Ma! That big kid is picking on me!


A lot has happened lately. Myself and Phil Murray have accidentally launched a contract brewery, SOBA‘s long running radler trademark dispute is awaiting judgement, and I’ve become enamoured of the delights of Melbourne during Good Beer Week. This blog update is about none of those things! Instead, I’m throwing in with the multitude of beer blogs around who are talking about the issue of defining craft beer and craft breweries.

I don’t like having to define craft beer. It bugs me in much the same way that I avoid record stores (“what are those daddy?”) which group music by genre, instead of alphabetically by artist. One man’s alternative rock is another woman’s electric folk. Who is correct? Does grouping like this serve any purpose? So too, I believe, with craft beer.

It has been suggested to me by the wonderful people at BeerMen.TV that it should be all about size. That definition is good enough for the Brewers Association in the USA, so why not elsewhere? Well, for a start I think that’s the wrong question. Not why not, but why? After all, if it’s based on size, why should that be proportional in an international market? Many massive breweries around the world would be considered craft by the BA standard. That standard was also recently revised solely in order to accomodate the Boston Beer Company. Now, while they do indeed make excellent beer – six million barrles a year – they are MASSIVE by non-USA standards. To put that into perspective, Lion Nathan brews just 7.7 million barrels per year.  So Lion Nathan is almost a craft brewery?

No, if you want to define craft beer, size is a terrible measure in my book.

I also don’t like the conflation of separate political issues which come about whenever this thorny problem arises. There are many reasons to want to define craft beers and craft breweries, and just as many agendas to serve in doing so. The issue which most often comes up is “support the small guy versus the big guy”. Now, I think this is almost as innate in us as it is irrational. All big guys were once small guys themselves. With enough support, the small become big. What we are actually saying is “we support you, wee battler, until you reach a certain size, at which point you are evil, and beneath our contempt”. Insane? Yep. I prefer to judge all companies on their products and on their actions. If a company is making terrible products, well, I won’t buy them, and I’ll recommend others follow my example. If a company is torturing lithuanian orphans, well, I’ll kick up a stink about that and do the same thing. There is no rational reason for hating a big company other than for behaviour or product quality. Yes, poor behaviour does include passing your product off as something it is not, and yes big companies do that sometimes, as do small contract brewers. For the record, Brewaucracy doesn’t! ;)

So we’ve decided that we do want to define craft beer or craft breweries for reason X. OK, how then? Intent is important, I think. Craft beer is beer brewed for the love of flavour. Craft beer can certainly be brewed to make money, but quality is never sacrificed. So, I guess we need to measure quality as a statement of intent. Quality is, of course, a very subjective thing once you get beyond cleanly brewed, fault free beer. The popular beer rating sites such as ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com throw this fact into stark relief. The same beer, from the same batch, purchased at roughly the same time, can receive drastically different ratings. Generally, over time, the consensus reveals the general opinion of the beer though. One thing worth noting is that almost no Big Brewing Company beers score well. Now yes, there’s a large element of bias here, but how’s this for a rough shot at a definition?

Greig’s Crack At A Craft Beer and Craft Brewery Definition version 0.1

Craft beer should be defined solely on quality, to be determined by a representative sample of consumers. To be designated a craft brewery, one must have most (75%?) of one’s products rated at or above the determined baseline.

Now, how to ensure a reasonable sampling of non biased consumers, and who decides what the proportions and scores should be… well, that’s somebody else’s problem!


9 thoughts on “Ma! That big kid is picking on me!

  • Barry

    One of the chief reasons for definition of a “craft brewery” is taxation. That is, tax breaks that make it easier for the little fella without economies of scale, to make a fist of it.
    For the taxation determination alone it should be based on size (amount of beer brewed). Surely?

    I can’t think of any other good reason to categorise and label craft beer, not a single one.

  • greig Post author

    Barry, I agree 100%. That said, assuming we had progressive tax in NZ, production points/breaks need have nothing to do with craft or not. In fact, it’d probably be better if they were kept entirely separate.

  • PeterNZ

    Brilliant article. Love it!

