What is craft beer? It’s a great question. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone has a thorough answer at the moment but allow me to try.
Even if I did have an answer, it’s a subject that would require a book to fully explore.
However, here’s an attempt to quickly get to the heart of what craft beer is.
I’ll expand on these points below but in a nutshell it’s about:
- The scale of production
- The community and people associated with it
- A wider movement involving craft and quality
- An evolution of beer from commodity to something more.
If you’re short on time, jump down to the summary below.
Craft Beer is About Size and Scale
At its simplest, craft beer is beer that isn’t produced by large macro brewers. These are the national or international corporates that run many of the brewing operations that produce big name beers. The type of beers that you’ll see in every pub, bottle shop or supermarket, often around the world.
Craft beer is made by smaller, independent breweries on a smaller scale.
So, it has something to do with the quantity of production. But it’s hard to define exactly where the line between “craft” and “not craft” is drawn.
How much beer does a brewery have to make to no longer be considered “craft”?
It’s a question that is very difficult to answer and which, in all reality, probably depends on a variety of factors, not least geography.
For example, the Australian Craft Beer Industry Association defines an Australian craft brewery as one that is based in Australia and produces less than 40 million litres a year.
However, the American Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as:
- Small: Less than 6 million barrels (approx. 71.4 million litres) produced a year.
- Independent: Less than 25% owned by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not a craft brewer.
- Traditional: The majority of alcoholic beverage output is beer made using traditional or innovative ingredients and fermentation.
These are quite sketchy definitions but at least they serve as a starting point. And it’s important to remember that like language can shift and change so can our definition of craft beer.
Whether it’s worth defining what a craft brewery is is another discussion entirely.
Craft Beer is About Creativity Versus Production
For now, perhaps it’s best to create a loose analogy to exemplify the difference between the small craft breweries and the big-boy macro breweries.
Think of packaged meat you buy from Coles or Woollies versus the joint sourced from a local farmer and cut by your local butcher. That’s one of the easiest ways I can describe the difference.
One is a process-driven, manufactured product. The other is something a little more special.
Craft beer is about the care, attention and investment that goes into producing something high quality against the low-cost, high volume production which treats food and drink as a manufactured product. It’s creativity versus production.
Craft beer is beer which is not produced as a commodity.
Craft Beer is About The People
Craft beer is about the people who pour their heart and soul into what they do. It’s often more than a job, it’s a vocation. A vocation that they’ve staked their livelihood on. In every craft beer is the passion and determination of someone who really cares.
All this isn’t to say that creativity and innovation can’t be found in macro breweries. It can.
But (while craft breweries are indeed run as businesses) macros are motivated by the bottom line, whereas very few craft brewers get into brewing as a means to make good money. They do it because they love it.
This is the fear that people have when corporates takeover craft breweries. That in an effort to increase profit margins, the corporates will sacrifice quality ingredients in the beers, and put a stop to small batch and experimental releases which are popular but don’t generate a lot of money.
These are the things that often make craft brewers get up in the morning and work hard every day to make beer that people love.
Craft Beer is Part of a Wider Movement
Craft beer is more than just the liquid. It encompasses a movement and is about the people and the community behind the breweries and the bars. It’s about the passion that people are putting into creating something they love and that they want other people to love.
It is part of a wider craft movement. It dovetails with the slow food movement, with paddock to plate and an increased interest in and awareness of where our food and drink comes from.
A section of the population is more and more interested in the ingredients that go into our food and drink and the story behind it.
Many people are now more interested in local and sustainably sourced produce and in seasonality. The people who are part of this movement often overlap with people involved in driving craft beer, on the production side and the consumer side.
Craft Beer is About the Community
Throughout history, beer has played an important role in society. It has helped to bring people together, to lubricate interaction and discussion. This is extended within craft. It unites people with a shared passion.
From the people who make it, through the people who serve it, to the people who drink it, there is a collegiate spirit, a sense of belonging to a wider community that you don’t necessarily get from large corporate beers.
People like football. People like cars. People like wine. There are niche communities everywhere and craft beer has its own.
There’s a lot to be said about beer’s significance as a cultural and social artefact but, with the very real risk of being accused of pretension, perhaps that particular tangent is best left for another time.
Craft Beer is an Evolution Not a Revolution
Craft beer is often spoken of in terms of revolution. I’ve been guilty of employing this hyperbole. It’s an easy to use phrase and a simple descriptor for the increased popularity we’ve seen around the world.
However, it’s not entirely accurate. Craft beer is more of an evolution than a revolution.
“[previously] the whole concept was that what was in the package didn’t matter, it was about the package and the advertising. And what craft beer has done, is that it’s changed that paradigm, and consumers, I think, now are much more oriented to what’s in the package, they’re not immune to what’s around the package, where it comes from but they care about what’s in the package”
Craft beer is the evolution of beer from a commodity, as you’d find in the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) industry or in terms of CPGs (Consumer Packaged Goods), to something more valuable.
Craft beer prioritises flavour and the quality of the “product” over the advertising and branding that goes around it. These marketing and sales strategies can still be used to sell the beer but it’s not the sole focus for the people producing the beer.
Craft beer is:
- Beer produced on a small scale (under 40 million litres in Australia) by independent breweries.
- Beer that favours creativity over process-driven manufacturing.
- About the people, community and stories behind the breweries and beers.
- Part of a wider movement in which people are more in tune with what they are consuming and where it comes from.
- An evolution of beer from a branded and packaged commodity to high quality beverage.
In truth, craft beer is many things to many people.
This is just a brief investigation in the heart of what craft beer is. I’d love to see this evolve with your views and opinions. Please leave a comment and tell me what craft beer is to you. How do you define craft beer?