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What Is Craft Beer? Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know but Didn’t Ask

Let’s set the scene. You’ve finished a long day at work. You’ve headed to the nearest bar and can’t wait to knock back a cold one. But when you get there, you’re faced with dozens of ales, bottled drinks and exotic-looking cans of craft beer — all with equally intimidating names.

If you’re not a passionate beer fan who actively seeks out new ales, you might be wondering what exactly is a craft beer (and might be too afraid or embarrassed to ask in the moment). To help you find out more, we’ve compiled a handy guide, complete with a little help from some beer experts we spoke to.

In this article:

What Is Craft Beer?

Close-up of a bartender filling different beer glasses with different ales.

Craft beer isn’t just a nickname for especially tasty and well-crafted brews. In fact, the Brewers Guild actually has a formal way to explain the meaning of craft beer. 

To earn the “craft” title, breweries must be:

  1. Small
  2. Independent 
  3. Traditional

Craft beers are also generally different from other drinks on the market due to levels of innovation. It’s all about distinctive flavors, exciting twists on historic recipes, and even getting involved in local communities through sponsorship or product donations.

The craft beer definition hasn’t been in place as long as you might think, either. When David Blossman, the president of Abita Brewing Company, first started out, there wasn’t a word for craft beer yet. “We started brewing in ’86, and we were just the local better beer, I guess,” he explains.

What is craft brewing?

Simply put, craft brewing is the process of making (well, brewing) a delicious craft beer. This involves meeting certain standards of quality, including the use of traditional ingredients. 

Find out more on the process in our guide below.

What Is a Microbrewery?

A brewery worker at the beginning stages of making beer.

There’s no doubt about it: Americans love beer. It’s no surprise, then, that by the end of 2021 there were almost 9,000 breweries in America — many of them new, small independent businesses. 

But what exactly is a microbrewery, and is it the same as a craft brewery?

In simple terms, a microbrewery is just a smaller version of a traditional brewery. But there are some specific definitions that help distinguish it from other kinds:

  • Microbrewery – this is defined as a brewer that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, with 75% or more of its beer sold off-site.
  • Craft brewery – The Brewers Guild states a craft brewery must produce no more than six million barrels of beer each year, so they can be substantially bigger than a microbrewery.
  • Nanobrewery – everyone agrees that nanobreweries are pretty much just scaled-down versions of microbreweries, but there’s no set amount of beer a brewery must produce to earn the label.
  • Brew pub – this is defined as a restaurant and brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer on site.
  • Macrobrewery (or just a traditional brewery) – these tend to be much larger than the other kinds, churning out more than six million barrels each year.

Interestingly, craft brewery rules are typically stricter than those for microbreweries. They must use traditional ingredients — like malts, barley, and yeast — and though they can get a little creative, it can only be for the benefit of taste. Macro and microbreweries, meanwhile, are allowed to mix it up if they like.

What Are Some Examples of Craft Beer Brands?

A group of friends cheersing and enjoying pints of beer.

All this reading might be making you thirsty already! So, what brands can you buy craft beers from?

  1. Yuengling and Son Inc – this brewery is one of the oldest beer brands in the U.S.
  2. Boston Beer – most famous for its Samuel Adams brew.
  3. Artisanal Brewing Ventures – ABV is made up of Victory Brewing, Sixpoint Brewery and Southern Tier — all independent enterprises. 
  4. CANarchy – also made up of multiple breweries, including the likes of Oskar Blues Brewery and Perrin Brewing company.
  5. The Gambrinus Company – this family-owned brewery based in Texas is famous for Shiner Beers.
  6. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co – specializes in dry-hopping (a brewing technique that bumps up the flavor of hops — an ingredient in beer) for an extra-aromatic taste.
  7. Bells Brewery – a completely independent and family-owned brewery in Michigan.
  8. Stone Brewing –  the ninth largest brewer of craft beers in the U.S.
  9. Deschutes Brewery family and employee-owned craft brewery since 1988.
  10. SweetWater Brewing known for their laid back vibe, killer events and fun festivals. Oh, and their range of exciting drinks, too.

What Makes a Good Craft Beer?

Close-up of beer being emptied into a glass from the bar tap.

Sometimes, you can get a pretty good idea of what a craft beer will taste like just from looking at it in the glass. Often, the lighter the color of the beer, the lighter the taste.

There are some other crucial ways to distinguish a good craft beer from an ordinary one, according to the Brewers Association.

