. However, every once in a while, we get to a point where it makes an actual difference. I think the craft beer industry may be at that point, at least in the United States.
More and more craft brands are being gobbled up by the major producers. Yes, there are many that think the craft brewers are selling out and being traitors to the cause; that may or may not be the case, but this isn’t what this post is about.
I believe that it’s time to distinguish between “craft” brewers and “independent” brewers. The U.S. based Brewers Association defines craft breweries as independent businesses that produce less than 12 million kegs of beer annually. So, according to their definition, an independent brewer using the same methods and ingredients as AB InBev to produce less than 12,000,000 kegs of knock-off Bud Light (or is it Lite?) would be considered a craft brewer. And if someone like your favourite craft brewer produced more than 11,999,999 kegs they would no longer be considered craft, purely based on production. That’s just stupid.
It’s time that we add some clarity to the definitions of “craft brewer”, “independent brewer”, and “small brewer”. I threw that last one in because of the 12million keg thing and because the Alberta Small Brewers Association considers a brewer “small” if they produce less than 700,000 hectolitres.
Craft Brewer – it’s really about the ingredients used and how the beer is made. I think adjuncts for flavouring are fine, but not for reducing costs or increasing margins. Automation has no bearing on whether a brewer is craft or not. Automation helps ensure quality and consistency, which all of us (consumers and producers) want.
Independent Brewer – so we know that if the brewer is a brand / subsidiary of AB Inbev, Molson Coors, Diageo, et al, they’re not independent. But what if there’s a parent company that’s an umbrella for some small, craft breweries? Can those still be considered independent? Take a look at Bear Hill Brewing, for example. How would you categorize them?
Small Brewer – pick your annual production limit and off you go. What if the brewer is under the threshold, but is a brand of one of the macro brewers? Can they still be considered small? Whose production counts; the brewer or the “family” to which they may belong?
I bring this whole thing up because a schism about craft brewers and perceived sell-outs is evident, and if you’re going to take a stand it’s probably a good idea to have some clear definitions. I’m not for a minute suggesting that I’m an authority on defining what craft is, what independent is, or what small is, but, as respected beer educator Kirk Bodnar pointed out the night I became CAMRA Alberta President (another post coming up), what makes the Brewers Association the authority? I had this post running around in my head for a while, but it was really the conversation with Kirk, who brought up the automation angle, that convinced me it was worth writing.
I’d love to get your thoughts about this topic. Feel free to comment directly on the post or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, I’m still going to enjoy the occasional Lagunitas IPA even if I do refer to them as Laguneken in my head.