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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What is Craft Beer?

In the Bud thread below, Alison asks, "I am curious as to how you define "craft beer?" As I was writing that Bud post, I wondered briefly if I should define my terms, since I was clearly using a variant definition. There's an official designation* by the Brewers Association that craft breweries are "small, independent, and traditional." In general use, that's probably close enough.

But it that definition only describes the brewery, not the beer. The Brewer's Association is a guild of craft breweries, and they're more concerned about their membership than a subjective description of beer. I think we can make a distinction between craft-brewed beer that is concerned only with the beer, not who brews it, and that was the definition I was using in the Bud post.

My working definition of craft beer hews to a "functionalist" model of the definition of art. Monroe Beardsley offers this: "An arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character." Craft beer is that brewed with an intention toward its "aesthetic character." It is distinguished from macro beers, which are wholly commercial products where all the intention is toward the saleability and marketability of the beer. It's not the kind of definition that corresponds to metrics against which to judge beer, but I think it's a more honest guide because it gets at the nature of the beer in the glass rather than the brewer.

On the far edges, Adam--to take a recent example--and PBR are obvious. It's impossible to regard Adam as anything but a serious foray into aesthetic experimentation; it's equally impossible to regard PBR as anything but a commercial product. But I think it also clarifies things at the center more, too. Someone mentioned Blue Moon earlier. Leave aside who brews it--is it a beer that could credibly be judged against other white ales? It is. To me, that qualifies it as a craft beer. What about Fat Tire (to use my bĂȘte noire)? I find it so substandard, and so perniciously commercial, that I have a hard time thinking of it as craft beer. To me, it's the economic engine that allows New Belgium to brew the more interesting, niche beers in its lineup.

So for me, Bud American Ale is a craft beer. The only thing that could eliminate it from consideration is its brewer. Bud clearly went to the same effort to brew it as Oregon's breweries do when they make their craft beer. Bud's intention was to make a beer of aesthetic character. Does it matter that they've brewed it because they believe there's money in well-made craft beers? No. How could it--every brewery wants to sell their beer. Bud just happens to exceed the 2-million-barrel size limit.

*That is, they produce less than 2 million barrels a year, control more than 75% of the company, and brews all malt beers or "beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor."


  1. I agree with your classification of Craft (Beer and Brewer), but would emphasize add that craft brewers and craft beer generally avoid the use of adjuncts unless it is used traditionally, like adding Belgian sugar to a Trippel, and don't use ingredients that the style doesn't call for to change the appearance or flavor or the beer.

    After tasting Budweiser American Ale (as an example) 3 things made me suspicious::

    1. The head retention was much better than I have ever seen on a light-bodied ale.

    2. The body was much lighter than the color would normally permit

    3. There were some very subtle off-flavors that I haven't noticed in an ale before.

    These could all be in my head, but the above, combined with the fact that the label does not claim "using ONLY the finest malts, hops and water" or something equivelent tells me that the beer has been engineered with adjuncts and ingredients to position it where Budweiser thinks it will be best received by macro-beer drinkers.

    If any of the above are true, this is NOT a craft beer in my opinion.

  2. I think it is dangerous to call Fat Tire "not a craft beer" simply because it sells well and you and I don't like it.

  3. I agree with couchand. While I think New Belgiums's Fat Tire is swill, I still consider it be be a craft beer due to the size of the brewery and the overall nature of their product line. And though Budweiser's American Ale may arguably be better than Fat Tire (I haven't been able to bring myself to try it, so I won't do any arguing for or against), I can't see anything produced on that scale by such a giant brewing conglomerate as a craft beer.

  4. On Fat Tire. Keep in mind that I was making a distinction between beer and brewery here. Clearly, Bud is not a craft brewery and New Belgium is. But by the "functionalist" definition of craft beer, I think Fat Tire is indeed a purely commercial product. I don't think the brewery crafted it to appeal to drinkers' aesthetics, but to sell well. It strikes me as a cynical beer, and when the brewery pushed it on Oregon a few years back, it felt assaultive. Had the brewery been trying to get a toe-hold in Oregon based on the quality of their beers, they would have let the market decide. Instead, it was a marketing blitz.

