What’s a ‘craft beer’, anyway?

In my early beer-drinking days my consumption habits were much different. It was the early 2000’s and most of my drinking happened at my favourite local pub in the town where I was going to university. Its draft list was modest and straight-forward, exactly what you’d expect at the time – Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue, Rickard’s Red and a couple other things. In an effort to find something I liked I most often gravitated toward Labatt 50, for better or for worse.

And then something wonderful happened. Sometime around 2008 I tried a new beer. It was from Ontario (gotta love local!) and was a new type I’d never had before, a Kolsch. It was delicious! And it was a craft beer.

I jumped head first into the world of Ontario craft beer. Yes, I became one of those people, a true beer snob. I happily eschewed the macros (Molson, Coors, Labatt) in favour of the smaller guys (Steamwhistle, Mill St, Beau’s), all of which have expanded immensely since I first drank them. I began regularly going to beer festivals and seeking out the least known, smallest batch beers I could find. I started keeping an eye out for breweries and brewpubs whenever I went someplace new in case there was the chance I could try something new that would blow my mind.

It wasn’t until I was a seasoned craft beer buff that it started to dawn on me – what exactly is a ‘craft beer’?

Defined by otherness

For a long time I think the craft beer industry struggled to define what it’s about because it was defined by what it isn’t as opposed to what it is. It’s not watery or boring in flavour and you can’t find it everywhere. But isn’t there a lot more to it than that?

The more I think about the immense variety of beers that all fall under the term ‘craft’ the more I liken it to ‘indie’ in reference to movies or music. It’s not really a genre at all, not in the aesthetic sense. It ends up speaking more to the ethos of the industry and how the artists think of themselves and their art. It’s similar with craft beer.

The three pillars of craft beer

After quite a bit of debate it looks like the industry has settled on a standard definition for craft beer. Although I’m sure there are still people out there who take issue with how the chips have fallen, these are commonly-agreed-upon factors that make up ‘craft’ beer for both the American and Ontario brewers associations.

Small – Both associations list maximum units of annual production (eg. barrels or batches). This was borne out of a long-standing argument that craft beers are microbreweries and small by definition, as opposed to the Molson’s and Budweiser’s of the world, aka the macro breweries.

Independent – Again, both associations also have stipulations about who can own a craft brewery. Namely, that no one person can own too much. I think the point here is to keep a craft brewery from being controlled too tightly by the whims of one person or family or (eek!) corporation. I think this helps keep the door open for experimentation and variety in the beers craft breweries make.

Traditional – This is the one that always confuses me a little. I tend to think of craft beers and the breweries that make them as flying in the face of tradition. They make such interesting and cool beers! They seem like such rabble rousers and shit disturbers! And yet, both associations say that craft breweries should create beer that uses traditional or innovative methods. I think the key here is that, to call yourself a craft brewery, you should be mostly making BEER. Which makes sense.

What’s my own personal definition? I believe pretty strongly that a craft brewery shouldn’t be so a large in scale that it sacrifices product quality or experimentation. This is a completely selfish belief since I love trying new beers.

Beware the copycats!

It’s become a bit of a trend for bigger beer brands to call themselves craft in their marketing campaigns (I’m looking at you, Shock Top/Belgian Moon/Sierra Nevada/Goose Island). Don’t fall for it, these beers are not craft beer! They might taste good (I love a good Honkers Ale) but they can’t really define themselves as craft based on the definitions most used by the industry. Just don’t be a sucker to marketing campaigns, ok?


What’s your favourite craft beer?


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