In the Craft Beer World, a Pecking Order Emerges

Not all suds claiming the "craft beer" label are created equal. Which beers are considered to be the height of pure unadulterated craft production, and which do beer geeks consider barely a step up from Bud?

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Not all suds claiming the “craft beer” label are created equal. While all beer makers say that quality and taste are what matter most, beer lovers consider many other factors—size of the brewer, corporate ownership, circumstances under which the beer was made—when evaluating brews. Which beers are considered to be the height of pure unadulterated craft production, and which do beer geeks consider barely a step up from Bud?

Over the course of covering the rapidly expanding craft beer world, it’s become clear that the field hasn’t merely grown more crowded, but far more complicated as well. For many, one of the big attractions to craft beer is that it’s created by brewmasters who are passionate first and foremost about beer, not profits or business plans. Yet over the years, as the number of players have doubled and doubled again, the craft scene has undeniably become big business.

Someone brewing in their basement, a local brewpub, and the world’s largest multinational beer companies all can and do say that they make “craft beer,” so it’s hard to tell exactly what the term means. Within this world, it’s now possible to categorize brews as belonging to the various craft subspecies listed below.

Corporate ‘Crafty’ Beers
Many beer lovers consider Blue Moon and Shock Top, brands owned and manufactured by MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev, respectively, to be the largest wolves in sheep’s clothing in the market. Dubbed derisively as “crafty” beers , these beverages present themselves to consumers as made with just as much love and artisan care as a mom-and-pop business running a local brewpub. Nowhere on their labels or packaging will drinkers see that these brands are owned by the world’s biggest beer companies.

To many, such marketing is sneaky and underhanded—or crafty, as it were. And to some diehard beer enthusiasts, on the spectrum of artisan/craft/local products, “crafty” beer is on par with Coors, or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for that matter. “Don’t buy Blue Moon!” a headline reads, atop a story that explains why the brand is not craft beer and runs through a long list of accusations indicating its corporate parent, MillerCoors, has a record of being anti-union, anti-woman, and anti-environment.

(MORE: Craft Beer Wants to Be Less Filling, Taste Great)

Tom Long, CEO of MillerCoors, has vehemently defended Blue Moon and some of the company’s other brands as deserving of the “craft beer” label. “Blue Moon Brewing Co. has been around long before the vast majority of craft brewers,” Long said in a quote cited by Bloomberg News. “What exactly is crafty about that?”

Craft Beer Sellouts
Independent ownership is one of the requirements for a brand to be considered a craft brewer, according to the definition established by the Brewers Association, which represents more than 1,700 American breweries. Specifically, the guideline means: “Less than 25 percent 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.”

Therefore, Goose Island, once deemed the maker of Chicago’s “finest and freshest hand crafted” beers, is not considered a craft brewer by the Brewers Association because it sold out to Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011. Members of the Craft Brew Alliance such as Redhook and Widmer Brothers are also regarded with disdain in certain circles because the one-third of the company is owned by AB-InBev, which also works with the brands in terms of national distribution.

Macrobrew Craft Beer
The Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams, is by far the nation’s largest craft brewer. That is, unless you don’t consider it a craft brewer because it’s so large.

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As far back as 2009, news outlets like the Washington Post were wondering whether the company was a craft brewer because it was producing around 2 million barrels annually—which at the time was the maximum output allowed for craft brews per the Brewers Association. The association has since expanded the limit to 6 million barrels annually, so the maker of Sam Adams can still be included atop the Brewers Association’s top 50 craft breweries list.

But it’s no longer possible to think of the Boston Beer Co.—or California’s Sierra Nevada or Colorado’s New Belgium, #2 and #3, respectively, on the top breweries list—as “microbreweries.” They’re just too big. Are they too big to be labeled as craft breweries? The topic’s open for debate. A 2012 BeerPulse poll asked whether the Boston Beer Company was a craft brewery, and slightly more than half of respondents said yes.

Basic Craft Craft Beer
This summer, the Brewers Association counted 2,483 craft breweries in the U.S. The vast majority of them are small and sold locally—so they not only fit the Brewers Association’s definition of a craft brewery, they also can legitimately still claim the less-used “microbrewery” label as well.

Do all beer geeks consider these businesses to be craft brewers? Nope. Some drinkers think that some locally produced beers just aren’t good enough to warrant the craft label. Others view companies that use contract brewers with skepticism. In such a situation, a business pays another company that actually does the brewing—and sometimes handles marketing, sales, distribution, and even the creation of beer recipes. recently posted a rather defensive story about this approach written by a woman who works for Bison Brewing, a company based in Berkeley, Calif., that handles its own recipe development but contracts out the brewing process. “When it comes down to it, contract brewers can be just as innovative, creative, passionate, and hardworking as their brick and mortar brewery-owning counterparts,” wrote Ashley Routson, a.k.a. The Beer Wench and “Director of Awesomeness” for Bison Brewing. “Good beer is good beer, regardless of how it is produced.”

(MORE: Too Much of a Good Thing? Concerns About Reaching the Craft Beer Saturation Point)

Some worry, however, that the quality, care, and passion just aren’t there in contract-for-hire situations. A Beer Advocate discussion thread asked, “Is contract brewing always a bad thing?” And while most readers replied that it wasn’t necessarily bad, the implication is that the hands-off approach typically doesn’t produce the best craft beer.

One step up from home brewers—who generally brew just for themselves and friends, not for sale—the nanobrewer is like a microbrewer, only smaller. States such as New Hampshire have made special provisions to encourage nanobreweries, offering licenses for $240 annually (rather than the usual $1,200) for brewers producing no more than 2,000 barrels per year.

Nanobreweries are a source of fascination because they’re thought of as true mom-and-pop operations making hard-to-find small batches in brewpubs and basements due to a passion for beer rather than the hope of big profits. “I think what’s really appealing about it is it’s a small craft,” Drew Fox, owner of 18th Street Brewery in Gary, Ind., told the Chicago Sun Times. “The individuals’ hands that are performing the craft are all over the beer.”