    The way I judge beer as "craft" or not is by what appears in the glass, stripped of other considerations. In a blind taste-test, I'd choose Bud over Fat Tire hands-down. Bud has attempted to brew a serious beer here. I don't think you can say that of New Belgium and their Fat Tire.

  5. Jeff,
    I appreciate your clarification. My only concern is your definition is a bit open-ended, and it seems to allow for personal opinion of the beer and the brewery to affect the definition. To make it a consistent measure, you almost have to judge the beer on taste alone or on the brewer's intent alone (something that we would frequently have to guess at).
    I would argue that Blue Moon is just as "substandard" and "perniciously commercial" as Fat Tire, without Fat Tire's excuse that it was one of the two original beers on tap when New Belgium came into existence. I wasn't old enough to drink in 1991, so I can't say whether the recipe has changed, but I am inclined to think that they've kept it consistent (after all, its popularity was what got the brewery where it is today). I have yet to meet a start-up brewer who is just looking for the perfect mass-market beer, and Lebesch credits his inspiration to a bike tour in Belgium where he fell in love with Belgian beers. At what point did Fat Tire lose its "intention toward its 'aesthetic character'"?
    I agree that it has become the money-maker so that NBB's brewers can make fun and interesting beers on the side, but if the beer itself has remained unchanged, then it seems like marketing could affect this definition more than brewing.
    Incidentally, where do you rank Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? Is that a craft beer or no?

  6. Jeff, it seems like what you are saying is that if a beer is well crafted, it is therefor a craft beer. I'm not sure that I agree. One could argue that plain old Bud is well crafted... for the style. But I don't think _anyone_ would argue that it is a craft beer. So are we to conclude that certain styles are excluded from the craft beer designation? Or that a subpar beer from a small brewery is not a craft beer?

  7. Holy crap! This is really confusing!

    Let me see if I'm following ya here. You said, "Craft beer is that brewed with an intention toward its "aesthetic character."" So, you're saying that all beers that are mass produced have no aesthetic character? I don't think will fly very far. Are we saying that "BASS" is craft beer too? It's mass produced by a large brewery and has aesthetic characters.

    Are you going according to Wikipedia's definition of Craft Beer?

    "Craft Beer is an American term which is also common in Canada and New Zealand and generally refers to beer that is brewed using traditional methods, without adjuncts such as rice or corn, and with an eye to what's distinctive and flavorful rather than mass appeal. Whereas the term microbrewery is a term for a small scale brewery that produces a small volume of beer, craft brewery describes an approach to brewing, which in principle may be carried out on any scale. Most microbreweries are also craft breweries."

    Between this definition and the BA's definition on Independent:

    "Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer."

    This would mean Widmer's Hefe weizen is definitely NOT a Craft beer based on mass appeal and AB's (Ooops! In Bev's) chunk of involvement within the company which envelopes Wid-Hook. For which, we might say all Widmer and Redhook products are not brewed by CRAFT brewery, ergo can't be Craft Beers.

    If PBR was made in a small contract brewery (which it is!) and used quality ingredients, the PABST website states it's made with 6-row barley and hops; Then is it a craft beer too?

    So! I'm really confused on where this is all going.... and why?

  8. These are clearly subjective calls. I don't think it bears quibbling over whether Fat Tire is bad enough to not be a craft beer. The thing I seek in a definition is one that comments on the actual beer, not just the size or ownership of the brewery.

    Beyond that, it's hard not to get into a debate on the specifics, and I sort of knew this post would thrust us down that road. Ooops. I think A-B made a beer they think can compete in quality with craft amber ales. To me, that makes it a craft beer.

    Dr Wort, I do pretty much like that wiki def, particularly this part: "with an eye to what's distinctive and flavorful rather than mass appeal."

