What, exactly, is craft beer?

Posted by Kelly KFM Meyer on Sep 22nd 2019

There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.-Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator

Humans love to categorize, compartmentalize and shove things in convenient little boxes. It’s part of our ancient wiring and we do it like a reflex, many times without even realizing it. So it’s no wonder that we feel the need to define what is, and is not, ‘craft beer’ like the new amphipod found in the Antarctic Ocean. Google ‘what is craft beer?’ and buckle up.

The Brewer’s Association says that to be a craft brewer you have to make less than 3,500,000 gallons of beer per week. Your owners can own a bunch of other breweries and be billionaires from other businesses but 75% of your ownership can’t be part of breweries that produce 3.5 million gallons of beer each week. 

For reference, a 15 barrel brewhouse is a popular size for small brewers. To hit 3.5 million gallons they would have to brew 8,100 times each week. A feat that would actually take a 15BBL brewhouse 5 and a half years to hit running 24/7.

The US Congress has a bill introduced in February, 2019 and working its way through the bureaucracy that would set three production-based definitions. One at 3.5 million gallons per week, one at 1.2 million gallons and one at 35,000. By the way, 2018 craft beer volume divided by the number of craft brewers gives us an average of 2000 gallons per week.

The bill also attempts to define craft wine and craft cider in a similar way.

If you’ve ever toured a brewery, and the Alexander Hamilton tucked under the register at my brewery says you have, then you can imagine the difference between these production levels. A facility designed to make 225,000 kegs each week is vastly different than one like mine that only owns 800 kegs. On a good week we put beer in 2400 bottles while that brewery fills and sells 833,000 bottles.
So these levels might be a bit high and not stratified enough to reflect the breweries that make up the craft beer industry. But that’s a topic for a different podcast.

OK, so that’s the manufacturer definition. The boring side, maybe the irrelevant side. But what constitutes ‘craft beer’ and, by extension, a craft beer bar and a craft beer drinker? That’s way more challenging to nail down. And literally everyone has an opinion. For example:

Craft Beer can’t be produced with adjuncts, like rice, corn or corn sugar.

Craft beer isn’t sold outside the city, tri-county area, state or country.

Craft beer isn’t mass marketed.

Craft beer is locally owned.

Craft beer uses traditional brewing techniques. (whatever that means)

It’s only craft until it gets bought out.

Its craft beer if its good beer, regardless of who owns the brewery

500 tweets in we’d come to the same conclusion: this whole thing is personal. At the end of the day its art in the bottle, art on the bottle and art in your glass. Everyone’s perception is tinted by the varied experiences of their lives and their opinions exist in the shadow of that mountain. If we agree that the definition is personal, and I think we should, then we must agree that every opinion is correct.

A more important question is “Does it even matter?”

In the race to categorize craft beer so that we can either feel above reproach for what we drink or justified in handing out reproach for what they drink, we tend to forget the whole point: Enjoying the experience. Appreciating the art. Connecting with the flavor in our glass in a way that adds flavor to our lives-that is craft beer.

If you’ve been drinking Bud Light for years and you taste Blue Moon for the first time, that lightbulb moment is craft beer. Hopefully someone is there to share that experience with you. And maybe shepherd you forward to seek out new beautiful experiences that will open your eyes and your mind.

That honest smile when you learn what aging beer in a bourbon barrel does to it. Sitting down at the end of a long week to sip and savor that creation with time and attention-that’s craft beer.

Floating around in the pool with a can of a double dry-hopped IPA you picked up from your local brewery this afternoon-definitely craft beer.

Opening a new beer and smiling at being surprised by the amazing taste. After reading the label, going to the brewery’s website to research the story of the beer and the brewery, connecting on social media and making plans to visit the source of this amazing creation-craft as fuck.

Waiting in line starting at 6am for a can release of some brownie batter stout? For me its not craft beer, but for you it might be. And that’s the point.

Drinking Coors light is not craft beer. But it also doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the craft beer movement. I’ve met people who drink those kinds of beers because they don’t appreciate the art of craft. They would likely say that Picasso’s cubist paintings look like a child painted them. Beauty is on the tongue of the beerholder. To define craft beer we have to have drinkers on the other side but that doesn’t make them enemies, it makes them part of the story.

Drink what you like.

Don’t yuck my yum.

Passion is personal.

Like Marcus Aurelius said, the more we debate what is craft beer, the more likely it will blow away to Kansas like dust in the wind. It’s real but it’s fragile. Take time today to live it, appreciate it, share it and enjoy it. That is craft beer.