It has been one of the most controversial topics in beer and brewing since the modern craft beer movement began. With the U.S. now having over 6,700 beer producers in operation, what determines whether a business is allowed to “officially” call itself a craft brewery is still a matter of great contention and now a matter which may spark new debate.
The Brewers Association (BA),the American craft beer industry’s foremost trade association, first defined what the organization will classify as a craft brewery in 2006. Today, that definition has changed, and the BA has published updates to its Craft Brewer Definition, as announced in a post by Director Paul Gatza on the BA website. According to Gatza, a review of the definition began this past Summer, and it was determined that one of its three pillars, the one labeled “Traditional,” was outdated.
The original three pillars of the Craft Brewer Definition laid out that these criteria were to be met in order to carry the craft brewer designation: 1. a brewer must be small; 2. a brewer must be independent; 3. a brewer must be traditional. The “traditional” pillar, which as a result of the recent review has been removed and replaced, required that a craft brewer use traditional ingredients in the brewing process, loosely meaning use of the following: water, yeast, malted barley and hops. Many have argued that this pillar left little room for innovation in the brewing process and little for experimentation with popular ingredients, something that has come to be an integral part of craft brewing culture.
“…seeking new sources of revenue to keep their breweries at capacity and address market conditions, [brewers] have created new products that do not fit the traditional definition of beer,” writes Gatza. “…the craft brewing industry has more than tripled in size and market share. As the industry evolves, so should the definition.”
As any fan or close follower of the craft beer market segment can attest, there is not much about what is being done in the industry these days that many would call traditional. Most brewers are tweaking styles, adding flavors from fruit, coffee and chocolate, using lab-altered hop derivatives and replacing barley with all kinds of alternative sugar sources. Changing the definition of beer seems to be what modern brewing is all about — the consumers are demanding it, and now the BA has confirmed that reality by changing what it means to brew.
The new amendment may shake things up beyond the craft beer industry, and its wake could be felt at the macro level. One of the earliest critiques of macro beer producers like AB InBev, maker of Budweiser, is that they have used adjunct ingredients in large quantities, something that is seen by some as cheapening the product. One could say that the traditional requirement from the BA acted as a measure to declare a quality differentiation between craft and macro. Now that the BA’s definition is stripped of that pillar, the craft beer fan’s protest against “fizzy yellow stuff” may strike a bit more softly in its amplification.
This is not the first time the Craft Brewer Definition has been amended. The “Small” pillar was the last to be adjusted when it underwent a cap increase, allowing a brewery to produce up to 6 million barrels of beer annually and still carry the craft designation. At the time, critics complained that concessions were being made to benefit one particular industry fore-parent and to tack another large producer onto the BA’s annual tabulations.
This recent change is likely to be welcomed by the vast majority of brewers, as they should perceive it as permission for continuing in the direction which they are already collectively guiding the industry. Although, permission is something that few craft brewers — in the U.S. and beyond — seek out in the process of bringing beer and all of its innovations to the people.
An American craft brewer is a small and independent brewer.
Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to rules of alternating proprietorships.
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.
Brewer: Has a TTB Brewer’s Notice and makes beer.