Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brewery Profile: The Preliminaries - What Does It Mean To Be A Craft Brewery

“Craft beer” is an interesting phrase. We instantly know what it means, yet anyone, even the marketing whizzes in the beer industry responsible for such word-crafting as “worthmore”, would struggle to define it. Oh, we can come up with a marketing definition, a product category, of “craft beer” – in fact The Brewers Association has done just that, and we discussed it here. We talked about how this definition outlines three categorical limitations for breweries: production limits (under 2 million barrels per year), ownership limits (25% or less ownership by non-craft brewery), and quality limits (must produce all-malt, as opposed to adjunct-riddled beer)*. We also said then, and reiterate now, that this definition seems to focus on an objective specification of a product class, rather than a true definition of the phrase. To be more precise, we could (and probably should) call breweries that conform to The Brewers Association definition “small” rather than “craft” – the two are not synonymous, and this definition merely focuses on how big a brewery is and what it uses. Miller, or, if you prefer, Leinenkugel’s, wants to define “craft beer” or “craft brewing” as “having a variety of interesting styles of beer.” Now, as then, we will set aside this definition as patently absurd.**

We all know what “beer” is. Right? But “craft” presents more of a problem. Wikipedia defines craft as “a skill, especially involving practical arts. It may refer to a trade or particular art.” This is more useful. It presents three words that are useful in outlining a definition: skill, art, trade. Rearranging these words reveals a better definition:

craft beer: a trade involving the skilled art of brewing beer.

Even this definition takes some unpacking. What does it mean to be engaged in a trade? What do we consider to be skill? Where is the "art" in brewing beer? You will notice something about this definition. It has nothing to do with size or quantity, either in barrels or diversity of product line. Anheuser-Busch could be a craft brewery under this definition. As you will see, whether it is or not is entirely a decision best left to the marketplace.


A trade is an occupation requiring skilled work. To say that a craft brewer is engaged in a craft must necessarily imply that the brewer performs his (or her) task as an occupation. Of course, The Brewers Association definition addresses this issue squarely. Yet, we are presented with the interesting question as to whether a brewer who is not engaged in brewing as a profession or occupation can truly be considered a craft brewer. The obvious answer seems to be “no.” If for no other reason than logic would preclude that a non-professional brewer could not possibly be sufficiently skilled in the art. More technically, however, such a brewer would not (could not) be a “craft” brewer, but rather a skilled, artistic brewer (perhaps we can call them “artisan brewers”); the very definition of “craft” requires that the brewer be engaged in the profession. Thus, engagement in brewing as a “trade” presents a sort of barrier of entry. Yet, the craft brewer must be more than engaged in the trade, for many professional brewers are neither skilled nor artistic.


Skill is “learnt capacity or talent to carry out pre-determined results.” A brewery that cannot consistently carry out predetermined results, a brewery that cannot reproduce its successes, is not skilled – it is lucky. Luck is not craft. However, skill can be learned. One can get better at the skill of brewing beer.

At the end of the day, skill is not the hard part. One can be engaged in the trade of brewing and be very good at it, but could still not be a craft brewer. A person can be very good at tracing works of visual art, but that doesn’t make him an artist; it just makes him a conservationist. As one of the foibles of the English language, we do not have a separate word for highly skilled professional brewers. But nonetheless, such a brewer has not yet met the definition of “craft.”


Anyone can follow a recipe and create less than two million barrels of a fermented malted barley beverage and fall within The Brewers Association’s definition of “craft beer.” But “art” is more than following a recipe. Art is “made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas.” Thus, the craft brewer must intend to stimulate the senses and the human mind, to transmit emotions and ideas through the brewing of beer.

Rather lofty ambition, no?

It would be impossible to set out an objective definition of “art.” Mankind has tried for thousands of years, and at the end of the day, only the intent of the artist and the willing acceptance of the audience can determine artistic merit.*** Thus, even this definition falls prey to the same issues identified in The Brewers Association definition. Namely, how is the intent of the brewer to be determined? For The Brewers Association, this issue is problematic because that particular organization is tasked with fitting breweries into a product category; a task ill-suited for such subjective standards. For our purposes however, this is not a problem at all: we can determine the intent of the brewer by simply asking questions and evaluating the responses and coming up with our own determination.

It is with this purpose in mind, to ask questions that probe the skilled and artistic nature of the brewing enterprise, that we bring to you the MBR Brewery Profile. In this feature, we will ask questions and leave to you to evaluate the responses within the context of the craft brewing definition(s). Hopefully you will find the answers you are looking for, and in any event these promise to be entertaining and enlightening.

On Friday we will present the first profile in this series: Furthermore Beer.

*This definition would eliminate many of the small breweries here in Wisconsin that use corn in any significant portion of the grain bill to lighten the flavors of their beers.

** Not to be dismissive, but even setting aside the vague terms “variety” and “interesting” the focus is on quantity, not quality.

*** Yes, we could argue whether an “audience” is strictly necessary for the creation of “art”, but that is an argument probably best saved for after having consumed too many craft beers.

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