Yep, I’ve decided to tackle this hairy subject. It seems that sooner or later, every craft beer enthusiast, every beer geek, will have to come up with a good answer to this question. Usually it’s the first thing that friends and family ask you when you shove an IPA into their hands and tell them to try “craft beer.”

Pictured: A creature slightly less elusive than the definition of craft beer

The problem is, nobody seems to agree on what we mean by “craft beer.” Many have tried, and some have even argued that there is no good definition, that even attempting to find one is less likely to succeed than those crazies who stalk Big Foot (you know who you are).

And it’s certainly true that one can lump a lot of inappropriate things under the banner of “craft”. For an excellent treatment of that subject, please read Lucy Corne’s article here.

But I think that there are at least a few reasons why finding a workable definition for craft beer is important (and not just so that you have an answer for your buddy who is trying that IPA):

1. It’s a fledgling industry. For craft brewers out there, especially in South Africa, the craft beer industry is still very young. Yes, it is reaching the eyes and ears of more people every day, but it is still very, very tiny in relation to other markets.

Unlike the States, we don’t even have reliable data on who craft beer drinkers are, or how many of them are out there. So, having a proper definition helps in defining markets and helps brewers make better business decisions, which in turn will help grow the market and ensure survival of artisan brewers

It helps to define standards and identify pretenders. Craft brewers (and roasters, and bakers) are often mavericks, people who like to swim against the stream. But it’s not long before that disruption becomes yet another marketing gimmick.

So, having a definition that distinguishes craft brewing (baking, roasting, etc) from other, more mass-produced endeavors is useful if only to create a shared consciousness among craftspeople about what we are willing to fight for. It also helps call out businesses that are trying to capitalize on the goodwill craft creates without wanting to actually contribute to the craft movement.

Here goes: I think that craft, and more specifically, craft beer, is distinguished by these key factors: 

1. Artisan brewers are fanatical about quality of beer and will often do commercially “stupid” things to ensure this quality. This is because they are producing art, not product.

Yes, I know that there are brilliant, really nice people working at the big commercial brewers. They are not horrible to old people, and don’t eat little fluffy bunnies in their spare time (although…).Your average SABMiller brewer is fanatical about quality and consistency of product as well, but what distinguishes craft brewers is that second part of the definition.The part about being stupid.

A case study in this theme is Sam Callegione’s story about Dogfish Head’s take on making a craft version of cheap malt liquor (you can read about it in Sam’s book, Brewing up a Business). In their quest to make the ultimate craft malt liquor, they spent a lot of money on premium, rare ingredients, roped in highly-paid staff members (including Sam and the COO) to bottle the product by hand, and sold the beer at way more than malt liquor is ever sold at.

None of these decisions made any sense from an accountant’s high profit, low-cost perspective. Fact is, commercial brewers at big corporate brewers will never be allowed to make beer like this unless there is a huge market and unless the profits can compete with their other, main-stream lines (both very unlikely).

But this sort of financial “stupidity” is exactly what distinguishes craft brewers from commercial ones. Craft brewers would rather pay premium prices for a rare or special ingredient than source the cheapest, most mass-produced ingredients simply to ensure a large profit margin.It makes for risky business models, but fortunately, craft brewers keep operating costs small and don’t employ thousands of people, so a living can be made.

The approach has limitations built in—given the high costs of producing some beers, plus the logical limit of what you can charge for a bottle of beer, craft brewers are sometimes limited in the volumes they can produce (some would argue that this adds to the charm of craft beer, however).I often find that people simply don’t understand this characteristic of craft beer.

Maybe it’s because as a society we’ve lost a lot of traditional artisanship, and because the predominant models are those handed down by the big corporate success stories like Coke and Virgin.

Massive global food and beverage companies are massive because, in part, they’ve found the right balance between cheap ingredients, mass appeal, and large distribution networks.

Craft brewers however, are not aiming for this endpoint. What they want to achieve is, for want of a better word, art. And art can be mighty stubborn about profit margins and such..

2. Craft does not aim at mass appeal. It is often disruptive of mass appeal.

Again, when we look at big business, we look at the success of mass appeal. Why is Coke so successful? Because almost everybody likes (to some extent) Coke. MacDonalds? Same thing.

A Mic-Ds burger is not gourmet food, but it is also not absolutely horrible either. So billions of people will eat a couple of them, at least once a year.

Mass produced beer is similar. SABMiller’s Castle is a good American premium lager. It does not offend too many taste buds, and it is quite refreshing on a hot day. It has mass appeal. Craft beer does not aim for mass appeal. 

Craft brewers like to play with definitions of what beer should taste like, they like producing obscure styles like Saisons and Imperial Ales that have not found their way into the lexicon of beer drinkers. Also, they like poking fun at the boring, re-tread ways of their more commercially-minded cousins (although that’s not a requirement, it is fun).

In many ways craft beer is the rebellious off-shoot of mass produced beer that says: “I don’t care if only a few hundred people appreciate this weird taste. As long as they’re fanatical about it and I enjoy making it, that’s okay.”

Mass market brewers do not have that luxury, and nor should they, really.

And Finally..

There are other ways of defining craft, but I think the two above do the job pretty well.

It allows us to have meaningful discussions about the craft beer industry without it devolving into silly “chemical beer” debates, and what I especially like about it is that it opens to scrutiny brewers, large and small, who claim the “craft” title.

For instance, it allows us to call bullshit on mass-production brewers who think that they are making craft beer by producing slightly altered, smaller quantities of their commercial brands and labeling this “craft. It also asks some searching questions of existing “craft” brewers who seem content to produce beers that offer little differentiation in terms of taste from existing mass brands, contain only the cheapest ingredients, but are sold at high “craft” prices.

Your thoughts? Am I up a tree or is this some brilliant revelation (probably not..)?