Friday, November 19, 2010

What the Hell is it That Makes a Beer a Craft Beer?

When sitting around with my friends, chewing the fat over a few pints, inevitably the topic of craft beer comes up. We all pontificate at length about which craft beers we like, which craft beers we don't like, what breweries are producing the best craft beers and where the best places to drink craft beer are, but one topic is usually avoided like the plague, that being, what exactly makes a beer a craft beer.
Sierra Nevada is the 6th largest
producer of beer in the US,
yet considered a "craft brewery"

It is a question that, on first blush, seems simple and should be fairly easy to answer. Surely somewhere, someone has created a definition or laid out criteria that helps us understand which beers are craft beers and which are not. People are quick to categorize beers, labelling them as "mainstream", "mass-produced", "domestic", "specialty", "premium" and "craft", to mention a few categories I have used and heard and often these labels carry positive and negative connotations. For example the categories of mainstream, mass-produced and domestic beers often carry negative connotations and are thought to be drank only by lager louts and those with little or no discerning tastes while premium, locally produced and craft beers are considered by many to be superior products and drank by connoisseurs and beer aficionados. But often the lines that define these categories are blurry and overlap making it difficult pigeonhole a beer into one specific category. And because of this blurring of the lines, I find that is almost impossible to figure out what categories of beer are going to produce great beers and which are not.

Take Sierra Nevada Brewery for example, which, according to, is the second-ranked craft brewery in the USA, but which is also ranked as the sixth largest brewery in regards to production by Beer Info. So, at first glance, according to being ranked as the sixth largest beer producer in the USA, Sierra Nevada appears to be a mainstream brewery that mass-produces beers, yet the beers they produce are considered to be among the best craft beers available in North America. Martin Williams, Vice Presient of the Vancouver chapter of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), states he still considers Sierra Nevada a craft brewery "because of their dedication to traditional ingredient quality" and their practice of not compromising taste and quality by using such ingredients as corn syrup and has no problem with Sierra Nevada being a highly thought of craft brewery despite them being a very large brewery as well.

Lets look locally at Granville Island Brewery, considered a craft brewery, yet many of their beers, such as their lager, honey lager and pale ale, are middle-of-the-road and, in my opinion, if not mainstream, then just one step above mainstream beers and should not be considered craft beers. Having said that, their is no doubt their Brew Master, Verne Lambourne, is a craft brewer and produces some excellent seasonal craft beers, which are limited releases, such as the pumpkin ale, which was available around Halloween and their winter ale, now on tap around the city.

But I have rambled off the point somewhat, so lets get back to my original question: what the Hell is it that makes a beer a craft beer? I posed this question to a few people whose knowledge about beer I respect and not surprisingly the answers were varied. To add some more mud to the all-ready cloudy waters, I also asked if mainstream breweries that produce large volumes of beer can produce craft beer.
Mainstream beer
brewed by a
craft brewery?

Lets begin first with The Brewers Association of America (BAA) which has attempted to define what makes a beer a craft beer. According to their web site, "the hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation." They further stipulated that craft beer often combines "traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness" that enable craft brewers to "interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent". So, at least according to the BAA, craft beer should use both traditional and non-traditional ingredients and be creative interpretations of historic styles of beer, which through innovation and daring, create new styles and tastes for those brave enough to venture into the unknown with the brewer.

Fellow beer blogger, Bier Festen, states he believes "craft beer is a beer that helps transform knowledge of beers to another level". This supports the BAA's opinion that craft beers should be innovative and creative and that craft brewers should push the envelope in creating new tastes and styles of beers. Beer Festen also supports that mainstream breweries can produce craft beer, using Okanagan Springs and their Reserve Porter, which he classifies as a craft beer produced "by a big production brewery" and a product that gets overlooked because it has been put out by Okanagan Springs. Anthony Frustagli, co-owner of St Augustine's, where you will find 40 taps of "craft beers" on offer, believes that ingredients are the key to defining craft beer and "loosely defines (craft beer) as any beer whose very ingredient is used to enhance flavor and not lighten flavor".  So again, no precise definition but an emphasis on quality ingredients added with the purpose of flavor and distinctiveness. Anthony adds that he does not consider a brewery a craft brewery if they make decisions solely based on accountants needs rather than the brewer's needs. He also supports the idea that bigger production breweries can produce craft beers, using Surrey's Russell Brewing and their Brewmaster Series of limited release beers.

Finally, I asked Storm Brewing's owner/brewmaster James Walton his thoughts. James is a craft brewer in every sense and has created some of the most innovative and unique beers, like his Basil IPA and Insane Fruit Lambic beers, to name a few. James, as he is like to do, took a very complicated and complex issue and beautifully simplified things stating "just don't let the accountants be the brewers...any brewer can brew (craft) beer".

So, as you can see, what makes a beer a craft beer is not as simple as it first appears. And it is apparent from the examples given above that it is not possible to label a beer by the brewery it comes from or judge whether a beer is going to be a craft beer or not based on the size of brewery it comes from. All in all, I think, that you have to be the judge of what beers you like and what beers you don't and be daring to try different styles and types of beers to find what it is that pleases you, whether that beer comes from a mass-producing brewery or your neighbour's basement.

I'd like to hear others opinions on this subject. Please feel free to comment here on on my Facebook page VanEast BeerBlog..

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