Why is it so difficult to define ‘craft beer’?

Since the dawn of craft beer, there have probably been more attempts at defining it than there are beer styles. All of them constantly evolving and adapting to indiscriminately include as many breweries as possible. And yet, none of these definitions hold water.

In today’s episode, we’re going to take a look at why trying to define craft beer has nothing to do with either craft or beer, why the definitions given by brewing associations don’t align with consumer expectations, and why any set of guidelines for ‘craft’ is impossible to implement.

‘But wait, I thought you guys already had a definition for Romanian craft beer: it’s beer made by an independent brewery that produces a maximum of 5,000 hectoliters per year.

True. Problem is, that definition is bollocks. This article will explain why.

So then, why is it so hard to define ‘craft beer’ – for us, or anyone else?
Let’s establish something before we go any further:

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Defining craft beer is a business decision

For millennia, beer has been around with nobody stopping to ask ‘Is this beer craft?’. There was simply no need for it. Then, as breweries grew in size in the 20th century and became colossal corporate entities that took over the market with pale, bland lagers, a dichotomy became apparent between the large producers and the small breweries – not just in terms of size, but also quality. For a while, these small breweries were simply referred to as ‘microbreweries’, yet that word lacked a certain finesse that defined more than just the production space. It didn’t tell consumers anything about the beers made, the processes, the ingredients, the people, the community – the brewing ethos. It was too narrow, too simplistic.

Then, in 1986, beer columnist Vince Cottone came up with ‘craft brewery’ in one of his articles. The guidelines he gave (‘a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally’) became outdated and restrictive fairly quickly, but the catchphrase stuck and became a staple for referring to this new breed of breweries.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s, the Brewers Association in the US came up with ‘small, independent, traditional’ as a means to differentiate craft breweries from their corporate nemesis. This mighty triumvirate of features has been brandished like a badge of honour by the breweries that ticked all the boxes. However, problems with this definition arose as early as 2014, when it became apparent that modern craft breweries, using innovative techniques and plenty of adjuncts to create new beer styles, no longer qualified as ‘craft’. The Brewers Association therefore ditched ‘traditional’ in 2018, and stripped the definition even further for their Independent Craft Brewer Seal, to ‘small, independent, with a brewer that has a TTB Brewer’s Notice and makes beer’.

The main thing to note here is that the Brewers Association (or any similar association that exists in other countries) is a trade group. It might have brewers in its ranks, but ultimately, its main purpose is to protect the interests of its members when it comes to legislation, supply and distribution chains, retail, branding and market presence, and so on. And defining craft beer is important for trade associations because it protects one of the industry’s main assets: the image associated with the word ‘craft’. Any misunderstandings regarding what is craft and what isn’t aren’t necessarily bad for the consumer, but they could be harmful to the craft brewing industry.

You can see similar concerns even in Romania, where we don’t have a brewers association just yet (not a fully functional one, anyway). The difference is that, in the absence of such an association, it’s up to the brewers to defend their interests against macro. Here’s the most recent example: when the (Ursus owned) Bârlog brewery opened this autumn, people (brewers and consumers alike) were worried that it would out-compete craft by providing a cheaper alternative under the name of ‘craft’.

Craft beer? In a 2.5 liter PET bottle? Yeah, nah, didn’t think so. You can see how the meaning of the word ‘craft’ has become so bastardized that it’s almost a joke, and anyone can get away with putting ‘bere artizanală’ on their label.

Now, using ‘small’ and ‘independent’ as a means to define craft beer is great if you’re a brewer. The problem is that this instantly removes ‘beer’ from the definition: it’s no longer about the beverage, but the kind of business making it. Of course, you can argue that, as long as we have a definition for what a craft brewery is, then craft beer is automatically whatever comes out of its fermenting vessels.

But as we’ve seen in the case of the Brewers Association, the guidelines for ‘craft’ are mutable and liable to change, depending on the market climate. Not only that, but the consumer’s definition of craft doesn’t always align with that offered by trade associations. In fact, it goes far beyond that, and brings up elements that these associations rarely touch upon, such as quality.

Before we delve into why defining craft beer is so complicated, let’s discuss the key features we’ve mentioned so far, and why none of them are reliable when it comes to defining ‘craft’. Namely, size, and the ‘independent’ status.

