Introduction to the World of Craft Beer

Go Learn Things  is swimming in all things beer. Suddenly, I drink craft beer exclusively, I plan “beercations” and I have started brewing beer in my garage. The beer industry plays a huge role in the American economy. This industry covers a vast array of topics and evokes strong opinions.  I thought it time for an Introduction to craft beer.

Craft Beer

Definition

Just the definition of “craft beer” spawns a plethora of Facebook posts, forum threads and beer bar debates. The Brewers Association, (BA) a trade group representing smaller breweries, put out an official definition in 2005:

Craft beer, homebrewing and beercations
The Brewers Association

 

An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.

Small representing an annual production of 6 million barrels or less.
Independent meaning less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by a large alcoholic beverage corporation.
Traditional being beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.

 

 

 

Craft Beer Numbers

Statistics from 2016 reveal a 16% growth in numbers of US craft breweries.  There were 5234 craft breweries compared to 51 non-craft.  Referring back to the BA definition of craft beer, that would mean 51 large international beer corporations. Corporations such as InBev or Miller/Coors exemplify the non-craft category. However, the total sales stats are skewed in the opposite direction.  Craft Breweries held only 12.3% of the total sales of beer in 2016. Obviously the “big players” remain big, but craft beer continues to carve out an important niche in the market.

Craft Beer Issues in 2017

Because of the meteoric growth in craft breweries in the last decade, some of the previously labeled craft breweries have actually outgrown the moniker. They are producing more than 6 million barrels annually. To add to the confusion and controversy, many craft breweries have been gobbled up by the some of the megalithic alcoholic beverage players such as In-Bev or Miller/Coors. Many  have retained their original craft brewing brand. In order to address this, as recently as this past summer The Brewers Association launched a labeling system to designate Independent Brewers. Helping consumers be informed about who is behind their “craft beer”.

Craft Beer, Homebrewing and Beercations
New Independent Craft Brewer Label 2017 photo credit The Brewers Association

This issue may not be a big deal to many beer drinkers.
However, for true craft beer aficionados it is everything. Beer Geeks/Beer Snobs will pontificate all evening about the latest “sell-out” or who is true to the “craft beer spirit”. Millennials specifically prefer to support small and local businesses. This leads them to the craft beer as an obvious choice. They resent the big players lurking in the background.

“Whether it’s beer, wine or liquor, the thing that differentiates millennials from older generations is their focus on quality above all else. While they still look for good deals, millennials are happy to spend a bit more on a craft beer if it means a small-batch beverage with high-quality ingredients, Millennials choose products — including booze — that they feel are an extension of their personalities, so they look for unique, well-made, authentic beverages.”    PYMENTS.com

I like that last sentence-“unique, well-made, authentic beverages”-it sums up what draws me, and millions of others, to craft beer.

Unique Qualities of Craft Beer

 

Ingredients

 

craft beer
Fresh Cascade hops added to my home brew

In order for me to stay relevant with the trend, I need to understand beer well enough to identify that unique, well-made, authentic beverage. Join any brewery tour across the country and you will hear “beer is made from four ingredients: Malted Grain, Water, Hops and Yeast.” Modifications to these four primary players produce the over 125 BA recognized beer styles. The BA definition from above also mentions “innovative” ingredients. Adjunct ingredients typically include herbs, spices, fruits, botanicals, nuts, and vegetables. Such innovations, limited only by the brewers imagination. The vast potential for experimentation and variety draws the fans.

 Venues

Traditionally we have found our beer at bars, festivals and dining establishments. An invisible dividing line exists somewhere around St. Louis where the northern Miller gives way to the southern Budweiser.  With the advent of craft brewing we find ourselves in brewpubs or taprooms surrounded by the brewing equipment. We wander through industrial parks and abandoned neighborhoods to find our favorite brewery. We bring our dogs and our kids, bean bag toss and often our own food.

Craft Beer
Oliphant Brewing in Somerset, WI
Craft beer
New Belgium Beerstream in Fort Collins, CO

 

 Vernacular

The topic of craft beer dominates much of the media buzz in the alcohol industry these days. Just like the wine world, beer culture communicates in its own language. They speak of odd sounding flavor profiles, designated glassware, and hop levels (IBU scale). We order flights instead of pitchers, with names that could make you blush. I remember when most states still restricted beer to 3.2% alcohol. We don’t even use this system of measurement any longer.  That “3 point 2” beer of years gone by would be about 4% on our current ABV system.  ABV stands for alcohol by volume. Today the ABV (alcohol by volume) of craft beer ranges from 5% to a whopping 11%.

Bent Flight. The Tropicot was a yummy sour and the Dark Fatha was an Imperial Stout I tasted in honor of my sons the Star Wars fans.

Join me on this Craft Beer Journey

Any post calling itself an “Introduction” should leave you with more questions than answers.  There is so much more to cover about craft beer. Posts to come will cover such topics as; The Art of Tasting Beer, What You Always Wanted to Know about Hops,  Following the Trail of Women Brewers, How to Create a Brew Trail, and Beercations in the Midwest.

 

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