Why craft beer needs a definition

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Craft beer is on the rise, but it’s currently not properly defined.

What exactly is craft beer? At the moment anyone can put this term on the label, however the beer is made and whoever it is made by.

This is a problem, and I think that craft beer urgently needs some sort of legal definition. Big brewers are already producing boring, insipid beers and then dressing them up to look like craft beer, and this threatens the progress of the whole craft beer movement.

Why? Because if regular consumers try one of these ‘craft’ beers and find they are dull and unmemorable, then they’ll probably not try another.

The other threat is that of large breweries buying craft breweries, ramping up production, using cheaper ingredients, and slowly killing their reputations.

In the US, craft beer has been defined by the Brewers Association:

  • Fewer than 6 million barrels per year
  • No more than 25% of the brewery can be owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer

Interestingly, the rules were softened in 2010 when pioneering craft brewer Sam Adams grew beyond the previous maximum size of 2 million barrels. The Brewers Association also dropped the requirement that half of the brewery’s product be made from barely malt, rather than using corn or rice as a sugar source.
In the EU there is no definition. Scottish craft brewery Brewdog have proposed that craft beer should be defined thus:

  • Small – <500 000 hectolitres per year
  • Authentic – original gravity and no use of rice, corn
  • Honest – ingredient labelling and place of production on label, and all made at a craft brewery
  • Independent – no more than 20% owned by a brewing company operating any brewery that is not craft

The craft beer revolution has created a massive commercial opportunity for craft beers, and this is something that big breweries are eyeing up. Craft beer has exploded in the US, and this has led to the recent revolution in the UK. Consider the facts:

  • In 1978 there were just 89 breweries in the USA.
  • Now there are 2800, and the vast majority make less than 15 000 barrels. 25 have passed 100 000 barrels.
  • Currently craft beer is 8% of volume and 14% of value of US beer market, and this is expected to reach 20% by volume in 2020.

Imitation craft beers are now the big threat. Lines are blurring as some of the craft breweries get bigger, with the category becoming more mainstream. Shelves will likely fill up with products that look like craft beers, use the term on the label, but are actually boring industrial beers from big brewers. This is a big problem as it poisons the water for existing craft breweries who are making great beer.

This is why some sort of definition would be useful. But is there a better term? Might microbrewed beer be better than craft beer?

And, of course, it is possible for small breweries to make dull beer, just as it is possible for large breweries to make great beer. Generally speaking, though, the large breweries tend to make less interesting beer because they are catering for a mass market taste, and are using cheaper ingredients – when you are making serious quantities of beer, the accountants are not happy if the ingredients are pricey, and cutting this cost can save a lot of money.

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