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The problem with ‘small’

The building block of any definition for ‘craft brewery’ is the size – it has to be small. In Romania, the legal definition is:

‘A small independent brewery means a brewery that is legally and economically independent of any other brewery and uses buildings that are physically separate from any other brewery and does not operate under license. When two or more small breweries cooperate and their total annual production does not exceed 200,000 hl, these breweries are considered a separate small independent brewery.’

Now, legislation also offers two benchmarks when it comes to the minimum amount for the security deposit paid by the authorized warehouse keepers in order to produce beer. One of them is 200,000 hl per year, the other is 5,000 hl. For us (the two geezers who run Beerologique), the first one seemed too big to apply to the actual small breweries, so we use 5,000 hl as a benchmark for ‘small production’.

Craft breweries themselves take a lot of pride in being small. For example, one of our first interactions with Zăganu back in 2016 was them reaching out to us because we put them down on our map as a ‘large independent brewery’. They wanted us to fix that, because they brew their beers in small batches. (Ironically, Zăganu were the first brewery to breach our own definition in terms of size as a criteria for what craft is, by brewing over 5,000 hl of beer in 2019.)

Size always comes up in conversation whenever craft beer is mentioned, and everyone takes it for granted: small is good. Yet, in a curious turn of events, whenever Romanian craft breweries announce that they’ve added new equipment or made expansions to the brewery, everyone is happy for them. Nobody would tell a brewer: ‘Yo, Cristi, that’s enough fermenting vessels you got there, if you grow any further you’ll stop being craft’ – that would be absurd. It’s a curious shift in attitudes, because on one hand, we’re happy to see the breweries we love grow (especially if we also supported that growth), but at the same time we think of craft beer as something that’s brewed in small batches.

If breweries only produced beers on this kind of setup, it would have been realistically impossible for craft beer to become the global phenomenon it is today.

We often frown at size when it comes to defining craft even though, as breweries grow, it means their products will become more easily available. When a brewery is small, you always risk either not finding their beers locally, or the beers selling out before you get to them. But when you can’t find your go-to craft beer, it’s not like you’re not going to buy anything else. Instead, you’re going for the closest alternative. And therein lies the danger: what if, once you buy a competitor’s beer, you don’t go back to ‘your usual’? Both macro and craft brewers are aware of this risk, which is why you constantly have to keep growing once you reach peak capacity. And honestly, it’s not fair to penalize craft brewers for reaching their maximum potential output and wanting to reach more beer lovers.

The size of a brewery or its output has nothing to do with craft. For example, if you brew 50 hectoliters of abominable beer per year, how does that make you ‘craft’? When you look at it this way, using size as a key feature for defining craft breweries is hypocritical at best. As such, it should not dictate whether they’re craft or not.

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The problem with ‘independent’

‘Wait, hold on, why is being an independent brewery a problem?’

Being an independent brewery is amazing and we fully support it. However, it has nothing to do with being a craft brewery. In fact, it has nothing to do with ‘independence’ either.

When brewing associations use ‘independent’ as a catchphrase for craft brewing, it’s purpose is defining trade parameters. Generally speaking, it is an accounting principle used for recognizing capital. It’s also about who your business partners are, how involved they are in your business (e.g. dictating recipes and ingredients), and how working with them as a third party can potentially impact collaborating (e.g. trading) with your brewery. Again, it’s not even about beer anymore, it’s about business, and it’s the business interests themselves that are ‘independent’ (in the sense that they’re not aiming to please shareholders), not the brewery. You can also see this in countries like the US, Australia, France, the UK: they all have ‘independent brewery’ seals on their bottles and cans, not ‘craft beer’ seals. Which is great seal to have if your focus is on brewing as a business, backed by a trade association.

