What is Craft Beer? Do We Care?

Craft beer has finally hit the big time.

The great keepers of the English language, Merriam-Webster, have added “craft beer” to the 2012 version of their Collegiate Dictionary.  Man cave, gastropub, and f-bomb were also added.

So now, thanks to Merriam-Webster, we know that craft beer is:

noun: a specialty beer produced in limited quantities: microbrew

Hmm . . I don’t know about you, but that’s not very helpful.  Fortunately, Merriam links us to a definition of microbrew: 

mi·cro·brew noun ˈmī-krō-ˌbrü: a beer produced by a microbrewery

Oh, come on, Merriam, you’re killing me here.  Now we need to check out the definition of microbrewery:

mi·cro·brew·ery noun ˌmī-krō-ˈbrü-ə-rē, -ˈbru̇r-ē: a small brewery making specialty beer in limited quantities

Anyone else feel like we’re going in circles here?

The Brewers Association defines an American craft brewer as one that is small, independent and traditional. Small, by their definition, is annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.  That number rose dramatically a couple of years ago when it appeared Boston Beer Co. was soon to roll past the previous annual production limit.

Why raise the number?  Because there’s an important statistic in craft beer:  craft beer’s percentage of the beer sales market which reached 5.7%  in 2011 and continues to rise.  Lose a massive producer like Sam Adams and the percentage drops fast and furious. It’s a much more important statistic than this one.

Interestingly, the Brewers Association doesn’t define craft beer in their beer glossary.  Or even just “beer.” But in the vein of Merriam-Webster, I suspect it would be something like:  beer made by an American craft brewer.  Which leaves out and pisses off the rest of the world, so perhaps they’d broaden that up some.

Merriam-Webster says “craft beer” as a term was first used in 1986, a claim backed up by this very interesting post on Stan Hieronymus’ Appellation Beer blog.* You’ll note that Stan addressed the issue without answering the question of what is “craft beer” in a post from 2007.  Curiously, he linked to the Brewers Association’s definition of craft beer, a link which no longer works and a definition which is no longer included on the site.

I suppose even the Brewers Association gave up on the task and reverted to the idea that craft beer is beer produced by an American craft brewery.  (For our international readers, remember, I’m just the messenger here.)  (Actually, I don’t think the Brewers Association would exclude the rest of the world from the definition of craft beer.) (Tired of parentheses yet?)

Montana defines “beer” as a malt beverage containing not more than 8.75% of alcohol by volume; or an alcoholic beverage containing not more than 14% alcohol by volume made by the alcoholic fermentation of an infusion or decoction,” along with some other details.  That definition certainly includes the big boys and their adjunct lager, so it doesn’t work to define craft beer.

So I turn to you, fine readers. How should we define “craft beer?” Does it matter?

* Thanks to beerpulse.com for the tip on the link.