That Craft Beer You’re Drinking Isn’t Craft Beer. Do You Care?

Beer drinkers don't encounter the word "microbrew" much anymore. The preferred term now is "craft beer." But there's much discussion—and quite a bit of bitterness—about which brews are truly deserving of the label.

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Beer drinkers don’t encounter the word “microbrew” much anymore. One reasons why this is so is because in the rapidly expanding craft brewer scene, popular independent beer brands like Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Fat Tire are too successful to be considered “micro.” The preferred term now is “craft beer.” But there’s much discussion—and quite a bit of bitterness—about which brews are truly deserving of the label.

The Colorado-based Brewers Association, which represents more than 1,700 brewers in the U.S., has three criteria for a business to be defined as an American craft brewer: It must be small, independent, and traditional. More specifically, the brewer must produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer annually, less than one-quarter of the business can be owned or controlled by a company that’s not a craft brewer, and the products must be made with traditional ingredients such as malted barley.

It’s that second characteristic (the brewer’s independence) that has become the most contentious issue among beer makers. Blue Moon and Shock Top are the two highest-profile examples of brews that are not made by independent companies—their parent companies are MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev, respectively—yet which market themselves as craft beers. The Brewers Association and others have come to categorize such brews as “crafty” beers because manufacturers and marketers seem to deliberately conceal their true corporate heritage.

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This summer, the “craft” question came to the forefront thanks to the August issue of Consumer Reports, which included a story rating craft beers—and which included Shock Top, Goose Island, Blue Moon, and other beers that are produced by companies that the Brewers Association doesn’t consider to be craft brewers. The editors acknowledged the Brewers Association guidelines before disregarding them, stating, “For the purpose of this report, we included craft beers that market themselves as such as opposed to making selections based solely on barrel production or company ownership percentages.”

CR’s craft beer report drove beer geeks crazy, especially because Shock Top, which is made by the same people who bring you Budweiser and Busch Light, was rated as one of the best craft ales. The Beer and Whiskey Bros blog wrote that the inclusion of “crafty” beers in the article “makes Consumer Reports look pretty stupid,” and that the editors must have been drunk when putting together the study.

While the presence of Shock Top and Blue Moon in the CR report caused many beer lovers to spit out their drinks in surprise and frustration, the article also included brands like Kona Brewing Company. That brand is part of the Craft Brew Alliance. So surely it’s OK to call Kona a craft beer, right? Not according to the Brewers Association guidelines. One-third of the Craft Brew Alliance, which calls itself an “independent craft brewing company,” is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. So Craft Brew Alliance beers aren’t craft brews, per the Brewers Association.

Unsurprisingly, the brewers and businesspeople being accused of producing inauthentic and misleading “faux craft” craft beers aren’t simply swallowing the criticism quietly. Tom Long, CEO of MillerCoors, has been the most outspoken defender of “crafty” brands like his company’s Blue Moon. “Blue Moon Brewing Co. has been around long before the vast majority of craft brewers,” Long said recently in the interview, quoted by Bloomberg News. “What exactly is crafty about that?”

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“Whatever style beer you might prefer, all we ask is that you judge us by the quality of the beer in the glass,” Long wrote in an opinion piece at CNN.

Goose Island, a Chicago-based brewer that was purchased by Anheuser-Busch in 2011, continues to think of itself as a craft brewer to this day. “Goose Island is a craft beer, period,” Goose Islander founder John Hall said in a statement when asked for comment. “The so-called definition of craft beer has evolved over the years. Both the brewery size and ingredients have been changed. I believe the beer drinkers are the ones who truly decide what is a craft beer or isn’t.”

And what do beer drinkers think? Last week, Beer Advocate readers began weighing in on the topic via an online poll asking how they define “craft.” Though there haven’t been a ton of votes yet, and the sampling is not random or statistically accurate, the most popular answer has been that the term “relates to the quality of the beer.” Only 14% said that the word relates to the Brewers Association guidelines; an equal percentage agreed with the statement that “craft” does not have any meaning.

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Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director, said via e-mail, “The Brewers Association does not define what craft beer is. That is up to the individual beer lover to discern.” Nonetheless, Herz defended the association’s particular usage of the “craft” label. “Craft brewer is not a marketing term,” she explained. “It is a description of a brewer who is different from the global brewing giants.”

Even more importantly, the Brewers Association sees the battle as one for truth in advertising. “If the lines continue to get blurred and ‘craft’ becomes commoditized, small and independent brewers will have a harder and harder time selling their products, getting shelf space, tap handles and placement on restaurant menus,” said Herz. “When a beer lover cares about transparency in brands that has nothing to do with being snobby. Beer lovers have a right to know when they are purchasing a product from a small and independent craft brewer or from a large globally owned brewery.”

Representing the beer geeks, Jim Galligan of Beer and Whiskey Bros said that while he mostly agrees with the Brewers Association’s guidelines regarding the “craft” label, “I also think a lot depends on if a brewer’s heart is in the right place.”

“The size of the brewery and who owns the brand isn’t the main issue,” he explained. “It’s really about a brewer trying to make the best product they can imagine, putting quality and flavor ahead of dollars and sense.” And Galligan and many others feel that “for mega brewers like A-B InBev and MillerCoors, and their ‘crafty’ brands like Shock Top, Batch 19 and Landshark Lager might look the part, but they really don’t taste the part.”

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Though some may view the whole “craft beer” labeling debate as annoying and pretentious, Galligan sees the discussion as important for beer lovers everywhere. “People demanding an honestly good product is a good thing,” he said. It’s not remotely snobby or silly that people care enough about good beer to want to protect the scene from corporate brewers “who are simply looking to cash in without making meaningful contributions to craft beer culture,” Galligan said.

Ultimately, it all comes back to producing the best product possible, he said. “I think most people just want delicious and interesting beers to drink, and the size of the brewery that makes them matters far less than the quality of what’s in their glass.”