What Does “Craft Beer” Actually Mean?

by Alyssa Pereira

Not all beers are made equal. That much is made apparent in a walk through any local market anywhere in the US.

The majority of beer sections in American grocery stores and neighborhood bodegas aren’t exactly artisan creations. Rather, they’re mass-produced, packaged, and sold by one of just a few international beverage conglomerates.

But alongside them, if you look carefully, you’ll often see in smaller quantities the special, slightly more expensive, locally made beers. Like mass-made macro brews, these beers are also created with your typical beer ingredients: malts, hops, yeast, and water. But unlike the macros, they get to utilize the designation craft.

The fight to claim the term craft as it relates to beer has been brewing for several decades. Here’s why.

What is craft beer?

Beer is an alcoholic beverage made by brewing and fermentation from malted barley, oats, or other grains, and flavored with hops (or historically in some cases, herbs) for added taste. Generally speaking, a craft is “an art or trade that requires a special, usually manual skill.” The term has evolved into an adjective to describe a food or beverage made with such abilities. It’s an old term, first recorded before the year 900 and stemming from the Old English cræft (“strength, skill”) and related to the German Kraft.

The compounded term craft beer was coined by Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Vince Cottone in the mid-1980s. Around this time, microbreweries were proliferating around the United States, and the success of their products was beginning to challenge large alcohol conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors for refrigerator space in consumer grocery stores.

In 1987, in a guide book to breweries of the Pacific Northwest, Cottone explained his reasoning for selecting the word craft to describe such career zymurgists, writing, “I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally.”

The phrase caught on quickly, popping up in industry trade magazines and at conferences, eventually making its way into the title of the annual Craft Brewers Conference in 1996, a yearly gathering of American artisan brewers. By the end of that decade, the Institute of Brewing Studies— which eventually was absorbed into today’s dominant brewing industry trade group, the Brewers Association—formalized a definition of craft beer.

This mid-90s description required that a craft brewer must meet four criteria. They must:

  1. have a federal brewer’s notice—a license to brew beer;
  2. only sell beer made with less than 10% adjuncts (such as fruit, chocolate, coffee, or other non-traditional beer ingredients);

  3. not use artificial ingredients;

  4. and not be more than 30% owned by a large macro brewery.

Such a definition helped to guide the explosive growth of craft beer. Newly popular styles like the bitter, hoppy India Pale Ale, the boozy, viscous bourbon barrel-aged stout, and the mixed-fermentation ale—more commonly referred to as sours—began to rapidly gain traction with drinkers. Over the next couple decades, these novel drinks would help the craft beer industry flourish.

What beer earns the craft label today?

In today’s use, craft is still no arbitrary label in the beer world. While some large companies attempt to masquerade their mass-made beers as “craft” offerings, small brewers continue to crusade to promote beers made by small and independently owned companies. As a result, craft remains a vigorously defended title, defined and redefined annually by the Brewers Association, the trade group composed of and self-governed by brewers and brewery owners all over the country.

By their standards, craft brewers must be the following:

  • Small: A craft brewery may produce “six million barrels of beer per year” or less.

  • Independent: “Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.”

  • Traditional: A craft brewery’s output must primarily be beer. In other words, no hard seltzer companies allowed.

In short, craft brewers produce beer in small batches, and sell it to locals in a given community, town, city, or region. But not always.

Over the last decade or so, massive brewing companies have bought a series of small brewing companies and bolstered their production and distribution so as to sell their beer nationwide under the guise of being craft-like. While these beers are actually no longer craft by BA definitions, they still may appear to consumers as such.

The term craft has become so popular, its use has spilled into other areas of gastronomy as a catch-all adjective to express that something was handmade or produced with precision in a small quantity. Since the emergence of craft beer, craft cocktails, coffee, and chocolate have since become a part of the modern artisanal craft movement.

But it all started with the popularity of beer. And these days, the drink is more popular than ever, with most Americans living within 10 miles of an independent craft brewery, according to the Brewers Association. That’s a lot of delicious, skillfully made beer to go around. Bottoms up!

Alyssa Pereira is a freelance writer in San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on SFGate.com, SPIN Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Paper, Vice, and others.

We hope you enjoy your drinks (whether craft beer or not) responsibly, otherwise you’ll be fair game to be called one of these many synonyms for drunkard.

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