In the first part of this article, I offered the opinion that the term “craft beer” should be abandoned. Its internal logic has been so mangled by repeated redefinition that it is no longer useful. Small doesn’t mean small anymore. Independent doesn’t mean independent, and traditional can apparently mean anything (except brewed the North American lager brewing tradition of the 19th and 20th Centuries).
In this part of the article, I want to offer the opinion that the components of the term — small, independent, and traditional — are mostly just historical holdovers, and not the sort of things that most beer drinkers care about when they choose a beer.
Components are Disparate Holdovers
The components of what comprises a craft brewer (and by extension of craft beer) are disparate — in other words, they are essentially different in kind. “Small” relates to size. “Independent” relates to ownership and control, and “traditional” relates to the mode of production. And none directly relate to what matters most to most beer enthusiasts— quality.
The components of the current definition are all holdovers from a time when these things were unavoidable. The first “craft brewers” called themselves microbrewers. Their breweries were small of necessity. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, microbrews were just being introduced and it took time for them to catch on. You couldn’t borrow money from a bank or get investors to open up a large brewery — starting small was an inevitability.
Likewise, early microbrews were independent because nobody, big breweries included, had any interest in purchasing them. These things — along with beers being “hand crafted” (whatever that meant) and only sold locally — were touted as virtues, when in fact they were simply unavoidable.
Of course, that stance was completely understandable — microbreweries in the early years were entering a market dominated by huge, national breweries. It made perfect sense to position themselves as small, artisanal craftsmen to distinguish themselves from the “factory brewers.” Nobody with any sense would have done otherwise.
Over time, however, things changed. Sales of microbrews, which later started being described as craft brews, soared. Small, local breweries started distributing their beers regionally, then later nationally and internationally. Sierra Nevada, an early entry in the microbrew boom, is now huge — so big that they are opening up a huge new east coast brewery to keep up with demand for their product. And they’re not alone. These days, New Belgium is huge. Stone is huge. Lagunitas is huge. Bells is huge, and of course Sam Adams is the biggest among them.
And this is a good thing. And the Brewers Association knows that this is a good thing. Every year they tout the amazing growth in sales of craft beer. But somehow small remains a core virtue — in word if not reality.
As some microbrewers found their way to being huge national brewers, the term “craft brewer” became progressively gerrymandered to always include those breweries that started small in the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond, and to continue to exclude the breweries (and their subsidiaries) that had been huge previously. Today, the term “craft brewer” has nothing to do with being small, independent, and traditional. What it really means is “not associated with Bud, Miller, or Coors (or the multinational companies that now own them, or their ilk).” And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. The BA needs a term to distinguish between breweries of the type that might be a part of their association and breweries they want to exclude. But that doesn’t mean that the distinction is useful to people who simply want to enjoy a good beer.
I would hazard a guess that many beer drinkers who enjoyed Sierra Nevada, Stone or Lagunitas beers when they were small still enjoy them now that they are huge. Likewise, I’d bet that many who were fans of Redhook, Kona, and Widmer when they were independent breweries still enjoy their beers now that they are part of the Craft Brew Alliance. (Ironically, the Craft Brew Alliance does not meet the BA’s definition of “craft” as Anheuser-Busch InBev owns 32% of this company.) And, of course, craft beer drinkers have heartily embraced any number of non-traditional beers, most notably the hottest beers in the US beer market right now, American IPAs, double IPAs, and all the variants.
There’s nothing wrong with a brewery being small, independent, and traditional — but few beer drinkers choose their beers on that basis. There was a time when we did, but that was a statistical artifact. The breweries brewing the type of beer we liked all just happened to be microbreweries. Now that there are “mega micros,”and brewing alliances, and huge corporations owning many beer brands, it would be nice to have a term to distinguish between beers we like — beers we believe to be brewed with quality in mind — and beers that are basically watery alcohol vectors. I’ll tackle that in the final installment of this article.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to coin some new phoney-baloney new term and expect people to use it. What I’m going to suggest is that most beer enthusiasts already know enough about beer and brewing to describe a beer in a meaningful way, one that focuses on the quality of the beer. I’ll also go out on a limb and suggest that entirely subjective, personal terms — such as “good beer,” or “beers that I like” — are perfectly valid in most cases. [And if it really matters to you if a huge, old-school brewery owns a greater than 25% stake in a brewery (but 24% or under is okey dokey), you can still use the term “craft beer.”]