Simply put, craft beer is a beer that is not brewed by one of the big "mega-brewery" corporations. More often than not, when the phrase craft beer is used, this is what it means. However, it is a rather imprecise thing to define something by what it is not, so let's take it a bit further.
What is Craft Beer?
The Brewer's Association in Boulder, Colorado defines 'craft beer' as beer made by a brewer that is small, independent, and traditional.
This sums it up rather nicely and for the association, it creates a good foundation so drinkers know what they are talking about.
However, there is some very good beer being made today by brewers that don't exactly fit these qualifications. So, it should be pointed out that just because beer is or is not considered 'craft beer,' this does not mean that the beer is good (or not).
Microbrew vs. Craft Beer
Remember back in the nineties when beer brewed by small, independent brewers was called microbrew?
It seems kind of odd that the name fell away. It was a great little word that perfectly described the new kind of breweries that were gaining market share back then. Everyone knew exactly what it meant and that we could expect an innovative and exciting beer if it came to us with the 'microbrew' name attached to it. The word fell mostly out of use for a couple of reasons.
First, it is actually a legal term that precisely describes breweries of specific sizes in the US.
To be considered a microbrewery, a brewery had to produce a limited number of barrels of beer, a very limited number.
For example, Missouri Liquor Control Law, Section 311.195 restricts a microbrewery to ten thousand barrels or less per year. That is fairly limiting and the industry soon realized that many of our favorite new brewers were graduating beyond that point so to continue to call the kind of beer we liked microbrew was imprecise.
As you know, beer geeks are still geeks and geeks hate imprecision.
Second, the term just stopped making sense. "Micro”-breweries like Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) and Sierra Nevada, grew to national distribution and gained plenty of brand recognition so they simply stopped being micro.
The Rise of 'Craft' Beer
We needed a new term. That is when "craft beer" came into use. It was a good term because it was not legally restrictive and we all knew what it was, or at least what it was not. It seemed generic enough but absolutely perfect in describing the sort of beer that I liked; beer that is crafted instead of manufactured.
I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but the Brewers Association made it their own by precisely defining it. I like the Brewers Association. They have done a lot for the cause of good beer in the US.
Besides their annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the Brewers Association helps new breweries with advice and resources. They help growing breweries to build their business and even export beer to other countries. The Association regularly publishes great beer books about brewing and beer styles as well as reporting on the state of the industry.
According to their website, the Brewers Association's purpose is "to promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts." In order to do so, craft beer had to be defined.
Again, from the website, a craft brewer is "small, independent and traditional." Still a pretty soft definition, right?
How Do We Define 'Small' Brewery
We will set independent and traditional aside and focus on small. Once again, barrels per year must be counted. The association went with a number that seemed reasonably out of reach, two million. That number also happened to coincide with the Federal tax code. Brewers making less than two million barrels a year got a break on their taxes as a small business growth incentive.
You can probably see the next step coming: a craft brewer grew beyond that two million barrel mark. Boston Brewing Company, the maker of the Samuel Adams line of beers, peaked over the line in 2010. Suddenly, craft beer-small means six million barrels to the Association.
I really do not care about that. The Association has a mission and if moving that line helps them to accomplish I say let them.
Not All 'Craft' Beer is Good - Not All 'Big' Beer is Bad
My problem is with the term itself. Why should we qualify the beer we like as craft, micro, boutique, specialty or any other word? In doing so, we create a subcategory making it secondary (or less) than the rest of the beer out there.
What about those beers that cannot fit that category but are still good? I like Guinness, but there is no way that it can fit in the same box as the beer made at my local brewpub. It is owned by a multinational liquor company and can hardly be called "handcrafted." It is still good beer.
Then there are beers that easily fit the 'craft beer' mold. A brewer can be small, traditional and independent and still make a bad beer. Trust me on this, I've tasted a lot of them. Somehow, they are better appreciated because they are craft brewers but they still brew bad beer.
Without the term, though, how do we talk about the phenomenon? The "craft beer revolution" does not make much sense if it is simply called the "beer revolution."
I think drinker education is the answer and it is happening. It is becoming more and more common to find average beer drinkers - the non-geek kind, I mean - to know a handful of beer styles and to have at least some experience with them.
For now, I guess we need to keep using the phrase craft beer. However, I look forward to the time when a dude orders a beer in a bar that he then has to specify the style.