What Makes a “Craft” Beer?

According to the American Brewers Association, craft beers are created by “small and independent” brewers. So essentially, craft beer is a beer that has been independently brewed anywhere that produces less than six million barrels of beer per year. 

These restrictions to the definition of “craft” force brewers around the globe to get creative, pushing them towards alternative fermentation and brewing processes when designing recipes. Craft brewers often use a variety of ingredients in unique orders to make their beer stand out.

Additionally, there are special rules regarding ownership to qualify officially as a craft brewer, namely that at least 75% of the brewery must be owned by someone who is an “independent craft brewer.” This is done to prevent corporate takeovers by large breweries, thus preserving the unique status of the smaller brew and allowing for special techniques and new takes on traditional brews.

Here is what makes craft brewing unique!

Difference Between Craft Beer and Non-Craft Beer

There are many notable differences between traditional beer and craft varieties, with the main distinction being the size of the brewery itself. Craft brewers tend to put a lot more time, effort, and care into the taste of their products. 

Craft brewers often try to innovate their brewing process, using interesting ingredients and combinations to make their beer special. By experimenting with types of non-traditional ingredients, they try to create delicious infusions of flavors in all kinds of beer styles.

Large macro-brewing companies like Anheuser-Busch have started creating offshoot brands resembling craft beers, such as A-B's Shock Top, and are buying out craft beer companies in order to compete in the market. Actual craft brewers have been speaking out about this to the point where The Brewers Association issued a statement titled "Craft vs. Crafty" to set the record straight on the definition of "craft.”

If a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller brewery, they cannot be considered craft by definition (based on what the Association says). Instead, whatever they produce is labeled as "crafty," to imply they’re similar to craft beers but not technically so.

Beers such as Blue Moon Belgian Wheat or Shock Top are examples of this hoop-jumping, and, as a result, many people get fooled into thinking those drinks are craft beer. It’s a common mistake!

The challenge of concocting new and strange, complex flavors (often with seasonal themes like “pumpkin spice”) is essential to craft brewing. These independent brewers will usually work with local producers to collect fresh and responsible ingredients that are environmentally friendly. 

These small-time craft breweries are extremely independent and sometimes butt heads with the bigger, more corporate chains. They become an important and beloved part of their community through supporting local industry, activities, and events.

Are Craft Breweries and Microbreweries Different?

It turns out that craft and microbreweries are indeed different. 

A microbrewery is defined by the number of barrels of beer it produces each year, which must be no more than 15,000 per year. Craft breweries may brew more than that, but the major difference is that the craft brewery must be independently owned.

Microbreweries can actually be owned and operated by a bigger manufacturer, thus preventing it from being a “craft brewery.”

Here are some of the defining characteristics of craft breweries:

  • Craft brewers are small.
  • Craft brewers innovate.
  • Craft brewers are independent.
  • Craft brewers are involved in their communities.
  • Craft brewers are local.

Popular Craft Breweries

Craft beers have become insanely popular in the past few years, serving as a viable alternative to the big chains and brands.

According to some research, Americans drink roughly 6.3 billion gallons of beer per year (an average of 26.2 gallons per adult). The majority of that beer consumed is mass-produced by one of two companies – Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors. Certainly not considered craft brewers by any means.

Alternatively, there are nearly 7,500 craft breweries in America shipping 25.9 million barrels and growing. Craft beers are becoming a viable, reasonable alternative to the goliath of the mass-produced beer industry.

Here are some of the most popular craft beers out there on the market. Some may surprise you that they’re considered craft brews despite being so well-known.

D.G. Yuengling and Son, Inc.

By far the most popular and beloved craft brew in America. Yuengling, based out of Pottsville, PA, is a family-owned brewing company and the oldest brewery in America, founded in 1829.

Despite producing beer on a large scale, it is independently owned and ships fewer than 6 million barrels of beer a year. Because of this, Yuengling meets the Brewers Association definition of a craft brewery.

Yuengling manages to hold the title of the fourth-largest beer company in America. Its three plants produce roughly $550 million worth of beer per year, and it is particularly popular in the Northeast and Southeast.

Boston Beer Company

Known for their most famous beer named after American founding father, Samuel Adams, this company was founded in 1984 in Boston, Massachusetts. 

The Boston Beer Company provides a wide range of beers in many different styles and flavors, making itself known as a craft brand with versatility. 

This brewery is one of the most profitable in the country, despite still being considered a craft brewery founded by CEO Jim Koch.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

One of America's largest craft producers, Sierra Nevada, was founded in 1980 and became famous for its Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. 

Born in Chico, California, by founder Ken Grossman and has since produced 786,000 barrels in 2010 and has only grown since then. Sierra Nevada Brewing has become the seventh-largest brewing company in the United States and is the third-largest privately-owned brewery.

Great Lakes Brewing Co.

This craft brewery based out of Cleveland, Ohio, was the first microbrewery in the state. In 2015, Great Lakes became the 21st-largest craft brewery by volume and the 28th-largest brewery in the United States.

