20 November 2010

What is Craft Beer?

Whenever I hear the term “Craft Brewer,” I almost can picture a guy who grows and malts his own grain. He picks his hops from his own hopyard. He rubs sticks together to light the fire under his kettle that he hand hammered. Her ferments in stainless steel, though. I have to draw the line somewhere. But he does hand apply the labels and bottle caps himself.

Of course, that's a fantasy.

The only brewery with their own grain fields is Anheuser-Busch. And they also buy grain from maltsters around the world, as does every other brewer, craft and non-craft, on the planet. Same with the hops. In fact, the economy of scale means that everyone buys malt made to AB's or MillerCoors' specifications.  The same applies to hops. Everyone buys from the same people.

So, as much as I'd like to imagine a craft brewer as an agricultural worker, then fact of the matter is that brewing is an industrial trade, requiring access to transportation and dependable power.
Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Virginia is located in Virginia's wine country, and have their own hopyard. Jester King Brewery in Dripping Springs is on a ranch outside Austin with sweeping views of the Hill Country. Mark Cannon at Eola School in Eola brews in a town of less than two hundred people, and draws people in as far away as Austin.

So what is a Craft Brewer?

Danner Kline at Birmingham weekly asked the same question. Using the Brewers Association's definition, Kline effectively highlighted the problem with defining a craft brewer. As Boston Beer Company comes closer and closer to the magic cut off of two million barrels a year, for example, do they become less and less a craft brewer?

Sam Caligione of DogFish Head Brewery, whom I wrote about a few days ago, has a simple definition of craft beer. Regarding whether or not AB-InBev or MillerCoors could be a craft brewer (as Kline thinks they should not be excluded automatically), Caligione wrote in Beer and Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn't Worth Drinking (Philosophy for Everyone), "If someday one of the big-three breweries finds itself making 50.1% of their beer from all malt with no rice or corn then I would say, welcome to the community of craft brewers." That sounds odd coming from the person who is known for using non-traditional ingredients in beers. His line-up flirts with that 50.1% line frequently.

Echoing that standard, not too long ago, some Home Brew Talk forum members made an "homage" video called "I am a Craft Brewer." Based on the video produced for the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference, one segment a brewer said proudly "I don't use rice or corn in my beer," implying that those products should never be in beer. I wonder what Patrick Rue thinks about that? He makes a tripel with rice as part of the grist. What about people who make American Cream Ales? Corn is a necessary ingredient for that style.

Cleary, craft beer isn't about the ingredients. So what is craft beer?

I think Kline comes up with the best definition: it’s about attitude, passion, and respect for beer. "Craft beer is like pornography in that you know it when you see it," he concludes. Brewers who treat beer like a commodity are not craft brewers.  If you use rice to cut your costs and maximize your profits, you aren't a craft brewer.  If you use rice to lighten body and increase alcohol, as Patrick Rue does, then you are a craft brewer.  And dogmatic rejection of an ingredient does not make you a craft brewer.

Does that mean Blue Moon is a craft beer? Yes. A big brewer can make a craft beer. They just don't do it very often.

Post a comment and let me know how much you disagree and why.

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posted by Jeff Holt at 11:29

3 Comments:

Blogger assurbanipaul said...

From a couple of years ago: http://craftbeerusa.blogspot.com/2008/04/defining-craft-beer_18.html

3:53 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

I shoulda checked with you first. :)

7:55 PM  
Blogger assurbanipaul said...

Always room for more debate. It's not a hard science. ;)

11:42 PM  

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