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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Brewery Categories Defined

I was typing a detailed comment to Alan's recent thought-provoker and thought, damn, why I am burnishing his blog with all this great content?  That's the kind of generous guy I am.  Alan was discussing definitions of different categories of breweries and came up with this list: nano, micro, craft, crafty, and macro.  I think those are a good way to describe the way North Americans think about beer (possibly with the substitution of "brewpub" for "micro"), but my travels around the globe the last two years have completely scrambled the way I think about beer.  Here's the list I have taken to using, one that I think is more universal in its application:
  • Brewpub/hausbrauerei: a proper pub that brews its own beer.  
  • Production brewery: a brewery that packages its beer for sale largely off-premise.  May have a tasting room, but this doesn't make it a brewpub. 
  • Nanobrewery: a production brewery with a batch capacity of less than three barrels. 
  • Traditional brewery: a brewery that employs equipment or processes to uphold a certain tradition in brewing.  Decoction breweries, tower breweries, breweries with open fermenters, etc.  Not a precise definition, but I distinguish these from modern breweries that have been optimized to make any type of beer.  A brewery doesn't have to be old or small to be traditional, and traditional breweries don't always make good beer.  
  • Independent brewery: Owned singly by one human or a family.  Nothing to do with beer quality.  
  • Industrial brewery: a highly automated and efficient brewing facility designed to produce beer as inexpensively as possible.  Again, nothing to do with beer quality.  They tend to be large, but not all large breweries are industrial and some smallish ones are. 
  • Large brewery: Any brewery with an annual capacity of 300,000 barrels or more a year.  You want to place it at 100,000 or a million?  I'm mostly cool with that.  Either way, it's worth noting that when you look at the thousands of breweries worldwide, only a small percentage of them make even as much as 100,000 barrels.  And a 300,000-barrel brewery is necessarily a pretty damn big facility.

Dubuisson: a traditional, independent production brewery.
Where I think North Americans get off into the weeds is trying to deal with the ownership structure, size, and configuration of a brewery and somehow try to correlate this with beer quality.  That notion is a uniquely new-(beer)-world view.  It sorta kinda makes sense because by 1980 the US had one category of brewery (industrial), and the beer Americans made ran the spectrum from yellow fizzy to slightly lighter yellow fizzy, from uninteresting to poor.  So anything that came after was "craft."  

That's a culturally-specific definition.  It doesn't work in the places we actually associate with beer, like UK, Germany, Belgium, or the Czech Republic.  If you want to make the tentative argument that large, industrial breweries generally make less interesting beer, I think you're on pretty firm ground.  But once you start talking about traditional, nano, independent breweries and brewpubs and tie these to beer quality, you lose credibility.  Some industrial breweries make superb beer, while lots of traditional breweries make pond water.  Many families use their old breweries as ATMs and ignore quality and I know you've wandered into a brewpub somewhere and been handed a biology experiment that someone mistook for beer. 

Finally: the word "craft" is also culturally-specific and therefore useless.  It means different things in different countries.  In the US, people take it to mean breweries established within the last 30-odd years that are relatively smaller than older macro breweries.  There is a strong (and mistaken) presumption of quality.  In Britain, "craft" means something entirely different.  That could be said about Germany and Belgium as well.  There's really no use for the term and I am going on a personal campaign to eliminate it from my own vocabulary. 

None of this is, I suppose, particularly critical.  But over the coming years as "craft beer" loses its meaning here, we'll be looking for a shared vocabulary, and I think you could do a lot worse than this.  Your thougths?


  1. I like it, but for the "industrial" category. I've come to the conclusion that all beer is industrial, regardless of scale. "Automated" or "Mass production" brewery would perhaps be more accurate.

  2. We (the other half and I) have been struggling to articulate the idea that (a) smaller/independent/hip breweries don't necessarily make better beer but (b) we still want to see more of them because they can be good in other ways -- that is, stimulating change, generating interest, bringing fresh blood into the industry, and so on. They help to prevent monopoly, in other words -- they're a sign of a healthy market.

    (We're using the C term less because we're so bored of being shouted at every time we do, or of debates over its meaning derailing conversations on other subjects...)

  3. Suggest 'Independent breweries' may be owned by a single or multi-founders with or without a small group of investors with no controlling interest.

  4. It looks like I have a traditional, independent brewpub here then. Now I'd like to see you define "proper pub".

  5. Ted, I just wanted to distinguish a brewpub from a production brewery with a tasting room tacked on.

  6. Max, I'm cool with that. Names are less important to me than the categories. (Not that they're unrelated.)

  7. RE: the word "craft" is also culturally-specific and therefore useless.

    The British postal stamp has no source designation. Ditto the [London] Times. They did not/do not need to differentiate themself for others because they got there first.

    The Boulder based Brewers Association [BA] has roots back to the 'Association of Brewers' founded by Charlie Papazian in 1979. BA is an American trade group of ~2k brewers concerned with the promotion of 'American' craft beer and homebrewing.

    BA defined [American] 'craft beer' back in the last century. In my mind, like the Brits, they have name rights. Their definitions hold for me until they change them. They got there first.

  8. This is all great.

    But in your listing, from whom do we get those T-shirts Alan promises us?

    I kid. I really do appreciate the efforts to further clarify the role of breweries, brewers and everything else, if only for a fun exercise!

  9. Very interesting to see the differences in names for breweries based on size. I think I'm going to print this out!

    The mission to eliminate "craft" from the description of beer is quite an undertaking. Good luck, Jeff!

  10. Many American 'craft' brewers are as industrial as any InBev brewery. The only difference is scale.

  11. I agree with your comments about the association of the word "craft" meaning that the beer will always be of high quality. I recently had a local "craft" beer in Wanaka, NZ and it smelt like off cabbage and couldn't hold a head despite me stirring it up with a spoon. Also didn't help that the server gave it to me with no head to start with. In the end they are all breweries (no matter how big or small) that make a wide range of varying qualities of beer throughout the world. Luckily the next beer I had down the road was superb. It was from a small scale brewery in Auckland.

  12. I too wold love to see "craft' go away as a term but I don't see the industry every giving it up at this point as the BA has a stranglehold on the voice of the industry and has firmly bet in the success of the term at this point.

  13. To me, "craft" suggests handmade, handcrafted or artisan. That is clearly a misnomer in our present context since a lot of what we currently think of as craft beer is made in fairly large breweries.

    The challenge is to come up with a new term that appropriately describes beer made from quality ingredients in quality settings. I've yet to hear or see anything that makes sense, but something eventually will. You know it.

  14. I heard Matt, the head brewer at Schooner Exact in Seattle, give this sweet definition of a nanobrewery: "A brewery that in full production, and with every drop of beer sold, still doesn't provide enough income for even one full-time employee."

    -Craig H.