Quality

The quality of a craft beer can often be identified through its appearance, taste, texture and aroma. Consistency is also key, so that customers can recognize the taste of their favorite brand — and keep going back for more.

The four main ingredients of craft beer include water, malt, hops and yeast. But depending on the brand, other ingredients can be added for a unique taste, such as coriander seeds, cherries or citrus fruits.

Taste and smell

Craft beer tends to have a richer flavor and a more distinctive taste compared to other beers. Take in that sweet, sweet aroma too and you know you’re onto a good one!

That smell is nurtured through the raw materials, brewing process, correct serving style and type of craft beer. Customers will usually expect their beer to come with a foam head, so correct pouring is a must to ensure a high-quality finish.

Stability

The stability of the beer is made up of:

  • Physical – the appearance of the beer
  • Microbiological – the DNA of the beer
  • Flavor, which is, well, how it tastes.

These can all be strong indicators of a beer’s craft credentials.

The beer crafting process

Right, let’s get down to the craft of brewing. The typical steps to create the best tasting craft beers include:

  1. Malting grains are harvested before malting, a process which encourages germination before drying the grain.
  2. Mashing – dried grain is soaked in water to activate the starch, which will break it down and release sugar. The thick substance left over is known as the “wort.”
  3. Boiling the wort is boiled, and hops are added at carefully planned intervals.
  4. Fermentation the mixture enters a fermenting vessel where yeast is added. Over time the sugars break down, giving us that sweet stuff (alcohol). 
  5. Conditioning or secondary fermentation often takes place to add more flavor or carbonation, but not always.
  6. Bottling once fermentation is complete, the beer is transferred into kegs or bottles.

Craft Beers in More Detail

Someone pouring beer into a pint glass from a bottle.

What is an independent craft brewery? Can it be owned by a microbrewer?

This is one area where definitions — like some beers — can get a little cloudy. Basically, everyone seems to think slightly differently on the issue.

That said, 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. Who’d have thought?!

What makes a craft beer traditional?

For a craft beer to be traditional, all it means is that the majority of the drink’s total beverage volume is beer made using conventional brewing methods without adjuncts, like rice and corn. 

According to David Blossman, president of Abita Brewing, these ingredients “really just add alcohol but no flavor to the beer, or any color.” Adding these ingredients is usually more likely from large industrial brewers — so this requirement doesn’t rule out many beers from craft status.

Can you tell a craft beer just by its taste?

Some people think that all craft beers are strong, but that’s simply not the case. Though it’s true that a lot of popular craft beers have powerful, distinct flavors, just as many actually boast much milder tastes — and even lower alcohol content. 

So, while Sierra Nevada’s pioneering pale ale, ever-popular hoppy IPAs and decidedly sour beers are pretty strong, there’s plenty of good craft beers out there that are a little lighter on the alcohol front. 

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 bar manager Jay Jankowski. Schlitz, PBR or Budweiser drinkers will love a taste of Stiegl Goldbräu.

At the end of the day, there isn’t an easy way to identify a craft beer from its macro counterpart by taste — the only way to really know it’s a craft beer is to get your hands dirty and examine the beer crafting behind it.

Craft Beer Fun Facts

  • In 2020 alone, a whopping $22.2 billion worth of craft beer was sold in the United States. 
  • Blue Moon was the leading craft beer brand in the U.S. that year based on sales. In fact, it had sales of almost $400 million.
  • Yuengling is the oldest official American brewery, as it was established originally as Eagle Brewery in 1829.

Other FAQs

Two people cheersing their pints of beer.

What is a craft beer vs. IPA?

IPA stands for India Pale Ale — a type of craft beer, and a particularly hoppy one at that. That’s not to say it’s overly excitable, but that it may have a strong aroma of hops used in the brewing process. Fun fact: the brew was originally infused with strong hops to help it survive the six-month journey by ship from England to the colonies in India, hence the name.

What is the most popular craft beer?

Another thing that beer drinkers just can’t agree on. Some of the most popular craft beers in America based on sales and reputation include Yuengling, Sierra Nevada and Blue Moon.

Is pale ale a craft beer?

Yes. Pale ale is a very popular type of craft beer. It’s made with lighter malts, which helps explain its name and lighter color. Pale ales often have a delicious citrus taste too.

Do you have an insatiable thirst to try some craft beer? Find great offers on beer tasting near you with our local deals.

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