    I wonder if the use of the word “Craft” is actually incorrect in this instance. What you say is “Craft” = “Quality”. Is this a fair conclusion? If we compare Craft Brewing with another craft, how does it actually compare? My wife is a weaver and active in the weaving groups (They are called craft groups!) How does a rug Made in China compare to a rug made by one of those craft weavers? Quite often to be honest,the one made in China is a better quality. The one made by the weaver in New Zealand is still a craft made rug.

    Your attempt to define craft brewing based on quality could also lead to i.e. Steinlager being a craft brew. I am sure more than 75% of consumers might agree it is at or above some baseline don’t you think?

    To me any craft is distinguished by the method it is produced. Mostly hand made rather than produced in some big factory. (there is the size argument again) Traditional methods define a craft for me. And yes, the love for the craft and the product by the crafts people. Some might even use the word “Passion”.

    Its a bit like buying a bag of frozen carrots from Pams or buying carrots from the farmer at the farmers market. Both might be same quality. But I rather buy from the farmer because I think they taste better.

  • greig Post author

    Hi Peter, thanks for your comment. I see your point, though I have a slightly different take on it. As I said in my original post, I think it’s all about intent, rather than method. You can craft something wonderful using industrial size machinery just as you can with the most delicate of paint brushes. Tools are just tools. Human intent and creativity powers those tools, and it’s the output from the combination that I consider to be important, and representative of “craft”.

    If you accept that (and I understand you may not), then quality is a good measure. Nobody would ever set out to craft something rubbish (unless making some kind of statement). Aesthetic pleasure is part of quality, hence you can have a clean and technically flawless beer which wouldn’t make the cut as it’s considered dull and unworthy of the monicker. Given this part is highly subjective, the only thing that matters is that it is judged “by the market”. That way, it doesn’t matter what you may personally think a craft beer is, if “most people” say it’s craft, it’s craft. With your Steinlager example, this is where organisations like SOBA come in. As we teach people to taste, and appreciate flavour, that 75% figure who think Steinlager is a craft beer will fall, and it will cease to be defined as one. The thing I like about this definition is that it can change with people’s opinions, yet it can be easily measured with a number.

    I hope that clarifies my view a bit.

  • 666Brewing

    I think what you have here is two definitions; ‘Craft Beer’ and ‘Craft Breweries’. The Brewers Association has defined ‘Craft Breweries’ by the size of the brewery – fair enough I think, but their definition of size for a craft brewery certainly does not relate in NZ terms. However do these ‘Craft Breweries’ make ‘Craft Beer’? I would say mostly yes, but there are craft breweries by the BA definition making ‘mainstream’ beer. And can a large Regional Brewery or International Conglomerate make ‘Craft Beer’? Yes they can, but they often choose not to. So can a ‘Craft Beer’ be based on quality? Well most big breweries pride themselves on their ‘quality’, they are ‘technically perfect’ beers, you cant argue with that, but you cant call them ‘craft beers’?! I dont know the answer, and I’m going to stop now before my reply gets longer than Greigs blog…

  • greig Post author

    Cheers Graeme. I did address that issue though, and yes the two are separate. I’d argue if “most” of a brewery’s output is judged by our magic rating system to be craft beer, then that brewery is a craft brewery, even if a small part of their output is Big Money Pissweak Yellerfizz! Note, this brand might already exist. Apologies to any trademark holders. ;)

    Oh, and see my reply to Peter above. I believe quality must include an aesthetic component. The beer must have character (in a good way), and this must count heavily toward the quality rating.

  • PeterNZ

    No no, I do agree with you. And that’s why I said that maybe the term “Craft” is a bit of a misnomer here. You are basically saying that Lion for example could create a Craft Beer in their huge factory. And that’s what I meant, the term craft usually (to me!) stands for “traditional methods”, “hand-CRAFTED”, “made with love” and “passion” etc. Lets even assume that someone pushing the buttons on their computers at Lion has a passion and a love for this beer I still struggle to see where “handcrafted” and “traditional methods” come into it.

    Similar to “artisan”. I just can’t see for example that Mainlands could create an artisan cheese.

  • The Beermen

    The American Brewer’s Association’s purpose is, “To promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.”

    Keep in mind here: “Promote” and “Protect”.

    In their infinite craft beer wisdom, the ABA has defined size, independence and being traditional as what measures of a craft brewer are.