The problem with using ‘independent’ as a feature of craft beer is not just that it has nothing to do with beer, but also the fact that, just like ‘small’, it runs the risk of being quantified – especially in Romania. Back in the olden days (around 2017) when the founding fathers of the local Craft Beer Producers Association came up with a definition for ‘craft brewery’, they stipulated that the beer had to be ‘made by a brewery where a maximum of 25% is owned by a brewery with a yearly output exceeding 200,000 hl‘. This is pretty much an appropriated copy/paste of the US Brewers Association’s guidelines for the Independent Craft Brewer Seal, but that’s not even the issue. Essentially, being 75% independent from macro investors is deemed sufficient to qualify as an independent brewery, and as a result, having your beers considered ‘craft’. Which, if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense. Why draw the line at 25%? Why not 30%? Why not 50%? The definition for ‘craft beer’ has changed so much over the decades, depending on what the market climate dictates, that we can realistically reach a point where being a macro subsidiary can be A-OK. And why shouldn’t it be, really? Why should breweries like Anchor, Goose Island or Beavertown suddenly cease being ‘craft’ just because they ‘sold out’?

In 2007, the Widmer Brothers merged with Redhook Ale Brewery to form the Craft Brewers Alliance. They then gave Anheuser-Busch a 32.2% minority stake in the CBA, and as a result, they were kicked out of the Brewers Association later that year. If you look at it from a business point of view, it made sense that BA would stop considering them craft. The label of the beer Widmer Brothers brewed to ‘commemorate’ this event, however, puts things into a different perspective. (photo via Beer Advocate)

Of course, brewers reading this can just say ‘OK, so we’ll just make a definition where you have to be 100% independent from any large brewery.’ However, the precedent has already been set. Back in 2017, Zăganu, Sikaru, Perfektum, Ground Zero and Hop Hooligans (the ‘founding fathers’ we mentioned earlier) saw no problem with that 25% margin. And those were the ‘golden days’ of Romanian craft brewing. Given the current economic climate, who’s to say that any brewers association or employers organizations won’t be more lenient on the guidelines? After all, times are tough and breweries are struggling – would it be better if they closed down entirely, or if they sold out a little bit?

The fact that the ‘independent’ status lends itself to quantification and negotiation makes it an unreliable trait of craft brewing, whether in Romania or anywhere in the world. As a result, being an independent brewery has nothing to do with being ‘craft’.

So far, we have crossed out small and independent from our list of words used to define craft beer and brewing. Which takes us back to our initial conundrum: finding a set of parameters that should be applicable across the industry and that would allow us to define the resulting product.

To this, we propose the following:

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The beer, the brewer, the brewery

Any definition for a real craft brewery (and by extension, craft beer) should touch upon these three elements. And each of these elements has its own specifications, as highlighted below:

Quality: the number one trait of the beer. It is used to define a beer that is consistently good, allowed to ferment naturally, with no immediately discernible flaws (such as oxidization, wild yeast infections, off-flavours, etc), and using the best possible ingredients to make the beer according to its intended style (it does not use enzymes, hop extract, corn, etc).

Qualifications: the main thing needed to be considered a craft brewer. In order to ensure the quality of the beer, it should be paramount that anyone making it should have some form of formal training, such as taking a brewing course or doing an apprenticeship with a brewery.

Independence: a key trait for the brewery. This is our only concession to the current attempts at defining craft beer, and we only keep it provided that it remains non-negotiable, non-quantifiable, and %-free. We also need to point out that, on the Romanian market, it’s a coveted luxury that we should aim to keep (no craft breweries have sold out – yet).

So there you have it. Romania’s definition of craft beer. It’s short, simple, it touches upon all the relevant aspects of beer and brewing. And it is absolutely, positively impossible to implement.

Admittedly, it’s easy to determine whether a brewery is independent or not. The other two… well, not so much.

Consider quality, for example. In Romania, beer recipes need to be sent to the Customs bureaus so that they’re approved and the brewer can get on with the beer. Customs workers, however, only look at the recipe and ingredients in order to determine the gravity of a beer, which tells them how much alcohol the beer will have and how much the brewer needs to pay in excises. The people giving the seal of approval on a recipe don’t stop to think ‘Will this beer actually taste any good?’. So then, who gets to decide that a beer is of good quality or not? (spoilers: it’s not Untappd). In an ideal world, you should have a set of judges who are qualified to determine whether a beer is true to style, whether it has any faults, and so on. But where does the ‘unfiltered and unpasteurized’ part come into play? Every consumer will tell you that they are key features of craft beer. Yet there are breweries that either filter and pasteurize the beers they sell to supermarkets. Is it fair to say they’re no longer craft, because the brewers had the ‘audacity’ to stabilize a product in order to ensure its shelf life?

