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.

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*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."