Is It Time to Redefine "Craft Beer"?

The online beer world has a real philosophical debate going on lately… everyone wants to know what it is that makes a craft brewery so craft.

Clay Risen, wrote an article for the Atlantic titled, When Is a Craft Brewery Just A Brewery?

This debate is due largely in part to the fact that Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) will inevitably top 2 million barrels in annual production, very soon. They’re almost there and it is going to happen. There’s no denying it.

Sam Adams Noble Pils

According to the Beer Association, “a craft outfit makes less than 2 million barrels annually and 25 percent or less of it is owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer (like MillerCoors of InBev).

Using the current definition, Boston Beer Co. will no longer qualify as a craft brewery. This seems a bit absurd, considering their founder Jim Koch is known as the godfather of the craft beer movement and is also a board member of the Beer Association.

It all seems to be coming down to the age-old question, is it quantity or quality that matters? Can a large brewer ever create a craft beer? Does size determine quality?

At the same time, there are smaller breweries that make small batches of respectable beer who are disqualified from calling themselves a craft brewer, simply because they are controlled by a macro brewery. AC Golden, a brewery in Golden, Colorado uses local ingredients and gets decent ratings for their beers on BeerAdvocate but they’re controlled by MillerCoors.

It seems that the craft beer community is split. While some argue that good beer can be produced on a large scale, a commenter who wants to deny MillerCoors any cut of the craft beer market argues, “Craft beer being produced inside a macro brewery is the equivalent to health food being produced at MacDonald’s.” They continue to say, “Even if the beer is good now, the corporate values (or lack thereof) inherent in MillerCoors’ control will destroy the soul, if not the quality, of the beer.”

My thought is that the industry should make a special exception for Sam Adams and other small breweries that may eventually grow to their size. I know that’s not very fair but I think it’s bad karma to kick the founding member out of your club.

I’m probably biased, seeing as I tend to look at the macro breweries as money-hungry corporate giants who could care less about what they’re selling (just so long as it sells) but it’s definitely a debate worth thinking about. What do you consider the defining characteristic(s) of craft beer?



  • Dwight June 5, 2010 @ 8:14am

    When BeerMenus launched a couple of years ago, we were invited to dinner at a NYC brew pub by a person from Budweiser who was traveling with a Belgium beer sommelier and trying to inform the world that Bud had more to offer than fizzy yellow products. They are surprisingly innovative in developing different beers in ways we didn’t realize. She was complaining that Jim Koch, because of his position with the Beer Association, was able to keep changing the definition of craft brewery to keep Boston Beer Co. in bounds. If craft brewery just refers to a technical approach, then it would seem size does not necessarily prevent a brewery from qualifying. Personally, however, I understand those who believe that a craft brewery should have a certain spirit and soul to qualify–something that you can’t quantify.

  • Hannah June 5, 2010 @ 4:41pm

    Dwight – really well put: “I understand those who believe that a craft brewery should have a certain spirit and soul to qualify–something that you can’t quantify.”

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