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What is Craft Beer?

A Complete Guide on Craft Beer

What is Craft Beer

Craft beer: Though it has been around for decades (or centuries, arguably), it has only recently become a true phenomenon and a major part of cultures across the globe.

With new craft breweries popping up every day, it has never been easier to imbibe high-quality, well-made beer from all over the world.

But just what is craft beer? The answer to that question is far more involved and interesting than you might expect – and the subject of a raging debate in America (and around the world).

The Brewers Association, craft beer’s nominal governing body in the United States, is responsible for various beer events and festivals throughout the year (most notably October’s Great American Beer Festival), and also provides a frequently updated list of beer styles – most recently changed to include various iterations of the hazy New England-Style IPA.

The BA does not define what a craft beer is per se, but it does outline that most craft beers come from a craft brewery, which it defines by the following criteria (per

  • Small – Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer 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 brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.

That’s the technical definition of a craft brewer as defined by a craft beer-related organization, and as such, craft beers are any beers that are created by those small, independent and traditional breweries.

However, and the Brewers Association are perhaps not the most reliable source when it comes to information regarding the definition of craft beer, as they are first and foremost a lobbying group meant to drum up interest and support for the craft beer movement (which they have certainly done a good job of in recent years).

That must be said because after the BA defines craft beer, they immediately go into a discussion of their “Independent Craft Seal,” which launched in the summer of 2017 and has already been adopted by the majority of craft breweries in the U.S.



Its purpose is to “send a clear message” that the beer being imbibed is made by a small, independent craft brewer, according to Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza.

That “message” is meant as a direct response to macro breweries that have been purchasing or investing in craft breweries in an attempt to tap into the impressive growth the craft market segment has enjoyed over the past few years. Though that surge of acquisitions has slowed since 2017, it is still a major talking point among attuned craft beer-heads.

Craft beer, while a growing and thriving market segment of fermented beverages, still only makes up a tiny sliver (12.7% of beer sales volume in 2017) of beer sales worldwide, which are still mostly dominated by immense, multinational brewing conglomerates such as AB InBev, Heineken NV and Carlsberg Group

There is a fierce debate going on between independent craft breweries (those that qualify for the BA’s seal) and breweries that have been sold to or purchased by members of “big beer” – and it is a skirmish that is being framed as a battle for the heart and soul of “craft beer.” What is the true definition of craft, if there is one?

After the debut of the Independent Craft Seal in the summer of 2017, members of The High End, AB InBev’s stable of breweries that had formerly been a part of the accepted craft beer scene, responded with a video of their thoughts on the seal:



Clearly, the veteran craft brewers quoted in this video are not thrilled by the BA’s decision to separate them from their fellow brewers because they decided the right decision for their business was to become part of a macro brewing conglomerate.

Many of the brewers featured describe the coming war between the beer industry and the wine and spirits industry, which Wicked Weed Brewing Founder Walt Dickinson describes militaristically:

“We’re all making beer, we’re all brewers. I’m pretty sure Pernicious IPA was a craft beer two months ago [when Wicked Weed was purchased by AB InBev], and I think it’s still a craft beer now. We’re all doing the same thing, and we’re now fighting this bigger battle, which is wine and spirits, and we’re losing margin every year. This is a civil war [between the BA and Macro], and there’s this armada [wine and spirits] coming across the Atlantic to crush us, and we’re shooting each other with muskets and slingshots.”

Garrett Wales of 10 Barrel Brewing Co. was more blunt:

“The beer does the talking, not the label on the package. The consumer makes up their own mind.”

Ultimately, the Independent Craft Seal and macro vs. craft argument are mostly matters of semantics. At the end of the day, members of both the BA and The High End want the same thing: high-quality beers made by passionate people who care about the liquid they are creating for consumers. And those who enjoy drinking beers of all kinds (craft, macro or anything in between) have full faculty to decide what they want to drink – no matter how it’s labeled.

Craft beer is a malleable term – as the BA changing its definition to support The Boston Beer Co.’s inclusion on multiple occasions would suggest – and in the end, as long as beer drinkers are happily enjoying a flavorful, well-made beer, doesn’t everyone win?

highland brewing co. stargazer white cans in front of lights

Photo Courtesy Highland Brewing Co.


Beer Wrangler's picture
It's so difficult to pin down what a "craft beer" is. The BA certainly don't own the term and as far as I know there is no legal definition (except in Italy) If The BA's Idea of "small" is a 6 Million Barrel brewer I would invite them to walk round a brewery capable of producing such giant quantities (or more likely a number of very large breweries under one brand). It will be automated and industrial - a far cry from small, artisanal, craft made beer. Let's stop trying to define it and focus on: Quality, flavour, drinkability, harmony and balance. If a beer is independent of global multi-nationals then fair enough - mention it and the consumer can decide, but let's not pretend that individual brewers who happen to ultimately be employed by a global multi-national can't make craft beer. (Disclosure - I work with Goose Island in the UK)
Editorial Dept.'s picture
Well said The Beer Wrangler! Cheers!
velo.mitrovich's picture
Over here in the UK it's the big debate at brewers' lectures and congress and there is no answer. It all reminds me of the USDA trying to define what the term 'natural' means - it's in the eyes of the beholder. Tied into all of this is the dreaded label 'sell-out'. Is that when you sell 25% of your company to big beer; 50% or even 100%? Here we have Beavertown which last year took in investment from Heineken, giving them about 30% of the company. The owner of Beavertown, Logan Plant, to ld me that he's always had a dream for Beavertown as far as growth and brewing went. He could either plod along and in 30 years he might have the money saved to do this, or he could take big beer money and start right now. He took the money, along with being able to bring in talent, scientists, etc, from big beer if and when he needed them. In San Diego people accuse Ballast Point of selling out (who in their right mind would NOT take a cheque for $1 billion!!!!). The last time I was there the beer tasted the same to me and I'd still call Ballast Point a craft brewery. I was talking about this to a small brewer in Manchester and he said what does it matter. He said the only thing that is important is if the customer is enjoying their beer. "Who cares if it's Corona or mine, or if it says Genuine Craft Brewed on the label. Customer enjoyment is what it's all about. We all need to just get off our high horses and just make good tasting beer.'
Editorial Dept.'s picture
Couldn't agree more velo.mitrovich! Cheers.

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