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Crafty Moves

The ever-changing definition of craft beer

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, you’ve heard the term “craft beer.” To most folks, the expression is synonymous with small, independent breweries as opposed to the massive conglomerates of Big Beer. Would it surprise you to learn that the very people to whom the industry look to define the phrase have changed the definition three times since 2007? Well, it’s true, and they’re about to change it again.

The Brewers Association, the de facto industry advocate and powerhouse that encompasses the American Homebrewers Association and the Great American Beer Festival, is the agency that has taken on the duty of defining exactly what makes a “craft beer” brewery. The organization has roots as far back as 1942 in the Small Brewers Committee, but didn’t come into its own until the Brewers Association of America merged with the Association of Brewers to form the Brewers Association in 2005.

The term has been around much longer than the Association. Until the late 1970s, small breweries were few and far between, mostly due to taxes on beer barrels, in place since the end of Prohibition. Then, in 1976, President Gerald Ford reduced the beer tax from $9 to $7 a barrel. Jimmy Carter followed up in 1978, when he repealed a law prohibiting citizens from brewing their own beer. Between the shift in taxation and the legalization of home brewing, the door was open for the first wave of smaller breweries.

Just a few years later, writer Vince Cottone first used the words “craft brewery” to describe the small operations popping up around the nation. These places employed traditional practices to brew limited batches of beer. The phrase had been coined, but a true definition had still not been made official.

When the Brewers Association came on the scene, making the term official was a top priority–and the more specific and measurable, the better. They first settled on a definition that required breweries to meet three criteria. The brewery had to be small, producing fewer than two million barrels of beer a year. It had to be independent; a brewery could not have more than 24-percent ownership by an alcohol industry entity that was not a craft brewery. And it had to be traditional, meaning that most of the flavors each brewery made were derived from traditional brewing ingredients (malted grain, hops and yeast).

Small is the main criterion that has changed since that time, with two million barrels a year morphing to six million. This shift is widely attributed to the ambitions of larger breweries, like The Boston Beer Company (creator of Samuel Adams), to remain within the craft confines.

The newest definition being mulled by the Brewers Association powers that be would drop the “traditional” requirement to make room for breweries that also make hard cider, mead and other alcoholic beverages which are officially taxed as beer. Like many of the Brewers Association’s actions, this is a controversial move. It seems to once again bow to the pressures of larger craft brewers who are seeing more growth in their non-beer portfolios than in their beer offerings.

So, over the years, the definition of craft beer seems to have narrowed and then widened again. By the end of this decade, it might change once more. But you can be sure of one thing: small brewers will still make tasty beer and they’ll still be considered craft brewers.

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