What exactly is craft beer?

Find out what defines a craft brewer compared to a non-craft brewer.

As craft beer sales continue to grow at unprecedented rates and what were once small breweries produce more and more beer to keep pace with demand, some people may wonder- what differentiates a craft beer from any other beer? Moreover, what defines a craft brewer compared to a non-craft brewer?

After months of painstaking research and taste tests, I have found that there may not be one agreed-upon definition. Although an exact definition is nebulous, the Brewers Association (BA), the major U.S. organization “of brewers, for brewers, and by brewers”, suggest that craft beer must be small, independent, and traditional. While the definition of a small brewery has changed over the past few years, it used to be two million barrels or less, currently, annual production must be six million barrels or 186 million gallons of beer or less.

The second requirement is that the brewery is independent. The BA defines independent as “…less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.” Phil Howard, Associate Professor at Michigan State University, and Ginger Ogilvie (2011) demonstrate the somewhat surreptitious concentration in the U.S. Beer Industry with a series of spectacular informational graphics. As mega brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have been gobbling up smaller craft breweries like Goose Island and Kona, beers that were once defined as craft, no longer fit the BA’s definition. If you are confused, this page, which highlights several craft beers that you didn’t know weren’t craft beers, or this app, which allows you to instantly check the “craft beer status” of any American beer, may help clear things up.

The third requirement is that the majority of the beer volume produced by a craft brewer must have flavor derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.

In addition to the above requirements, the Brewers Association provides the following craft beer concepts

  • Craft brewers are small brewers
  • The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent
  • Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
  • Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events
  • Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
  • Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.
  • The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer. 

If this information whets your appetite, check out their website for heaps of information on the history of beer, beer styles, ingredients, and more. Better yet, head out to one of Michigan’s 250+ craft breweries and ask for beers that feature Michigan-grown hops and barley! 

Please continue to visit Michigan State University Extension, Michigan State University Extension Hops Webpage, and the Michigan State University Hops News Facebook page for up to date information.

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