What is craft beer? For starters, it's intimidating. Whether you're trying to pronounce one of the dozens of draft and bottled beers at a craft beer bar or just confused about the difference between ales and lagers, you're not alone.
To help establish a working craft beer definition, we looked back on a few of our previous interviews with beer experts. Here's what we found.
You might think "craft beer" is just a colloquial term applied to especially tasty (and well-crafted?) brews. But the Brewers Guild actually has a formal definition. To earn the "craft" title, breweries must be three things:
(See the sections below for a further explanation of each of these standards.)
It's worth noting the term "craft beer" hasn't been in place as long as you might think. "It wasn't called craft beer when we started," Abita Brewing Company president David Blossman said when we first spoke to him in 2014. "We started brewing in '86, and we were just the local better beer, I guess."
Officially, yes, those are two distinct terms, though they're not mutually exclusive. The Brewers Guild states a craft brewery must produce 6 million barrels of beer or less each year. To put that in perspective, Anheuser-Busch produces upwards of 16 million barrels annually.
But some craft breweries produce significantly less than 6 million barrels, which is why they're divided into several market segments. The most notable are microbreweries, nanobreweries, and brewpubs.
This type of brewery produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer annually with 75% or more of its beer sold off-site.
Everyone agrees that nanobreweries are scaled-down versions of microbreweries, but there's no set amount of beer a brewery must produce to earn the label.
A brewpub is defined as a restaurant and brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer onsite.
This is one area where common usage and official definition diverge. Certainly macrobreweries own plenty of brands that are often referred to as craft beers.
However, the Brewers Guild states that, to be considered a craft brewery, no more than 25 percent of the company can be owned or controlled by a member of the beverage alcohol industry that is not a craft brewer. This means that some producers that began in the craft category but were later purchased, such as Goose Island and Kona, aren't technically craft breweries.
The requirement that a craft beer be made "traditionally" sounds fuzzy, but it's actually quite straightforward. It simply means that the majority of the drink's total beverage volume is beer made via conventional brewing methods without adjuncts such as rice and corn. According to Blossman, these ingredients "really just add alcohol but no flavor to the beer, or any color." Since adding such adjuncts is more common among large industrial brewers anyway, this requirement doesn't rule out many beers from craft status.
There's a common misconception that all craft beers are strong. It's true that most popular craft beers have powerful, distinct flavors. That's certainly the case with Sierra Nevada's pioneering pale ale, as well as ever-popular hoppy IPAs and decidedly sour beers.
But just as many craft beers boast much milder tastes and lower alcohol content. Take Stiegl Goldbräu, a 4.9% ABV (alcohol by volume) lager and the house beer at Chicago's Map Room. "It's a really good, easy-drinking beer," says certified cicerone and bar manager Jay Jankowski, recommending it for Schlitz, PBR, or Budweiser drinkers. Likewise, Blue Moon and Shock Top fans should try Allagash White, a Belgian white ale that pairs well with meals.
At the end of the day, there isn't an easy way to discern a craft beer from its macro counterpart by taste—the only way to really identify a craft beer is to do a little research and examine the brewery behind it.