    So many of my favorite beers are Belgian, and so many of them use adjuncts. I am nowhere near as adjunct-averse as those to whom reinhetsgebot is the final word in brewing.

  9. the brewer's association will modify their definitions to keep their friends in and SAB Miller, Molson Coors, and AB InBev out. I suspect their two-million bbl limit will rise as the members become more successful.

    budweiser has no inherent aesthetic character? it may not be the brewer's largest focus, and you may not like or agree with it, but I don't understand how a "marked aesthetic character" can be used as a reasonable qualifier for craft beer. "I know it when I drink it"?

    Fat Tire is not a craft beer because of its overriding commercial success? what about Widmer Hefeweizen, Full Sail Session, or the Henry Weinhards specialty batches contract brewed at Full Sail? Sam Adams?

    if Bud American Ale were to become a big commercial success, would it cease to be "craft"? if you found out it was created as a targeted beer for the "growing craft segment" would that affect its craft status?

    I think some blind taste-offs are in order. blue moon vs celis white, hoegarden and deschutes anniversary wit. bud american ale vs mactarnahans, full sail amber, and deschutes cinder cone. (I guess fat tire considers itself an amber, too.) who's down?

  10. Aaron, why not throw in some of the Michelob 'craft' beers as well?
    It'd certainly be fun to see how the big boys' offerings stack up, although I doubt that the results, be they ever so favorable (and I have a hard time believing that they would be), would clear up the contention over whether they should truly be considered craft beers.

  11. Aaron, a good example that Bud, while it's obviously assiduously made, is made to serve a commercial interest is this: the IBUs have steadily fallen as Bud has tried to continue to appeal to its audience. There's nothing "craft" about that. It's wholly commercial.

  12. What about making a distinction based on the intent of the brewer? If a beer is formulated for the sole purpose of broad acceptance, I think that makes it harder for it to be a "craft" beer.

    I think everyone that takes the time to post on this blog would agree that brewing is an art. The best art comes from those that take risks. Brewing for mass acceptance isn't risky.

    By that token an argument could be made that Bud took a risk by brewing American Ale, they didn't pull out the old paint by numbers, they drew free handish. It was a risk to brew and thus it could be argued that it is a craft beer from an industrial brewery.

    Commercial acceptance may or may not be a sign that a beer is not craft beer. It's like all those people that think commercial success in music equals bad music. Led Zeppelin made a ton of money, not crap music.

    Taking a risk in brewing forces the brewer to put a little bit of themselves in the beer. It forces them to craft something, not just make something. When I approach beer this way the distinction between craft and non-craft beer is an easy one to make.

  13. I think it's kind of funny how subject has caused a lot of talk.... It's kind of fun, but pointless...


  14. DW, if it's fun, then it isn't pointless. :-)

    Joe, I think you may be overestimating the amount of risk AB took in producing Budweiser American Ale, relative to their vast resources. I suspect they did due diligence beforehand via focus groups, etc, to verify that the risk was one they could easily afford.

  15. Bud, while it's obviously assiduously made, is made to serve a commercial interest is this: the IBUs have steadily fallen as Bud has tried to continue to appeal to its audience. There's nothing "craft" about that. It's wholly commercial.

    IPAs are made to serve a commercial interest: IBUs have risen as brewers revise their beers to continue their appeal to a hop hungry audience.

    are hops the factor that distinguishes craft beers from non-craft beers? if so, where does that put german-style hefeweizen or dopplebock?

    intent of the brewer is a bad metric. unless the brewer has truly unlimited resources, commercial motiviation will always be a factor. even for the "craft" beer brewers. Alan Sprints has a family to feed, and the crew at full sail need money to buy lift tickets.

    Aaron, why not throw in some of the Michelob 'craft' beers as well?

    if I knew where to buy them, I would. belmont station had a tasting about a month ago, and I showed up two days later to see the remaining stock boxed up for return to the distributor. Carl said he didn't think they would sell well, so he didn't want to stock them. I've never seen them at my local freddy's or mini-mart.