What is ‘Craft Beer’?

Did you know that beer is the most popular beverage in the United States? The United States produces about 6 billion gallons of beer annually, the most of any country in the world. While the majority of beer consumption are the mass produced American Style Lagers, 4% of the beer produced comes from the craft beer sector. The craft beer industry has slowly, slowly been growing and spreading its wings, but they are still a fairly new market. After Prohibition (I still can’t believe Americans were prohibited from drinking), it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that laws were lifted to allow smaller production breweries to start getting creative.

Anchor Brewing Co.

First let me give you a little history of beer in the United States. Most don’t realize that nearly all of your local breweries and brew pubs have been established after 1980. That’s not very old. Prior to Prohibition there were around 1,400 breweries producing a variety of styles. Prohibition forced nearly all of those breweries to close. The ones that escaped closing their doors were creative in making non-alcoholic malt beverages and tonics. Similar to the events in the wine industry, Americans lost their taste for small production craft brewing – which has been part of European culture for hundreds of years – and the market became dominated by a few large breweries producing lagers with adjunct grains and cushy marketing budgets. After Prohibition, World War II began and it limited the grain supply due to rationing. This forced big brewers to use low cost ingredients like corn and rice as a substitute for barley grains, which were still fermentable, but offered little flavor. This led to the American Style Lager which was perceived as poor quality to the rest of the beer drinking world.

Thank goodness for people like Fritz Maytag, the great grandson of the appliance guru, who worked hard to generate a spirit of craft brewing in America. When he bought San Francisco based Anchor Brewery in 1965, he helped continue the dream of the original German-born owner who first opened the brewery in 1896. I know it’s hard to believe, but in 1965 San Francisco there were no terms like “craft beer” or “microbrewing.”  Maytag’s signature beer, Anchor Steam was the first craft beer style that originated in the United States, opening the doors that has eventually led to 26 styles of beer unique to America. In the mid1970’s, an interest in homebrewing quality European style beers as another option to American Lagers inspired people to start opening craft breweries on a small scale. Changes to the laws in 1978 made it possible for smaller breweries to produce and distribute on the public market. The opening of New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, CA by a homebrewing enthusiast inspired other homebrewers to open their own brewing companies. By the 1980’s there was an influx of breweries popping up all over the West Coast. Although they struggled, they persevered and began allowing the public access to full flavored, quality beers. The number of craft breweries in the United States has gone from 8 in 1980 to 537 in 1994 to 1,501 in 2008. As you can see by the statistics, craft beer is still relativity new industry.

Now that you have a little history, what exactly is craft beer? With all of the beer selections out there today, it’s hard to differentiate between mass produced, macro brewed, microbrewed and craft beer.

First off you may hear beer referred to in ‘barrels per year.’ It is basically the same measurement that wineries use to measure production. Wineries use cases per year and breweries use barrels per year. One barrel equals 31 gallons. This is what we will use to categorize breweries by production.

Secondly we need to discuss the discrepancy within the beer industry as to what constitutes craft beer. In some sense, breweries like the Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and even Coors Brewing Company who produces Blue Moon consider themselves makers of craft beer because they do not use adjunct grains (corn and rice), they use quality and unique ingredients and release seasonal specialties. They are not microbreweries because they produce beer on a larger scale, but they still embody the sense of craft brewing. Many argue that those breweries are not craft beer brewers because they have gotten so big and tend to be more focused on producing a product and the bottom line than the art of brewing. It is perceived to some that in the larger breweries, beer brewing ends up being more of a uniformed process than creative involvement anymore. Since there is no absolute definition for a “craft beer,” I am going to discuss each category in my own terms.

So let’s break it down.

Mass Produced/Macro Brewed

Any brewery producing more than 2 million barrels of beer a year. This includes Anheuser Bush and MillerCoors Brewing Company and Pabst Brewing Co.

Medium Sized Breweries

Breweries that produce between 15,000 and 2 million barrels per year. Lagunitas Brewing Company, New Belgium Brewing Company (Fat Tire), Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head, Redhook Ale Brewery. These breweries use quality ingredients and produce some mighty tasty beverages but have outgrown their microbrewery production status.

Microbrewery

Any brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer a year. Basically your local brewery or brew pub. Two of my favorites from where I grew up are Scuttlebutt Brewing Company out of Everett, WA and Mac & Jacks out of Redmond, WA. Mac & Jacks only produce an African Amber and can only be found on draft at the local bars. You are not going to find that beer anywhere outside of Seattle area and they specifically keep it that way.

Craft Beer

An American craft brewer is described by the Brewers Association as “small, independent and traditional. ” Whereas the prior three categories are solely based on production, the craft beer definition leaves more to the imagination.

Dan Chivetta, brewer at Trailhead Brewing Company describes craft brewing in his own words:

“In craft brewing, there is a love, a passion for brewing. It’s an art form, where quality, taste and presentation matter more than the bottom line and quantity. Quality ingredients and perfection of process and technique make craft beer superior to its bigger counterparts.”

The Brewers Association describes craft brewers as those that are innovative and interpret historic beer styles with unique twists. They often use alternate ingredients for distinctiveness such as coffee, fruit essence and spices. Craft brewers are typically involved in the community and believe that beer brewing is more of an artistic outlet built on a foundation of passion, than a producing a product and making a profit. The Brewers Association also states that to qualify as a craft brewer, “less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.” That means that 75% of the owners are craft brewers. That’s a significantly large amount of people involved in the actual brewing process who aren’t just corporate investors.

It seems to me that craft brewing more a state of mind than anything. For craft brewers, it’s about the process and involvement of brewing, passion for their creation, and pride in their outcome. I suppose they would like to make a few dollars while they are at it, but many small brewers believe that you don’t get into the brewing business to make a ton of money, because for the most part, you don’t make a ton of money.

So take what you have just read and decide for yourself when you are enjoying your next brewski whether it is a macro brew, a microbrew or a craft beer. Think about the beer you are enjoying and where it came from. Do you believe the people responsible for your beer were passionate? Were they craftsmen, expressing their creative talent? Or were they just trying to sell a product? You be the judge.

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Posted on April 29, 2010, in Beer. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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