And what about the ingredients? Last year, we actually had a discussion with one of the founding members of the Craft Beer Producers Association about the nightmarish implications of making sure that a brewery uses proper ingredients. Take corn, for instance. There are currently over 50 stand-alone craft breweries in Romania (by our definition). Let’s assume that you can verify the recipes they sent off for Customs approval and the list of ingredients is 100% corn-free. But how do you know what actually goes on behind closed doors? You would literally have to visit each brewery and make sure that there is no corn present on the brewing premises. And you’d have to do these kind of inspections regularly, which is a monumental task. Local brewers don’t even have a centralized distribution network that they can rely on – expecting them to have the funds and infrastructure for periodic corn inspections is ridiculous.

Schrödinger’s corn: until you visit the brewery, it is both present and absent from the grain bill of your favourite alcoholic beverage

In comparison, making formal training a requirement for qualifying as a craft brewer is actually pretty easy to implement. Universities in Romania that have an agricultural profile require students to undertake practice sessions as part of their curriculum, which can also be done in breweries. Even if you’re not a student, there are dozens of craft breweries you could do an apprenticeship with, or even get a job there. Heck, you can even work in a macro brewery – essentially, the process and equipment are the same. On average, it takes about 1 year before you receive all your authorizations and can start making beer, which gives you plenty of time to familiarize with the practical aspects of commercial brewing.

The problem is that nobody really wants to do this. No entrepreneur with some spare cash is going to take time off work (or worse, quit their job entirely) to clean out the mash tun and label some bottles. Some would even claim that ‘Yeah well my friends loved my homebrew, so I don’t see why I have to do this apprenticeship thing’. Sure, avid homebrewers would give it a go, but even then, there’s a better chance they’ll just become gypsy brewers instead of opening their own place due to lack of financing. And the next question to ask is: how long should this apprenticeship last before you count as ‘qualified’? A month? Three? Six? A year? Any craft takes years to develop, improve and perfect. A one week course won’t cut it. And brewing, like any craft, is a constant learning curve.

Of course, you can point out that many of the craft breweries around the world started off as passionate homebrewers who took it to the next level, and Romania is no different. And while there are numerous instances of brewers who released some truly outstanding beers without any formal training, there are plenty who haven’t. In fact, there are many breweries opened by entrepreneurs looking for a novel business avenue, with no proper understanding of how to make beer – and it shows (you folks remember Bere Sara?). Skill and quality are intrinsically related. The only reason some brewers can get away with making awful beers is the fact that the market is still too young to tell the difference, and also because bad beer has never killed anybody.

Another thing to ask is: are we defining craft beer for the benefit of the producer, or the beer drinker? Consider the difference between features and benefits in marketing: is having a craft beer seal a feature, or a benefit for the consumer? Will it justify the price, or assure drinkers that the product is properly made and of good quality? If you’re defining craft beer just for the benefit of the breweries, then this is as relevant to the consumer as the the set of criteria used for NACE codes. And we’d be getting to a point where putting ‘craft beer’ on a label has as much relevance as the name of the brewery.

Let this be the proof that trying to implement a proper set of guidelines for craft beer in Romania is unfeasible (for now). Where does this take us? You guessed it: back to square one. And we hope you kids are ready, because it’s gonna get even more complicated real fast.

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The craft beer drinker’s dilemma

The thing with ‘craft beer’ is that people both know and don’t know what it is. Everyone, from brewers, to drinkers, to retailers, has some intrinsic understanding of the product, existsing as a shapeless conglomerate of a posteriori evidence floating in the vastness of our grey matter. (Don’t worry, this happens to us as well.)

When asked ‘What is craft beer?’ we will immediately prepare a mental list of key features that set this product apart from macro beers, based on drinking experiences, books and articles we’ve read, discussions we’ve had. Often, we will resort to an explanation along these lines:

“Small, independent, traditional. Made following traditional brewing methods and recipes, but also pursuing innovation. Made by a small brewery, in small batches. Putting an emphasis on quality and flavour. Made with passion and natural ingredients.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is basically a hodgepodge of keywords and phrases we’ve all come across when dealing with ‘craft beer’, and we’re all trying out best to regurgitate as many as possible without any proper understanding of what they mean. (Again, don’t worry, we also do this all the time). All it takes is for someone to start asking probing questions such as ‘Yeah but what are the traditional brewing methods? What is small? What are natural ingredients?’ and our explanation falls apart faster than foam disappearing off a glass of Gose. And before we know it, it turns out that we have no idea what craft beer actually is.

