Hard cider, hard seltzer, and even the promise of marijuana-infused products are under consideration.

Mike Pomranz
October 31, 2018

What is a craft brewer? It’s a question that has sparked debate for decades. In the broadest sense, you’d think you’d know it when you see it. Hoppy IPAs are craft beers; anything with an unorthodox spelling of "light" is not. However, though styles can broadly fall into the categories of "craft" and "mass market" (for example, you won’t find many mainstream grisettes), simply drinking a beer doesn’t tell the whole story. Classic lagers can still be artfully crafted by a small producer (it’s actually a growing trend), and IPAs can be churned out in bulk. But that’s just scratching the surface: Speaking of bulk, how much is "too much"? And what about corporate investments? They’ve sullied the waters quite a bit.

ValentynVolkov/Getty Images

In the end, "craft" is just a word, and drinkers can choose to apply it however they like, but from an industry perspective, the Brewers Association (BA) — the trade group for small and independent brewers — has an official definition. Funnily enough, however, even that has continued to be tweaked and changed. And apparently, it may be changed again.

Currently, the official BA definition is that an American craft brewer must be small, independent and traditional. "Small" is a relative term, and the BA definition is capped at 6 million barrels per year, which is intentionally large enough to allow early and extremely successful craft pioneers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada into the club. "Independent" has also become counterintuitively relative — but the gist is that if you give away more than a 25 percent ownership stake, you’ll probably be on the outside looking in.

But it’s that third pillar — "traditional" — that the BA is now proposing to change. To be fair, "traditional" is probably the most relative term of the bunch — and one that even the BA is a bit noncommittal about, writing that the majority of a brewer’s output must be "beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients." Yes, "innovative" confusingly fits under the "traditional" umbrella since craft brewers evolved out of a need to push the brewing industry further.

However, , what the BA is hoping to change is the idea that the majority of a craft brewer’s output has to be beer — potentially dropping the "traditional" part of the definition altogether. Though allowing brewers to focus on things other than beer might sound like an extremely contradictory change of heart, a survey of the BA’s membership found that members were looking to innovate beyond the traditional beer space.

As current BA Board of Directors Chair and Left Hand Brewing founder Eric Wallace explained in an email obtained by Brewbound, "What we learned from this survey is that nearly half of the membership is already brewing — and more than half would consider making in the future — products that fall outside the existing Brewers Association traditional tier, such as cider or mead or other products taxed as beer (hard seltzers/flavored sugar beverages/sake/alcoholic kombucha, etc.)." He continued, "Nearly half surveyed said they would consider producing beers containing CBD or THC should the regulatory structure change federally around those potential products."

Still, a larger force might be at play here: literally. As mentioned earlier, that pretty large definition of "small" — 6 million barrels — was actually a change instituted in 2010. Around that time, the Boston Beer Company, the maker of Sam Adams, was about to become the first "craft" brewer to produce more than 2 million barrels, which was the previous limit. Essentially, the BA tacked 4 million barrels onto the definition to allow Boston Beer to grow. Now, Boston Beer is facing another sea change. The company — which also produces big name brands like Angry Orchard and Twisted Tea — is on the verge of having beer slip to below 50 percent of production, a disqualifier for craft brewery status since the “majority” of production has to be beer under the current "traditional" category. Losing Boston Beer from the ranks of the "craft beer" would instantly drop about 4 million barrels from the BA’s annual production totals. That’s one really large asterisk — and one that can potentially be avoided.

Still, the BA denied that this change was solely about creating a loophole. "This move was not made because of Boston Beer, but the timing of evaluating and revising the definition is related to Boston Beer," the email reportedly stated. "Other companies will also be facing a similar circumstance in the coming years and it’s natural that the largest of the smallest would get there first."

Overall, Wallace described the official definition of a "craft brewer" as a "living document." The debate is certainly alive and well.

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