Defining Craft Beer

Reinheitsgebot

A lot of hay is being made these days over the definition of “craft beer” and “craft brewer.”  Recently it appears most of these arguments stem from opposing legislation called the Fair BEER and Small BREW Acts. When boiled down, these are tax bills. Seeking to create tax relief for either small brewers (what you typically think of as craft) and big brewers (AB, MillerCoors, or The Macros). As much as I would like to wax public policy and argue that “one man’s tax relief is another man’s tax loophole” this specific issue is moot as the legislation is all but dead.

But these bills did leave the beer community with one interesting question: “Is The Boston Beer Company (AKA: Samuel Adams) a Craft Brewer?”

The question is born out of the proposed legislation’s definition of “craft brewer” being set at less than six million barrels annually.  Assuming the continuation of their current rate of growth, Boston Beer would be a macro by definition sometime in or around 2018 when it is projected to produce more than six million barrels annually.

Bryan Roth over at This Is Why I’m Drunk postulated, reasonably so, that the volume of hard tea and hard cider produced by Boston Beer has resulted in it no longer being just a beer company. Simply stated, beverages other than beer are boosting the profit margins, significantly so, that the craft brewer distinction is reasonably in question. He makes an interesting and valid point in regards to The Boston Beer Company.

But I think the question still remains… What makes a brewery “craft?”

I am going out on a limb here but I don’t think it is based on volume. It is not based on an arbitrary number of barrels produced per year. That is exactly what the figure six million barrels is, arbitrary.

To me craft brewing is about the art of brewing and a philosophy. It is about being committed to the product and the customers who buy the product. There is an entire community of beer drinkers in this country that are committed to drinking real beer. This sub-culture is made up of beer snobs, beer geeks, beer evangelists, home brewers, and community and regional breweries. In many cases once regional breweries now have bi-coastal operations and/or nationwide distribution. If there is one thing all these players have in common it’s a stake in the industry they love.

To define this fine libation and the people that make it as being craft or not craft based on arbitrary volume numbers does nothing to help understand the product nor the people making and consuming it.

So I offer this definition:

Craft Beer (krăft bîr)

n.

A fermented alcoholic beverage brewed by practitioners with the best ingredients, skilled artistry, manual dexterity, ingenuity, and exceptional quality.

Is this definition perfect? Probably not. I am not quite that arrogant and I am sure Budweiser would say their adjunct lager swill fit that definition to a T.

So maybe this is just a start to having a serious discussion about what makes craft beer, craft brewers and craft beer drinkers the incredible movement it has become. Because arguing it’s about volume says nothing about what is really important…making and drinking good beer.

Postscript:  As I wrote this I really tried to develop in as few words as possible what defines craft beer. But this is just one guy’s musing about beer and brewing. What you see above is my best shot at it. Others certainly can do better. What may be necessary is for American craft brewers to adopt their own version of the Reinheitsgebot, The German Beer Purity Law. This could be a way for the craft beer industry to define itself. 

It would be up to brewers to determine what it means to be craft and to do so with intent. This should be done as a recognized understanding and commitment for the sake of the consumer.

The incredible limitations of the German Purity Laws obviously do not fit for the American craft beer industry but the intent at its heart does. An incorporation of guild regulations, adhered to by brewers in the collective, could help an industry experiencing skyrocketing growth and stave off the potential fallout of a bursting bubble in the years to come. It would be a promise to the consumer that the product adheres to strict and exacting standards and that it is of the highest quality.

Is doing this very, very difficult? Yes. But as Nicolas Winton said “I work on the motto that if something is not impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” This is not impossible.

Summer Is Made For Drinking Beer

Summer Beer 2

It is Memorial Day Weekend which means that even though the Northeast is under frost advisories it is the beginning of summer.  Summer time is a great season for craft beers.  The seasonal offerings get lighter, crisper and the ABV generally goes down a bit.  Perfect beer for sharing a few with friends.

As is typical for beer blogs, I am going highlight some great beers you should seek out for this summer season but I hope these are beers you don’t necessarily see on other lists.

DreamWeaver Wheat Ale by Troegs:  This South German-Style Hefeweizen is not a seasonal and is widely available year round.  Pepper and clove notes, a crisp short finish and low 4.5% ABV make this beer incredibly drinkable.  When my in-laws host a cook-out during the summer months more likely than not a case of this is my contribution.  DreamWeaver only comes in bottles and frankly summer calls for cans so be sure to also check out Sunshine Pils.  It is crisp and clean and hopped just right for hot days.  It might be my favorite Pilsner.

Shiner Ruby Redbird by Spoetzl Brewery:  This grapefruit infused summer beer clocks in at 4% ABV.  Grapefruit and a hint of ginger in the nose.  This is another easy drinking beer that would be a good introduction to fruit beers for the novice craft drinker.  Not super easy to find but priced right.  Buy a six pack of bottles or cans and share it with a friend on the back porch.

New Belgium Brewing’s Folly 12 Pack of Cans: Slow Ride Session IPA, Fat Tire Amber Ale, Ranger IPA and Snapshot Wheat.  New Belgium is only now getting its feet in the door of PA distribution but I have been seeking them out each time I leave the Commonwealth.  This 12 pack offers four great beers and all are in cans which makes for an excellent and easy way to tailgate, drink at the shore or just lay poolside without worry.  This is my favorite mix pack for summer.

Witte by Ommegang:  The perfect beer for a nice dinner on the back deck.  If you have grilled up some fresh fish or local vegetables and need to pair it with something impressive but still light and refreshing I suggest Witte.  Flavorful as it is hazy it will work well on those warm nights and be a refreshing ale to share with a friend.

Red Stripe Jamaican Lager:  I can almost hear the audible groan from some of my readers. But drinking this beer extra cold on a blazing hot day straight from the bottle gets me every time.  Yes, I know it’s an adjunct lager and falls into the yellow fizzy category but this beer tastes like relaxation.  I have been to St. Thomas USVI a bunch of times and buying one of these out of a vendor boy’s cooler just makes the day taste better.  Drink it straight from the bottle and relax.  Sometimes you just want a beer and not get all fussy about the complexity; even if it is likely brewed in Latrobe, PA.

Dale’s Pale Ale by Oskar Blues Brewing:  This classic pale ale has some grapefruit notes and piney floral hops.  If you are banging and picking steamed Chesapeake blue crabs this is the perfect can of beer to hold down the newspaper.  I suggest springing for the big 19.2 oz cans.  It marries perfectly with the Old Bay and mild crab meat in my opinion.  I can hardly think of a better way to enjoy a summer day.  Pro-tip: Never use a hammer when eating blue crabs.

Cheers!