Defining craft beer is a little like defining art. There is a broad description of an easily graspable concept, but it defies a precise definition. And like art, the "craft" of beer is often in the eye of the beholder.
Wikipedia acknowledges the hard-to-pin down quality of craft beer in its entry for "craft brewing": The definition is not entirely consistent, but it typically applies to relatively small, independently-owned commercial breweries that employ traditional brewing methods and emphasize flavor and quality. The term is usually reserved for breweries established since the 1970s, but may be used for older breweries with a similar focus.
But who is defining "small", "independently owned" and "traditional"?
Craftbeer.com is the website of the American Brewer's Association. The Brewers Association has defined "craft brewer" so the organization can provide statistics on a growing beer industry segment consisting of the majority of the breweries in the U.S.
Craftbeer.com defines an American Craft Brewer* as:
Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
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 its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.
Clear as a hefeweizen, right?
These definitions are meant to keep the macrobreweries like Coors, Budweiser, Molson, and Labatts out of the craft classification for statistics purposes. But the definitions also manage to keep small breweries who have expanded from remaining in the craft brewer category, and breweries like Granville Island who have been taken over by macrobreweries out - even though some of the product being brewed there fits the "traditional" part of the definition.
If you ask Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and author if the Oxford Companion to Beer, he defines craft beer as "universally involv[ing] boldly flavoured beers coupled with a defiantly independent spirit."
All of which still leaves us in a bit of a grey area, but I'm not so sure that's a bad thing - at the very least it gives beer geeks something to passionately debate over a pint! I think its useful for the American Brewer's Association to make definitions and keep accurate stats about beer and brewers who could otherwise be ignored by big business. Being able to chart the rise of craft beer and its ever-expanding market share helps get the word out about craft beer and emphasizes that craft beer is not just a fad. The people are drinking it and demanding more of it. To me though, the most useful part of Craftbeer.com's definition is the "traditional" part. I think if you equate "traditional" with "quality" you get much closer to understanding what craft beer is all about.
Craft beer is part of the whole slow food, do it yourself, back to basics, 100 mile diet type movements that began after 9-11, although craft beer can trace its origin back to the 1970's and CAMRA's beginnings in the UK. Craft beer is about brewers taking pride in their craft and their product and consumers appreciating their efforts. Before prohibition beer had flavour, it was most often brewed locally and in smaller batches. Post-prohibition the resurgence of brewing was slow and moved in the direction of a few large breweries controlling the market because all the small breweries had gone out of business during prohibition. Alas these corporations provided the drinking public with mass-produced product that tended to be lacking flavour. Like the rise of McDonalds and the knowledge that you could go anywhere and eat the same familiar burger, the big brewers made it so that you could go anywhere in North America and drink the same familiar beer. Craft beer is the antidote to the flavourless boredom of mass-produced beer. Craft beer is artisanal, its experimental, it's fresh and new, and it has created a whole new segment of local economies. Oh, yeah, and it tastes good!
Craft beer is made with quality ingredients, often locally and sustainably sourced, sometimes even organic! It is made by people who love what they are doing and want to produce the best possible product. It is about the art of brewing more than it is about turning a profit. The attitude and approach of craft brewers sets them apart from people who just happen to brew beer for a living. They are artists.
So, to sum up my ode to craft beer, the spirit of it is more important than a specific definition. Craft beer is brewed by real people, using quality ingredients and it is brewed for the people.
#IPAday approacheth. This year it will be held on August 1st. But what is #IPAday?
Its a social media event, created by the Beer Wench, (real name Ashley Routson) a blogger and beer expert out of Berkely CA, after she saw other beverages getting attention by declaring themselves a day, so she named the first Thursday of August IPAday. Most of those other beverage days (such as Chardonnay day which was May 23rd) are corporate sponsored days. #IPAday is not. Its a day for the lovers of craft beer and India Pale Ales in particular to celebrate the best beverage on earth and create awareness via social media. Celebrate by hoisting a glass of IPA and tweeting about it, or attending an #IPAday event, or better yet, organize your own event! This is the third year of #IPAday, so look for it trending on twitter and other social media. The stats from last year are "roughly 12 thousand tweets from more than eight thousand people were sent out over a 24-hour period, yielding over 10 million impressions for the #IPAday hashtag on Twitter" - that's a whole lot of people getting excited about IPA!
I am not aware of any #IPAday events in the Lower Mainland this year, but if you happen to be in Kuala Lampur next week, there is an event at Taps Beer Bar! I have organized events for the past two years, but got busy this year and didn't make it happen. I can guarantee you though, that I'll be out and about enjoying an IPA or three on August 1st. I suggest you do the same.
In honour of #IPAday, my beer picks this week are some of the best local IPAs:
Driftwood Brewing's Fat Tug IPA - everyone loves this one!
Central City's Red Racer IPA - a favourite all across Canada
Parallel 49's Lord of the Hops - the newest local favourite (and such a great name) - like Michael Flatley, it does a stiff-armed, high-hopping dance on your palate!
* we're going with American information here because the Canadian equivalent to the Brewers Association has only the macrobrewers for members so only keeps stats on them, and the Craft Brewers Association of BC has a mere 16 members, so any stats they may keep would not be all-inclusive of BC craft beer