Well let’s start with the definition of craft beer from the Brewers Association. “An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional”. They produce 6 million barrels of beer or less per year, less than 25% of the brewery is controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not themselves a craft brewer, and produces at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavors. For more on this check out: http://www.brewersassociation.org/pages/business-tools/craft-brewing-statistics/craft-brewer-defined
The first part of the definition is pretty self explanatory. If you are huge you no longer count as craft beer. To put this in perspective, Sierra Nevada brewing company is a large well known craft brewer and still only produces about 800,000 barrels per year. New Belgium known best for their Fat Tire Ale produces 600,000 barrels and Sam Adams is right around 2 million barrels. That is still a LOT of beer and still maintains the “craft brewery” label.
The second part is a little trickier thanks to marketing. For example, many people think that they are enjoying craft beer when they pop the cap on a Shock Top or Blue Moon. But in fact Shock Top is an AB Inbev product and Blue Moon is owned by the Coors company.
Lastly is the taste mechanism and a true craft brewery is not short on flavor. They use all kinds of malt and hops, often including a hops infusion at the end of the process to add even more hoppy goodness. One of the advantages of the craft brewer is that they brew in smaller batches and can play around with different recipes and try new variations without significant investment. This, in my opinion is perhaps the number one reason that makes craft beer so good.
But what about craft breweries that brew high gravity (high alcohol) beer and then water it down for packaging? Sure this process allows for higher and more consistent production but doesn’t that detract from the subtle changes you get from a craft brewer’s batch to batch? What about those brewers that source ingredients from long distances namely for price purposes? These factors do not disqualify a brewery from being categorized as “craft” but I’d argue that a true local craft brewery would shy away from such practices. What do you think?
In fact I expect we will start seeing “from farm to brew” practices in the not so distant future where brewers own their own hop fields etc. and source from themselves. Much like the “farm to table” fad you see now from local restaurants. It may be a bit extreme but keeping it real makes a lot of sense.