Earlier on we mentioned that the consumer’s definition of ‘craft beer’ is not the same as the industry’s definition. And in a way, it is normal: businesses and consumers are different entities. However, drinkers have a deeper, more complex approach to the product, and their definition of ‘craft beer’ is actually closer to what the product should be compared to what associations dictate. Think of it this way: there isn’t a single definition for ‘independent craft brewery’ that mentions quality – meanwhile, drinkers will tell you that craft beer tastes better than macro. Very few definitions mention the fact that the brewer actually needs to know how to make beer – yet drinkers have faith in the skill of the brewer.

The truth is that, as beer drinkers, we know what craft beer is. Maybe we can’t put it in words, but ultimately, the more we drink, the more we understand what it is we’re drinking. And it’s trade associations and their trading guidelines that have us tied up in knots trying to negotiate two definitions that will never see eye to eye.

The other difficulty with defining craft beer (from the consumer’s point of view) is that language makes things infinitely more complicated.

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‘Craft’ has nothing to do with craft beer

In an article published in August 2019, we took a look at why defining craft beer is particularly difficult in Romania because of the way language works. ‘Craft’ is not a Romanian word, and yet we often see it used interchangeably with the native alternative, ‘artizanal’. English speaking drinkers who use the word ‘craft’ have their expectations shaped by the brewing industry in Western countries, whereas drinkers using ‘artizanal’ have a more traditional approach to the product. Also, the actual meaning of the word ‘artizanal’ is so vague and antiquated it cannot possibly apply to modern craft brewing.

In Romanian, the definition of ‘artizanal’ is: ‘Belonging to or concerning artisans and handicrafts’. If you try to break it down, you get to:

‘Artisan: a person who makes handicrafts, a craftsman who works with art. […] Craftsman working on small series objects. […] Artist in popular (traditional) style. Author, director, creator of something. […] Craftsman: a qualified person in a craft; person who has (and practices) a craft; tradesman. […] Craft: profession, occupation. […] Science, or art, considered as disciplines. […] An action performed skillfully, with mastery.’

None of these properly apply to craft beer – not in the modern sense of the word. Truth is, craft beer would be in a lot of trouble if you tried using these guidelines to define what counts as ‘craft’.

For starters, the craft brewing industry is absolutely besotted with the industrial revolution, rather than the idyllic countryside and the olde worlde times when everything was handmade and everyone was (supposedly) happy. Just look at the way most craft beer bars are designed: minimalist furniture, bright light bulbs hanging overhead, stainless steel and chrome, rows of taps and fridges, high-end equipment. Even some of the most popular craft beer styles nowadays (such as stouts and porters) also stemmed from the technological advancements brought by the industrial revolution.

Things get even more complicated in Romania, where there is a noticeable clash between ‘craft’ and ‘craft beer’. Compared to other countries where the craft beer revolution hinged heavily on an absence of traditional practices, here we still have a lot of people that are living an agrarian lifestyle. Most of the country’s territory is comprised of rural areas. We still have people who look after livestock, make hay bales, cheese, cured meats, furniture and clothing items using traditional techniques. And we refer to their wares as ‘artisanal’ or ‘homemade products’.

Sadly, we don’t have any evidence that beer is still made using traditional methods in Romania. However, it’s interesting how, even in countries where traditional brewing practices still exist, the advent of craft beer has led to a shift in perceptions where these beers are referred to as ‘farmhouse’ rather than ‘artisanal’. (photo credit: Lars Marius Garshol)

And then we have craft beer – or as we call it, ‘bere artizanală’. A product made on professional equipment of varying size, using mostly automated processes, made by various entrepreneurs, producing beers that are not traditionally Romanian, such as IPA and Berliner Weisse. So we find ourselves in the awkward position of trying to mitigate the dichotomy between what we linguistically and culturally perceive as ‘artisanal’ and what comes off the bottling line, tarted up with fancy, modern labels.

