Craft Beer: An Enigma

Craft Beer: An Enigma Cover Photo

When it comes to explaining craft beer to our dear friends who prefer the underwhelming taste of mass-produced, adjunct-ridden commercial excuses-for-beer, we can stumble upon a lack of words or, more often than not, too many words that unintentionally sound pretentious. We have all seen the infamous commercial that portrays the craft beer lover as a snooty, quasi-educated hipster. However, most of us are just lovers of a beer that offers us an experience—an experience of a full-bodied ale or an aromatic IPA.

Communicating our passion for craft beer can be difficult, we begin using words like “roasted coffee,” “tropical fruits,” and “cracked peppercorn”—which at times are just as unhelpful as talking about decoction mashes and mixed-fermentation. Sure, we know the lingo, but do our friends? How can we determine and describe what craft beer is in a straightforward way? Sure, we can say that craft beer is hand-made, small batch brewed, local, or privately owned, but these descriptors don’t quite delineate what a craft beer is.

To talk about craft beer, we first need to talk about where it comes from: a craft brewery.

Lagunitas DayTime Ale, Goose Island Beer The Muddy, and Ballast Point Big Eye IPA.The Brewer’s Association provides 3 marks of what defines a craft brewery. First, craft breweries are small; a craft brewery cannot produce more than 6 million barrels of beer a year (roughly 186,000,000 gallons of beer a year). Second, a beverage producer that is not a craft brewery cannot exceed 25% ownership of a craft brewery. This of course begs the question, now what do we consider about Ballast Point, Goose Island and Lagunitas who all produce what is considered quality, craft beer? But, that is for another time. Third, craft breweries use traditional, yet innovative, methods of brewing and ingredients to achieve the majority of a beer’s alcohol in volume (sorry “Flavored Malt Beverages”). Craft breweries are independent and traditional, yet innovatively distinct producers of small-batch beer.

Finding the Craft Beer Definition

In this case, the chicken comes before the egg—you need a craft brewery in order to have craft beer (to state the obvious).  If you search “What is craft beer?” 10 out of 10 times you only get the definition of a craft brewery. We understand what parameters make a brewery “craft,” but what makes craft beer “craft?” It is too simple to say, “Craft beer is beer brewed by a Craft Brewery.” A few years ago, it was easy to draw the lines between craft and non-craft. In this way, we could at least say what craft beer is not.

For example, most macrobreweries produce what is called an American Adjunct Lager—a light lager with a lot of rice syrup solids, which is utilized as a highly fermentable sugar. The American Adjunct Lager is exactly what craft breweries are revolting against. So, some craft brewers protested that adjuncts in beer are not acceptable in craft beer. This distinction too was blurred, since adjuncts, in the technical sense, being anything fermentable besides malted barley (e.g. flaked oats, wheat, molasses, maize, etc.), are used in craft beers all the time (e.g., check out Stillwater’s Readymade: Projector, an Imperial IPA brewed with flaked rice). We just don’t like when someone uses adjuncts to cut costs.

Craft beer bottle and glass of beer with heart.We can at least say that we love craft beer because it has more flavors. We don’t care if the beer has adjuncts or not, just make sure they are all-natural and accentuate the flavor or body of the beer. We love the bold, daring flavors of craft beer and we love the subtle, stable flavors of craft beer. We love a traditional style craft beer that is exemplary and we love a craft beer that breaks all the rules only to still taste great. Even when a craft beer is extremely “creative”, while utterly failing, that brewery will always get another chance.

However, what happens when one of our favorite breweries is bought out by a large macrobrewery?

As of late, this has been happening all the more. Do you remember the recent $1 Billion investment/buyout of Ballast Point? Although Ballast Point is still managed by its original team, the brewery is now owned by Constellation Brands, which is a corporation that owns many different wines, spirits and beer (e.g., Corona). The Brewers Association’s definition necessary excludes Ballast Point as a craft brewery now. This would mean some of our staple favorites, like Sculpin IPA and Dorado DIPA, are no longer considered craft beers. Also, Lagunitas is now 50% owned by Heineken. Which begs the question: can a non-craft brewery produce craft beer? Maybe; maybe not.

The Brewers Association distinguishes between “crafty” and “craft”:

Many non-standard, non-light “crafty” beers found in the marketplace today are not labeled as products of large breweries. So when someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it’s from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it’s made by SABMiller. …The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking.

The main distinction here is that craft beer pursues authenticity in its marketing.

Friends holding craft beer and smiling. In other words, it has no reason to claim to be what it is not. Perhaps, since defining craft beer would be all too exclusive, this is exactly what attracts us to craft beer—authenticity. Craft beer is brewed by those tied to a community, those who have a story connected to those around them, and by those who want to stay true to their craft. The only person that can define craft beer is the one holding it in their hand. Drink whatever craft beer you love and we will all keep fumbling around what craft beer actually is.

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