The interwebs are all abuzz with the news this morning that the term “craft beer” has been added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I know very few people who are happy with the term already, so this is probably not going to help. The definition they chose doesn’t seem to quite work. I know they were trying to generalize a term that itself has struggled to be defined, and there are already many differences of opinion about what the term means, so it was no easy task. Even so, it seems like a fail. It will apparently be in the next print edition of the dictionary, but has already been added online. Here’s the entry:
craft beer noun
Definition of CRAFT BEER
: a specialty beer produced in limited quantities : MICROBREW
First Known Use of CRAFT BEER
That definition suffers from the vagueness of what it means to be “a specialty beer” — which itself needs to be defined — and that it includes only beers that are brewed “in limited quantities.” As opposed to those beers in unlimited quantities? Does that mean year-round beers cannot be considered “craft beer?” Probably not, but my point is this is a pretty inelegant attempt at defining craft beer. It’s simple, at least, but hanging what it means to be a craft beer on it being “special” and “in limited quantities” is not exactly doing anybody any favors.
But other dictionaries have also tackled “craft beer” with mostly the same uninspired results. Here’s a few others.
American Heritage Dictionary: A distinctively flavored beer that is brewed and distributed regionally. Also called craft brew, microbrew.
Dictionary.com: an all-malt or nearly all-malt specialty beer usually brewed in a small, regional brewery.
Oxford English Dictionary: a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region.
Stan had a post a couple of years ago about Craft beer: The 1986 definition that explores its origins. A lot of terms have come and gone, picked up and fallen out of favor, and there’s a twitter discussion swirling about what the next term will be, with Ray Daniels suggesting “Artisan Brewer” as the “next big thing.” Here are a few that have been, and continue to be, used to describe beer that’s not “good old macrobrew made in vats the size of Rhode Island” (however we define that, too), and at least one suggested this morning just in jest:
- Artisan Beer
- Authentic Beer
- Boutique Brewer
- Cool Brewer
- Cottage Brewery
- Craft Beer
- Craft Brew
- Flavor Beer
- Hand-Crafted Beer
- Handmade Beer
- Real Beer
- Regional Brewery
- Small Batch Beer
- Small Brewer
- Specialty Beer
- True Beer
Did I miss any? Are there any you think should be added for consideration? What do you think we should call this stuff we all love? Maybe just call it “beer” and be done with it?
Michael Agnew says
Yes. Just beer. That’s what it is, after all. Just beer.
I think good beer will only gain real legitimacy when we stop trying to define it as “not that big brewery stuff” – which is actually also beer, like it or not. Also, given that so-called “craft” breweries are growing and will hopefully continue to grow and become “big” breweries, much like what happened in the 19th century to the likes of Miller and Pabst, that definition will become obsolete.
Alessio Leone says
What about adding “farmhouse brewery” to the list?
There is never going to be one term or def that will suit the craftbeer industry as a whole. The one area I hate is creating a snob factor that excludes those who drink gateway craft such as fat tire or shocktop. These are not nano or artisan but they are still craft for many.
Oxfords regional craft beer more closely suits a def I like.
Big Bad Bear says
The Professor says
Michael has said _precisely_ what I have been saying for years.
As far as I’m concerned (and apparently a growing number of good beer lovers agree) the term ‘craft beer’ is becoming increasingly meaningless, not to mention being increasingly perceived as somewhat pretentious.
If there HAS to be a label tagged onto the smaller brewers (though I still think there needn’t be) I think “Artisan” or “Boutique” seem at lest somewhat more appropriate than “craft”.
Brewing beer is, after all, a ‘craft’ in and of itself.
And in the end product is either just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ , with those categories defined only by each drinker’s individual taste.
Adam Keele says
Well if you back away from it as a beer person and look at what the Brewers Association defines craft beer/brewer as, they aren’t too far off. A craft brewer is limited to six million barrels per year. Being less than 10% of a market is pretty darn specialty as well. To a general public not entrenched in the world of all things beer, it’s probably the most encompassing, brief definition that goes along with what the BA defines it as.
I think anything produced in units in the millions is probably getting away from craft anything. Any industrial operation producing a set product is going to lose a craft state from that more organic product like a small artisan bakery that no loaf of bread looks exactly like the other. Yes, there’s an art to making a once artisan produce on a large scale, but it’s more engineering than art at that point. The bigger you get, it becomes more of intention and whether more profit is more important. To me, it seems some of the growing craft brewers have put out ever so slightly mass appealing versions of their original beers–which undoubtedly will be a result of supply and demand, and using larger and larger systems. From my experience, Dogfish Head has changed the least with their growth than many others. I know darn good and well the AB or MillerCoors could produce really interesting beers. Paulaner for instance is a huge brewery that produces some flavorful beer because it’s expected. Are they a craft brewery? Now that all comes down to who you ask.
I think you have to make hard choices as to whether you’re going to grow beyond a certain artisan point or not. I personally like the model of multiple 10,000 bbl or less breweries instead of one or two 500,000 bbl. Not very cost effective, but you can be more like that artisan bakery. It’s a matter of are you or do you want to cater to people looking for the same thing everywhere they go, or the person that likes variety and variation? One is craft and one is mass production–whether it’s light adjunct lager or full-flavored ale in a fancy painted 22 oz. bottle. Artisan is the term I use when I want to be more specific than craft beer. Cantillon: that is handmade art. Sierra Nevada: mostly mass-produced art. Both are artists, but certainly not of the same classification.
Also, I don’t like lumping every independent, less than X in production brewery as craft if it’s a positive, superlative term. It can be easily said that there are nowhere near 2,000 excellent breweries in the U.S. right now, yet there are over 2,000 that have earned the designator, craft brewery. I know a lot of people that lump craft beer, breweries like Russian River, Dogfish, Stone, Pipeworks, et.c, and local, independent beer into one category. This seems dangerous to me for everything that this segment is and wants to be. Sometimes beer is just beer like each of us are all humans. Sometimes I’m a white male, sometimes I’m a veteran, others a recreational runner or liberal. Sometimes some of those designations or others don’t ever come into play in certain instances, but sometimes they do in different combinations. We all know every person on this planet is not just another human to most, so craft beer sure can’t be everything we are trying to make it. At some point we have to call Boston Lager or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale something other than a craft beer if we want there to be an artisanal element to it. It can be a state of mind/being, but we aren’t collectively treating the term that way right now. Just like living things, words and their meanings change no matter how much a group tries to preserve and control it. It will be interesting to see if we try to fight it to the bitter end or mold it and change with it as it grows.