After opening its doors in 1986, Great Lakes has produced upwards of 200 brews in many different styles. One of their notable beers, the Eliot Ness Amber Lager, is named after the legendary Prohibition agent who frequented the tavern that eventually became the Great Lakes brewery.

SweetWater Brewing Co.

Based out of Atlanta, Georgia, and founded in 1997, SweetWater Brewing Company is an environmentally conscious brewery active in the conservation movement. 

SweetWater donates lots of money to various charities and wildlife organizations, and as a result, its beers include a Hatchery and a Woodlands series.

Allagash Brewing Co.

Known for producing the fan-favorite wheat beer, Allagash White, this craft brewery is a powerful producer based in Portland, Maine.

Allagash began in 1995, with Allagash White as their only brew. Today, the brewery produces many other styles of beer that are equally as popular with drinkers everywhere. But the brewery still specializes in Belgian-style beers.

Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery

Lickinghole Creek is a majority woman-owned and operated, water-conscious, biologically friendly farm brewery operating out of Goochland, Virginia.

This popular craft brewer produces many different beer styles, with their most popular being the Nuclear Nugget Imperial IPA boasting an insane 10.5% ABV and a solid burst of hops, as befits a double IPA. 

Narragansett Brewing Co.

After opening in 1890, Narragansett has since become one of the longest and oldest operating craft breweries in America. 

Gansett, as it's commonly called, is most famous for its flagship lager. The brewery now produces an extensive product line encompassing many different types of beer beyond its traditional lager. This craft brewery is the pride of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and continues to be a foundational pillar of the American craft brewery scene.

Brooklyn Brewery

Brooklyn, New York, became a hub of beer brewing in the late 1800s, and that legacy led to the creation of the Brooklyn Brewery in 1987.

The main item of this brewery is Brooklyn Lager, which has proven to be a well-reviewed beer on the market.

Three Floyds Brewing Co.

Founded in a garage in 1995, Three Floyds grew into an accomplished microbrewery. 

Their Dark Lord Imperial Stout was recently named the best beer in America by Beer Advocate and has since become a well-liked drink of choice for craft enthusiasts everywhere. It features notes of Mexican vanilla, coffee, and more. 

Lunar Brewing Company

Lunar is the first Asian-American craft hard seltzer brewing company that comes from New York City.

Yuzu is their most enjoyed beverage, which is a fresh, bubbly version of honey citron tea. This brewery uses fresh yuzu grown in Japan's coastal Shimane Prefecture.

Gordon Biersch Brewing Co.

Brewed out of San Jose, California, and founded in 1988 as a producer of beer in the German tradition.

Gordon Biersch founders Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch wanted to combine their beer with food and have since opened roughly 13 Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants around the world.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Although in 2013, the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery merged into the Boston Brewing Company (of Samuel Adams fame), it is still considered a respectable institution of craft brewing.

Dogfish was an early proponent of  “extreme beer,” which focuses on a higher alcohol content than regular beer and is flavored with unusual ingredients, usually over a strong malt background. The most notable of these in their arsenal of beer is the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Fruit-Full Fort that sports an outrageous ABV of 17%.

Minhas Craft Brewery

This craft brewery came into existence in 1845 in what would become Wisconsin (since the brewery actually predates Wisconsin becoming a state). 

Minhas produces several different beers under their label, such as Boxer, Huber, and Mountain Crest.

New Glarus Brewing Co.

Born out of New Glarus, Wisconsin, in 1993, this brewery produces year-round, seasonal, and specialty beers.

Some notable craft beers under the New Glarus umbrella include Wisconsin Belgian Red (which apparently is made after being poured over a pound of Wisconsin cherries), Cabin Fever, and Thumbprint Strawberry Rhubarb beer.

Crafting the Perfect Craft Beer

Craft breweries have become synonymous with enthusiasm, new flavors, and varied brewing techniques.

"Craft brewing" has become an all-encompassing term for relatively small, independently-owned commercial breweries that embrace traditional brewing methods and focus on improving aroma, flavor, and quality. The term “craft brewery” is usually reserved for breweries established since the 1970s but may be used for older breweries with a similar focus.

Whether you’re a fan of a low IBU session IPA and sour ales, or you prefer lighter German beer, there’s a craft brewery out there that makes something you’ll love. They focus on all kinds of beers and incorporate tons of different flavors, from citrus and mango to caramel and passion fruit. It’s up to you to discover what you like best. 

The best way to immerse yourself in the world of American craft brewers is to try them for yourself. Here at TapRm, we offer a wide variety of craft beers for you to experiment with from breweries all over—plus, we have all kinds of resources to help you learn more about beer. Try a new beer or two and see for yourself!

 

Sources:

Craft Brewer Definition | Brewers Association

What Qualifies As a Craft Beer? | USA Today

The Difference Between a Craft Beer and a Micro Brew Beer | Delishably

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