If you’re currently reading this article, chances are you have heard the term “craft beer” tossed around more than once in your lifetime. But what does it truly mean for a beer to be considered “craft?” Can there really be a concrete definition?
The Brewer’s Association defines an American craft brewer as “small, independent, and traditional.” The problem with such a concrete definition, however, is that it divides the beer industry into black and white. With a classification of “small” being a production level of six million barrels or less a year, Samuel Adams gets the same craft beer accreditation as the beer being produced by a 10,000 barrel a year brewing system. Yes, Samuel Adams may not be technically classified as a macro brewery, but is it really what comes to mind when you hear “small, independent, and traditional?”
It’s no secret that the craft beer industry has been growing exponentially over the last ten years. However, as the popularity increases, the definition of “craft beer” seems to get cloudier and cloudier. Craft beer has developed into a social construct rather than an actual, tactical classification.
On a recent tour of Full Sail Brewing, a woman asked the tour guide what it meant for a brewery to be considered “craft.” The tour guide explained that for Full Sail, the company defined craft beer with the importance of being independently owned and operated. This notion is made clear all over their merchandising, menus, walls, everything. Everywhere you look inside Full Sail, you’ll see either “employee-owned” or “independent.” Funny thing about Full Sail, however, is that the employees voted to sell their company to Encore Consumer Capital back in March 2015.
If Full Sail stresses the importance of being independently owned, why do they still consider themselves to be a craft brewer? It’s because of the inconsistent fluidity of the term. When people hear the phrase “craft beer,” they expect a certain level of quality. Full Sail’s beer didn’t change in quality when they switched ownership, but I guarantee they would lose quite the following if they were to disassociate themselves with craft beer.
The Brewer’s Association’s guidelines for craft beer are incredible broad, and frankly, they don’t typically match the everyday individuals’ guidelines. Businesses are smart; they know that they can legally throw the term “craft beer” around and instantly gain a following and appreciation.
Times are definitely changing in the world of American craft beer. More and more major craft breweries are being bought by large macro-brewery companies. However, while these craft breweries are being owned and operated by organizations that clearly do not fit the definition of craft, the brewery continues to market themselves as such.
Back in 2014, Elysian was bought by major big beer company Anheuser-Busch. However, not only do they still label themselves as craft, but Elysian STILL puts out their Loser Pale Ale with the slogan “Corporate Beer Still Sucks.” Do they not care how incredibly ironic they come across putting that beer out?
“Craft” is becoming increasingly meaningless. The term gets tossed around so frequently, it only gets more muddled and creates more confusion for beer drinkers.
My hope for the future of beer is that a new classification system will be introduced. I’m not suggesting that the term vanish completely, but rather it gets looked at more critically. The American beer industry has exploded over the years; it no longer makes sense to classify a beer as only craft or domestic. “Craft” is getting lost in a sea of complexity, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint what craft beer truly means in our country.