What is Craft Beer?

In comments to yesterday's post about the abundance of choice, we got into a discussion about the definition of craft beer. It's been a couple years since I posted on this issue, but I find--suprisingly--that my view hasn't shifted at all on the matter. It also seems timely, coming as it does on the last day of the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco.

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In the Budweiser American Ale thread, 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 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 which is brewed with a goal of "aesthetic character."

Many writers and brewer have noted that technically speaking, brands like Budweiser and Coors are incredible beers. Yet the intention of these products is not aesthetic, it's commercial--these companies are concerned with their beers' saleability.

Aesthetic character doesn't comment on the accomplishment of a given 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 brewery. On the far edges, beers like Hair of the Dog's Adam 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 these examples also clarify things at the center, 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.

By this definition, 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.

This is a moment when we can use brewery size as a proxy for dividing commercial and craft beer--but it won't last. Craft breweries will in years or decades be huge companies, perhaps one or two rivaling the "legacy" light-lager companies. And of course, many small breweries make bad beer. Size and good beer don't have a lot to do with each other. Craft beer must be defined by something other than the size of the brewery that produces it.

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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."