The Brewers Association’s Craft Brewer Definition

Beer commenters are examining changes seemingly afoot to alter the current (U.S.) Brewers Association’s definition of craft brewer. The lowdown is in this report by Phoebe French from The Drinks Business. A quote:

… the group is considering dropping the ‘traditional’ requirement from its current definition.

…. The current guidelines stipulate that the brewer must be ‘small’ (annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less), ‘independent’ (less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer), and traditional (has a majority of its total volume in beers with flavours derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.)

As such, the BA does not consider flavoured malt beverages or alcoholic seltzers (a growing category in the US) to fit the brief.

… the reasoning behind the move was linked to the rise of cannabis and cannabis derivative-infused products. A number of the group’s members have expressed interest in creating products infused with THC and CBD, Wallace found after surveying 1,000 registered brewers.

Some history regarding earlier definitions of craft brewer by the Brewers Association (BA) can be found here, at the Craft Brewing Business site.

At bottom are issues such as, should large craft brewers potentially be excluded from membership in America’s organization for craft brewers if their non-beer production (e.g., cider, malt-based or other flavoured drinks that aren’t beer) rises to > 50% of their total production? It appears Boston Beer Company, a pioneering craft brewer, may soon be in this position. Sales of its cider and fizzy flavoured beverages have grown in relation to the beer sales.

The interest of many brewers to use cannabis’ active ingredients in a beverage line raises a further question whether the BA’s existing definition of craft beer covers that. A non-alcoholic cannabis beer would seem outside the current definition as there is no fermentation (unless possibly the drink is fermented first and the alcohol taken out after?).

The BA is a trade group for the nation’s craft brewers. In our view it is best placed to decide the definition for its membership, which it clearly does keeping a close ear on what members want or at least, that most can live with.

My view is the “traditional/innovative” part of the definition has outlived its usefulness and should be dropped in its entirety. Given the evolution of craft beer and the production landscape since the early days of craft brewing, it makes sense not to dictate the types of beers that can be made.

This is a process already underway for some years, as seen by the earlier update that allowed malt adjuncts to be used in the bulk of a brewery’s production.

Let those who call themselves brewers decide what to brew, which allows them to remain flexible in a constantly changing market.

Craft beer in its original, “microbrew” sense meant a strong-flavoured, often all-malt, often well hopped beer. Today these are also made by mass-market brewers, a direct result of the success of the decades-long craft brewing movement. If mega-brewers make similar products, and they do, both directly and having purchased what are now ex-craft breweries, the criterion of product regulation really has become superfluous.

So is there still a rationale for a “craft beer” association? There is, and it should be based on size and not being controlled by a non-craft brewer. The current 6,000,000 bbl limited is reasonable in light of the small percentage it represents for total beer barrel shipments annually.

The maximum 25% ownership limit by a non-craft brewer makes sense as that avenue can provide needed investment and sometimes an avenue to better distribution.

In many industries, size is an important determinant of member interests. Smaller brewers have different interests to large ones, e.g., preserving/enhancing tax advantages, obtaining technological guidance and updates, sourcing raw materials more effectively, and marketing advice.

Their industry group can help lobby for this more effectively than a group that represents mega-producers with commensurately different interests and challenges. Even in the pre-craft era there was a national small brewers association, Brewers’ Association of America (later absorbed in BA), vs. the main national group that still exists today as the Beer Institute.

It’s the very success of the steady, 40-year march of craft brewing that has lead to these issues; that’s a good thing.

N.B. All the above said, I will aver to a sentimental feeling about Boston Beer Company. Having seen them grow since inception and do so much to create the modern craft brewing landscape, it is unreasonable IMO if they will be excluded from membership in the BA.

Even if the craft beer rules will remain as currently written, Boston Beer Company should (i.e., if need be) be offered a special exemption to maintain its membership. Net-net, the interests of small brewers are far more closely aligned to a Boston Beer Company than an international mega-brewer. It will be in everyone’s interest, in other words, who is concerned with the taste of great beer and its authentic traditions.