Small ≠ Craft

Charlie Papazian has long been a champion of small craft breweries. He's made it his life's work to popularize homebrewing and create a market for flavorful, hand-crafted commercial beer. If you were to identify a half-dozen people most responsible for the revival of good beer in the US, Charlie would definitely make the list. If you sense these accolades are a wind-up to a big "but," you're right.

But: the one area where I think Charlie has made a mistake is equating craft beer with small breweries. There are historical and conceptual reasons for this, but both are outdated and increasingly unworkable in a maturing, healthy brewing market. The historical reason, of course, has to do with the consolidation that left the US with around 80 breweries by the early 1980s and helped spark craft brewing. For the pioneers, there was something revolutionary about making quality beer out of wholesome ingredients, and only small breweries were doing it. Conceptually, the idea of hand-crafted beer contrasted sharply with the image of industrial plants pumping out oceans of beer.

Early on, only small breweries made rich, flavorful beer out of natural ingredients. The difference between craft beer and industrial beer was obvious. Problem is, things changed. Now very large breweries make craft beer. Budweiser's American Ale is chemically indistinguishable from ales made by 500-barrel breweries. Some small breweries are owned by big companies (that is, they're not independent), but make exceptional beer. And some small breweries make beer that is chemically indistinguishable from Pabst. Lines have blurred.

Charlie recently conducted a poll to find out whether people agreed with the notion that craft beer is something necessarily produced by small, independent breweries. Despite putting a finger on the poll (he included definitions for "small" and "independent" at the start of the poll) over half
"felt that craft beer could be made by a large brewery or a (small) brewery controlled or fully owned by a large brewery. In other words it didn’t matter whether a brewery was independent of a large brewing company."
That's good news. Good beer has nothing to do with the size of brewery that produced it, despite a strong early correlation. Apparently beer drinkers feel the same way.

When small breweries were just getting started, they had no infrastructure, no resources, and no political juice. When Charlie brought professional organizations on-line, it was instrumental in making the structural changes that allowed small breweries to emerge. Again, critically important. Small breweries still need an organization that gives their collective voice political clout. But that's a political matter. "Craft beer" is a product, distinct from the producer. Hair of the Dog can make it and Budweiser can make it. It would be cool if small, independent breweries all made great beer and large corporations only made sell-out, Vortex-bottled silly beer, but they don't.