In the mid-2000s, those who wanted to distinguish their beer taste from that of the masses requested “microbrews” (made by “microbreweries”) when they were in search of tastier beer. Microbreweries represented an alternative attitude toward beer. They didn’t apply the aggressive marketing strategies that macrobreweries did, and seemed to stand for a quality and diversity that their opponents did not.
Though much can be implied, the term “microbrewery” only refers to the size of the brewery itself. Microbreweries are those that produce no more than 15,000 barrels of beer per year. While some may assume smaller is always better, the term itself gives no further detail about the beer’s production or quality.
As the drive for smaller, local breweries and their rotating small batches grew, microbrew and microbrewery fell out of popular use. They were simply not descriptive enough for patrons who bellied up to the bar looking for a quality beer. However, the emergence of these terms into popular use meant the emergence of an us-vs.-them attitude in the beer industry, which is still very much present.
As in, a brewery even smaller than a microbrewery, often run by one entrepreneur, which produces small beer batches.
Brewery plus pub or public-house. This is a pub/restaurant that brews beer on the premises.
The Time of Craft
“Craft Beer” emerged thereafter as a more useful descriptor for quality beer. By the standards of the Brewers Association, “craft beer” means small, independent, and traditional beer. Though size, ownership, and allegiance to traditional practices still do not necessarily promise a particular quality or flavor, they are a step in the right direction. The BA site defines each of the adjectives as well:
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 the 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 which is not itself a craft brewer.
Traditional – A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavors derive from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored Malt Beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.”
The BA’s definition allows brewers and consumers alike to clearly distinguish which beers qualify as craft and which did not. As was true before, these semantics reinforce the big vs. little guy, quality vs. volume dynamic in the beer world.
When large conglomerates began buying up breweries that had previously fit the craft beer definition, it became clear that terms needed to adapt once again. This change in ownership muddled the power of the term. How could a craft beer brewery still be craft if it was owned by the enemy, by a mammoth like ABInBev that certainly didn’t share the craft beer ideals?
A Seal of Distinction
In the summer of 2017, the Brewers Association launched their new seal for Independent Craft Breweries. This was their opportunity to underscore the “independent” part of their craft beer definition, which continues to be under attack by buy-outs.
The seal, with an upside-down beer bottle at its center, is meant to symbolize how craft beer has turned the beer market on its head. In a more practical sense, the seal is meant to mark beers made by a small and independent brewer.