Craft beer lovers tend to be an opinionated bunch. Most of us have our favourite styles, flavours, and even glasses to drink from. So, with the brewing industry growing by leaps and bounds, and more public interest in craft brewing than ever, it’s maybe not that surprising that we don’t just have disagreements about which microbreweries are best… we don’t even see eye-to-eye about what a microbrewery actually is.
In fact, you might even find that (at least in certain circles) your favourite microbrewery isn’t even considered to be all that “micro.”
So today, I want to take a look at two questions: First, how do we actually define microbreweries? And second, the distinctions really matter?
A Few Basic Size Micro Brewery Guidelines
If you are the kind of person who goes right to the rulebook when settling disputes, you might want to know that there are a few different guidelines we can draw from. Wikipedia, for example, broadly considers a microbrewery to be any brewery that puts out less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year.
I find that definition to be a little bit clinical, however. What about a brewery that produces a lot less, but has a taste profile that matches what you’d find in a can at your local convenience store? Or what about a slightly bigger brewery, but one that takes a commitment to produce craft beers very seriously?
The Emotional Difference: Micro, Macro, and Local
To me, the differences between a microbrewery (or craft brewer) and “everyone else” are more about process and emotion than they are numbers. We like craft beers because they are distinctive, original, and allow us to root for a small brewery that we like. It feels personal. We form an attachment to them and their products in a way that just isn’t possible with the bigger international brand.
Of course, the big brewers know this, and do their best to get involved with craft brewing by buying up smaller competitors, producing “limited-edition” batches, or outright portraying themselves as different brands. In each case, they are trying to take advantage of the higher pricing and increase the support that comes with being in “up-and-coming” brewery.
As they do so, the lines between big breweries and local businesses are starting to blur (or at least get harder to spot). This article in Forbes does a nice job of addressing the big beer versus craft brewing dilemma, and highlights the point I’m trying to make: craft beer just doesn’t feel special when you know it was brewed by a gigantic conglomerate.
On the other hand, bigger companies can make artisan beers. In fact, one of the natural consequences of being great at producing beer is that a brewery might start to grow far beyond its original size. At that point, do customers have to give up their favourite and go against the mainstream to remain “craft beer fans”?
This is an academic question. In a recent feature, a group of pollsters and statisticians wondered whether Boston-based Sam Adams is “too big” to produce craft beers. I suspect the real answer – no matter how you slice and dice the numbers – comes down to your opinion of what craft beer actually is. Your opinion will be a reflection of whether you think brewing is more about the company or the methods it uses.
The Distinctions That Make a Microbrewery are Where we Find Them
When I first started writing this article and researching the topic, I half-expected to find some definition for “microbrewery” that would clear up the topic and satisfy everyone. I thought maybe there was something we can point to that would illustrate exactly what is and isn’t a craft brewery.
However, what I found is that the numbers can be averaged or manipulated, and that company sizes and brewing batches are always in flux. Even if these things weren’t the case, they wouldn’t really bring agreement or satisfy the issue.
To me, the issue of what makes a microbrewery or craft beer has a little to do with the size of the company and how many litres of beer it produces, but a lot more to do with whether they approach brewing as a business or passion. You can do something you love and be commercially successful with it. So should we punish the bigger brewers who take a craft beer approach to their products just because they’ve been successful?
In the end, maybe microbrews are like art – hard to define but easy to appreciate when we’re using our own personal criteria as a measuring stick. What do you think? What really separates a craft beer from the other brews you’ll find on tap at your local pub? Let us know in the comments below.