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What is ‘craft’ beer

January 26, 2011

What exactly is 'craft' beer?

With today’s release of the Local Taphouse Hottest 100 the term ‘craft’ beer has been hotly debated today. It’s a good time to reprise this piece from last year pondering the question. Note that since this was first posted, the US Brewers Association has revised their definition of craft beer

The term ‘craft beer’ is popping up everywhere these days as many beer drinkers become more discerning in the beers they drink. But the rise of food ‘movements’, such as whole foods  and slow foods also come into play as many purchasing decisions are made through subtle political judgements about the size, ownership and the relative naturalness of a brewer.  The use of the description ‘craft beer’ connotes much more than other generic terms such as ‘premium’ or ‘boutique’.

With the explosion of small, flavour-driven breweries in the United States, the US Brewers Association adopted a rigid definition of ‘craft beer’.

An American craft brewer is “small, independent and traditional”. This is defined as:

  • Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels.
  • Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
  • Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavour.

With Australian beer lovers looking longingly at the US brewing scene, it is interesting to relate this definition to Australia.

Three of the biggest players in Australia’s ‘craft brewing’ industry, Malt Shovel, Matilda Bay and Little Creatures, are wholly or significantly owned by Foster’s or Lion Nathan and so would be excluded from the US definition of ‘craft beer’ on that basis. However, in terms of size, the US measure of 2 million barrels* (1 barrel = 117 litres) equals approximately 234 million litres of beer. That’s a big ‘small’ brewery. Adding up all of the the Lion Nathan-owned Malt Shovel Brewery’s brands, including James Squire, Mad Brewers , Kosciuszko Pale Ale and New Norcia Abbey Ale, their total beer output comes in at approximately 3 per cent of the US criteria. This includes beers that are produced in the SAB brewery in South Australia, as well as the Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney.

The Foster’s-owned Matilda Bay Brewery brews out of two sites, the Garage in Victoria and also Cascade Brewery in Tasmania. Even working at theoretical full production, both of these breweries together could only produce 4.3 million litres of Matilda Bay beer, less than 10 per cent* of the US craft ceiling. Australia’s largest independent brewery, the family-owned Coopers, brewed 58.78 million litres of beer in 2009, a fifth of the maximum for a US craft brewery.

In the US, the largest brewery to fit within the definition, Boston Beer Company–makers of the Samuel Adams brand, is about to pass through the amber ceiling. In 2008 it produced 1.992 million barrels (233 million litres) of beer, much of it produced by contract brewers. Yet founder Jim Koch argues that when the two-millionth barrel rolls off the line, nothing’s going to change. His company—five time bigger than Coopers—is still small, he says, accounting for only about 0.5 percent of US beer consumption. Other brewers brewing highly regarded beers are disqualified under the US definition because they are owned by a foreign companies or have signed distribution deals with large brewers.  All argue that they make their beer the same as if they fit within the definition and their beer should still be regarded as craft.

Australia’s market size makes volume comparisons with the US irrelevant, but ownership and methods are.  Australian Brews News decided to speak directly to five craft brewers and ask them what ‘craft’ beer is. We asked them for 150 words outlining what craft beer is, specifically:

  • What does ‘craft’ beer mean to you?
  • In your view does Australia need a definition of craft beer similar to the US? Does it matter for consumers who makes the beer?

It sparked a great response, with many providing for more than the requested 150 words, so we’ve had to post each answer separately. You can see the brewers who replied below. Click their names to see what craft beer means to them. Let us know what craft beer is to you too.

*now 6 million barrels.

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7 Responses to What is ‘craft’ beer

  1. Pat Casey on February 3, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Applied to a brewery, I thought “craft” was a euphemism for undercapitalised . . .

  2. Ian Watson on January 27, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    It is the intention of the beer, not the size of the brewery that makes it craft.

    • Editor on January 27, 2011 at 6:54 pm

      Fully agree…though that makes it hard to keep the stats!

  3. Victor on January 27, 2011 at 12:26 am

    You only really asked three craft brewers plus fosters and lion nathan. Obviously the big brewers would like to play in the craft space but they really don’t fulfill any of the ideals of real craft brewers

    • Editor on January 27, 2011 at 6:18 am

      Thanks for the comment Victor. From memory when this was first written I asked a number of other small brewers, but not all replied. Even so, the six perspectives provided a good representative sampling thought.

      As for the ideals of ‘real’ craft brewers, what are they? That’s what the article was trying to investigate and to start the discussion about what a craft brewer is. Is a beer like Alpha Pale Ale that is brewed in comparatively small batches, traditionally and in a way that it ranks as one of the more flavourful APAs in Australia ‘craft’ beer or is it discounted just because a large company like Fosters owns the brewing equipment.

      I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I think it needs to be discussed more than just saying X brewery isn’t ‘craft’ because of who owns it. To me well made and flavoursome beer is good beer regardless of who makes it – just as badly made or poor quality beer is just that even if it comes from a small brewery that espouses certain ideals.

      ‘Craft’ to me is more a term relating to the quality of the beer, ‘microbrewer’ is a more apt term to describe a small and independent brewer. While Matilda Bay and Little Creatures aren’t microbreweries, I think their beers are consistently some of the best of the style in Australia and are made using techniques and with the results that would see them deemed ‘craft’ beer if they weren’t owned by big brewers. Who owns the brewing equipment shouldn’t change that, and in all the discussion around their inclusion or exclusion from the Top 100 list no-one debated the quality of a beer like Alpha, just that they shouldn’t be included in a ‘craft’ list because who owns the brewery. That doesn’t make sense to me, shouldn’t Fosters be congratulated for making a beer like Alpha Pale Ale as loudly as they are damned for making Carlton Dry Fusion?

      • Ian on January 28, 2011 at 8:36 am

        Fosters, Lion Nathan et al should be congratulated for allowing and supporting the great brewers in their craft arms to continue producing beers of enduring quality and releasing seasonal/one off brews which delight the drinking public.
        Without the commercial support of the part owner giants, our gateway beer producers would not meet the market at a breadth that allows substantial growth in the sector which we are experiencing.

        It is this growth which allows our much loved and lauded micros to succeed.

        I concur with Ian’s comment above and I would like to see someone challenge the intent of Little Creatures Single Batch IPA! Nearly 12 months on and it’s drinking better than ever.

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