    To me, this is an exercise in defining market specific beer taxonomies to allow for focused support around those breweries that do not have access to the same resources as global giants.

    It’s meant to help (in many ways – too many to go into detail here) the small guy grow and yes, that means if all goes well, they will get bigger. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean evil. I don’t think that was mentioned in the argument anywhere. Though the reality is the big companies can do evil (immoral, illegal & other questionable or predatory business tactics) and when they do, who will look after the little guy?

    Right now we have two big players in Australia. Wouldn’t we be better off with more competition? Competition is good right? I’d like to see some hard and fast means for the small guys to gain support and leveraging the “craft brewer” brand is one of them.

    The the US, the ABA effectively acts as a lobby group to aid craft brewers to propose legislative change, fight legal battles and organise a range of marketing events such as the GABF to spread word about the hundreds of breweries they have.

    It’s just plain wrong when a big player uses the term craft to try and look like the small guy. Why don’t they create their own brand – “big boy, yummy beers” anyone?

    You ask why size should be a relative factor to defining the term “craft”. Well, size is a common factor in understanding relationships and dynamics in all sorts of economic areas. It allows for perspective. The kind of perspective that shows who is small and who isn’t with respect to the size of a market.

    Our government here in Australia spends countless billions on providing financial support to people who are relatively worse off than others. The so called “working class families” and pensioners.

    Working class is a relative term and it’s based upon a minimum annual income relative to salaries in Australia. It would be different to other economies around the world.

    This same perspective shows us the AUS/NZ beer market is a few percentage points of the global market. So within our market, logically you’d think we should have our own specific measures of size (production volume) when discussing domestic trade.

    Quality doesn’t sound like a good dimension for defining “craft brewer” because both small and big can make good and bad beer. It’s not a reliable means for segmentation, unlike a hard rule on production volume and percentage corporate ownership. What’s good and bad is also mostly subjective, so I think you’d struggle to create your special beer measurement focus group. :)

  • The Beermen

    The American Brewer’s Association’s purpose is, “To promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.”

    Keep in mind here: “Promote” and “Protect”.

    In their infinite craft beer wisdom, the ABA has defined size, independence and being traditional as what measures of a craft brewer are.

    To me, this is an exercise in defining market specific beer taxonomies to allow for focused support around those breweries that do not have access to the same resources as global giants.

    It’s meant to help (in many ways – too many to go into detail here) the small guy grow and yes, that means if all goes well, they will get bigger. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean evil. I don’t think that was mentioned in the argument anywhere. Though the reality is the big companies can do evil (immoral, illegal & other questionable or predatory business tactics) and when they do, who will look after the little guy?

    Right now we have two big players in Australia. Wouldn’t we be better off with more competition? Competition is good right? I’d like to see some hard and fast means for the small guys to gain support and leveraging the “craft brewer” brand is one of them.

    In the US, the ABA effectively acts as a lobby group to aid craft brewers to propose legislative change, fight legal battles and organise a range of marketing events such as the GABF to spread word about the hundreds of breweries they have.

    It’s just plain wrong when a big player uses the term craft to try and look like the small guy. Why don’t they create their own brand – “big boy, yummy beers” anyone?

    You ask why size should be a relative factor to defining the term “craft”. Well, size is a common factor in understanding relationships and dynamics in all sorts of economic areas. It allows for perspective. The kind of perspective that shows who is small and who isn’t with respect to the size of a market.

    Our government here in Australia spends countless billions on providing financial support to people who are relatively worse off than others. The so called “working class families” and pensioners.

    Working class is a relative term and it’s based upon a minimum annual income relative to salaries in Australia. It would be different to other economies around the world.

    This same perspective shows us the AUS/NZ beer market is a few percentage points of the global market. So within our market, logically you’d think we should have our own specific measures of size (production volume) when discussing domestic trade.

    Quality doesn’t sound like a good dimension for defining “craft brewer” because both small and big can make good and bad beer. It’s not a reliable means for segmentation, unlike a hard rule on production volume and percentage corporate ownership. What’s good and bad is also mostly subjective, so I think you’d struggle to create your special beer measurement focus group. :)

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