Put a Heady Topper next to a Busch. One of the beers is craft, and the other is not. Why? When does a beer stop being craft? Who wrote the current definition, and why did they define craft like they did?
In 1887, there were 2,011 breweries in the United States. Then came Prohibition, and there were none. By the mid 1930s, the number of breweries had climbed back to 703, but in the years that followed, it became clear that the American taste for beer was waning. By the early 1970s, there were only 89 breweries in the entire country, all of which were heavily regulated by the government.
But then something magical happened. In 1976, a young man by the name of Jack McAuliffe opened The New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California. There, he produced full-bodied porters, stouts and ales — three styles of beer that weren’t readily available in the United States at the time. Although New Albion closed six years later — a move even McAuliffe noted was inevitable, considering space and funding restrictions — the innovative brewery revived the American interest in craft brewing. In 1979, when Jimmy Carter deregulated the beer industry, The New Albion Brewery served as a case study for the hundreds of secret home brewers who hoped to take their operations to the next level.
Oftentimes, large beverage corporations will go to great lengths to convince you that their products are craft beers. Goose Island, for instance, is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI), and Blue Moon is owned by MillerCoors. No member of the Craft Brew Alliance — including Red Hook, Kona, Square Mile Cider, Widmer Brothers and Omission — actually meets the definition for craft beer, since ABI owns 32.2 percent of the Alliance.
As of 2013, there were 2,483 craft breweries across the country, with another opening every day. The meteoric rise that started at the end of the 1980s (and continues today) saw the introduction of various trade organizations, associations and unions, all clamoring for legitimacy and trying to set a course for the future of craft beer. But if one organization has emerged as the central player in the decentralized world of craft beer it’s the Brewers Association (BA), founded in 2005 when the Association of Brewers merged with the Brewers’ Association of America. Comprised of over 2,000 brewers, the organization literally defines craft beer.
And what is that definition? In 1976, the precursor to the BA set three criteria for a craft brewery as such:
A craft brewery needed to be 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.
A craft brewery needed to be traditional. A brewery’s beers could only use adjuncts to enhance, and not lighten, flavor.
A craft brewery needed to be small. Annual production must be 2 million barrels of beer or less.
But in 2010, with the Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams) set to surpass 2 million barrels, the BA decided that it was time to revise their definition. “A lot has changed since 1976″, said Nick Matt, chair of the Brewers Association, in a press release put out by that organization. “The largest brewer in the U.S. has grown from 45 million barrels to 300 million barrels of global beer production.” So, starting in 2011, a brewery could make up to 6 million barrels and still be called craft.
Earlier this year, the BA altered its definition again. While the old definition prevented craft brewers from using adjuncts to lighten flavor, the new language lifts the restrictions on adjuncts. This meant that Yuengling — which uses corn to lighten their flavor — left the ranks of “small” brewery and legally became a “craft” brewery.
Many were outraged over the new definition. Yuengling as a craft beer? Given its size, that seemed unfair, especially compared with the innovative offerings lovingly created by the bartender at your local brewpub. However, consider this: in 2012, the United States sold 13,235,917 barrels of craft beer. That same year, the U.S. beer industry, as a whole, sold a whopping 200,028,520 barrels. Which means that craft beer, despite its growing popularity, still only makes up less than 7 percent of the US market share for beer. Which means that over 93 percent of the beer market is controlled by giant corporations — for instance, just two companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) and MillerCoors, control 80 percent of the market. Which means that if you’re a craft brewer, and you want a little influence, you’re shit out of luck…unless you have some rich and powerful friends — friends like Sam Adams and Yuengling.
We don’t want to exalt Jim Koch, co-founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company, and Richard L. (“Dick”) Yuengling, Jr., owner of Yuengling, over the faceless boardroom members of ABI and MillerCoors, but it’s easy. At the end of the day, Koch and Yuengling both play active roles in the BA, and both care about their products and the future of craft beer. Sure, it feels sleazy sidling up to the bar beside the big(ger) guys, but for the Brewers Association, as a wise man once said, the enemy of your enemy is your friend.