By Joel Hueston
As a brewery consultant, the question I get most frequently is, “Hey, what is craft beer anyway? What’s the definition?” It’s a really good question. The answer is subjective, and I certainly have my own opinions. I decided to do some digging and analysis to see if I could come up with a definition that makes sense and rings true.
So, what is craft beer?
If you visit the Brewer’s Association website, you’ll find that the definition of a craft brewer encompasses many things, including:
- Size: 6 million barrels or less annually
- Ownership: Less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewery
- Ingredients: A majority of its total beverage alcohol volume is in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation
Those categories and definitions are fine, but they don’t capture many of the intangibles that make craft beer such an interesting category.
What’s keeping one of the big guys from making a truly awesome craft product? They have the best equipment, the best brewers, and the best quality control on earth. No one can say with a straight face that the big guys aren’t capable of brewing a great craft beer. Of course they are.
However, their world is based on huge volume. The more you sell, the more revenue you generate to offset those massive overhead costs. Craft brewers want to sell their beer and make money, too, but their modest overhead costs don’t require that kind of tonnage to thrive and survive. They can be more experimental and play around with crazy flavors.
The big guys are targeting session drinkers—the guzzlers who gather around the big screen to watch Monday Night Football—and that’s not really a craft thing. In my opinion, the big guys are capable of brewing a Ballast Point Sculpin or a Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA. They just choose not to because it’s not a priority. It doesn’t pay the bills, and it doesn’t appeal to their customer base.
In my opinion, ownership may or may not be an issue. It all depends on how the relationship is managed. So far, what the big guys have had trouble doing is keeping their little mainstream fingers out of the craft pie and allowing their acquisitions to operate independently without interference. They haven’t been able to leave craft brewers alone to do what they do best: deliver that craft authenticity and attitude that permeates the category. For some reason, all the craft brands acquired by the big guys end up looking shinier, more omnipresent, and more corporate, and therefore much less authentic.
So what about ingredients? Well, they all have access to the same ingredients (unless you believe the big guys really are hoarding all the hops). They use different ingredients to make the products they need for their target consumers. One ingredient is not necessarily better than another. They are just different ingredients for different products that appeal to different consumers. I know some will bring up the purity of the brewing process—such as using additives–but now I think we’re digressing.
I am a self-admitted craft beer lover, but I refuse to be a big-beer basher. I cut my teeth on big beer and quaffed many a Coors Light over the years. In fact, that’s one of the few dynamics in the craft community I don’t buy into at all. Many craft beer supporters say big beer is bad beer. I respectfully disagree. Mainstream is not the kind of beer that craft lovers prefer, but that doesn’t make it bad. A mainstream beer drinker will reject a glass of Pliny The Elder, but does that make it bad?
My journey into craft has probably been similar to yours. I don’t drink as many beers as I used to, so when I do kick back to enjoy one, I want to treat myself. After a lot of sampling over the last few years (hey, I’m a brewery consultant), my palette has evolved to the point where it demands flavor and aroma. At this point, IPAs are my go-to, but I’m open to the odd Imperial Milk Stout or Pale Ale. That doesn’t mean I won’t order a Coors Original on occasion, as a change-of-pace.
Flavor and Attitude
Let’s cut to the chase. I believe the true essence of craft is rooted in flavor and attitude. I am not a trained brewer, but I know great beer and I know average beer, and great craft beer is hard to find. I won’t get into brand names because that gets people riled up, but in my opinion, the list of truly outstanding craft products out there is very short. They all have one thing in common: they smell, taste, and look awesome every single time. I think most people can agree that a final meal of world-class steak would be preferred over a hamburger. That’s how I feel about great craft beer. It’s a treat and a reward.
Now let’s talk about attitude. The craft attitude is many-faceted, but there are a few elements that most craft brewers share. Craft brewers care about their local community, their doors are always wide open, and they help each other out. I love that about craft brewers. They lend each other equipment, they recommend each other’s products, and they brew collaborative beers. The big guys don’t do that.
For the most part, you can drop into a craft taproom anytime to chew the fat and sip a cold one. A lot of the large breweries are like fortresses. Good luck even getting past the reception desk! Then there’s the local community. I’m not saying the big guys don’t care about community, but they are more about manipulation than inspiration. They don’t really do local, and they are more focused on national or global reach. Many craft brewers embrace the local community. They are often skilled philanthropists who give back to the environment and try to make the world a better place. There’s camaraderie among craft brewers and their customers that the big guys just can’t replicate. In this materialistic world, it’s a truly refreshing and inspiring approach.
To me, that’s the definition of craft beer.
Joel Hueston is Director of Commercial Strategy/Brewing Consulting at First Key Consulting in Vancouver, BC. Joel has more than 25 years of experience in the brewing industry. He is the lead instructor for Fundamentals of Craft Beer in the UVM Business of Craft Beer Program.