Where exactly is the ‘artisanal’ in these ‘craft beers’?

Many Romanian brewers hail from corporate jobs, or have their own business on the side. Very few make beer for a living. Many started homebrewing as a hobby, and a few even went as far as taking a brewing course. If you start from the premise (highlighted in the definition of ‘artizanal’) that craft and skill are intrinsically related, then these craft brewers are as ‘craft’ as macro breweries – perhaps even less so (macro actually employs people who have studied the science of beer and brewing). You can argue that craft brewers built up their skill batch after batch in the months and years since they opened their brewery, but what that implies is that their brewery was not craft to begin with – so was it fair of them to call it that?

Another thing to bear in mind is that many craft breweries prefer a streamlined brewing process because nobody’s crazy enough to stir the mash or sparge by hand, for example. Perhaps this is a result of working in corporations, where time is money, and streamlining everything for maximum efficiency is paramount. You can also see the effects of corporate mindsets in the way brewers talk and advertise themselves: under the rebellious guise, they actually employ a lot of marketing and advertising know-how, to maximize reach and engagement, or search engine rankings.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying to maximize efficiency. In theory, this should give brewers more time to perfect recipes and deliver outstanding beers. In practice, that’s hardly the case. Several craft breweries that started off with decent beers have taken a hit in terms of quality. So if buying professional equipment didn’t result in them delivering increasingly better beers, then what was the point? They have sacrificed the ‘handmade’ and ‘artisanal’ parts of the brewing process with nothing to show for.

So then, why do we insist on calling these beers ‘craft’? The answer is quite simple, really. And if you pay close attention to the meaning of the word, you’ll instantly see the the key characteristic of anything that is artisanal:

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The human element

To be human is to create. For hundreds of thousands of years, everything we owned and used was made by hand, and it’s only recently that we switched (almost entirely) to objects made in factories. Of course, mass produced items are cheap and convenient, but the truth is that we all possess a profound longing for using our hands to build, to create. To craft. It’s what we were designed for, and not doing it is against our nature.

This is why words such as ‘craft’ or ‘handmade’ are such powerful triggers. They resonate not just with the quality of a product, but also ourselves, the way we want to live, and the things we want to do in order to be happy. And when we can’t do these things ourselves, we find comfort in knowing that other people can, and we root for them because their success is proof that you can ‘beat the system’. It’s the same with beer: drinking craft is, essentially, a way of living vicariously.

Interestingly enough, one defining aspect of the ‘human element’ that breweries use to describe their beers is often met with a raised eyebrow and a snort of contempt. And it’s odd that it does, because really, this trait is what defines our emotional connection to craft beer, and it’s what we have in common as both drinkers and brewers.

That’s right, kids:

Search your feelings, fellow reader. You know it to be true.

And it’s not just passion that is a vital part of the human element in brewing. If you think about it, the ‘small and independent’ traits also relate to it.

The reason we get fixated on size when it comes to craft/artizanal is not because ‘small’ is instantly better. It’s because ‘small’ is instantly more human. When you produce something by hand, you can only produce a small amount at a time. By adding size into play, we are basically trying to reinstate our worth, and the worth of what we produce compared to what is made by machinery and automated processes. Same with independence – it’s about the worth of humans as individual entities, as opposed to cogs churning away in a corporate machine. This is why any definition that mentions ‘small and independent’ still resonates deeply with all of us, and we accept it even if it’s just a way for trade associations to define business parameters.

The human element is also clear in the attitudes macro and craft breweries display towards us as drinkers. Macro (and any corporate product, really) aims to please as many people as possible, even if that means cutting down or downright removing key features that were desirable in the past. It aims to be inoffensive and unobtrusive, which is why so many macro beers are bland and generic, and which is why we fear that craft beers will suffer the same fate in the light of macro acquisitions. Craft, on the other hand, revels in being loud, ballsy, even controversial. It pushes boundaries, takes us out of our comfort zone, makes us think outside the box and gives us a wake-up call with a sucker-punch of new and unexpected flavours.

Macro breweries are conservative entities who can’t afford to let you make your own decisions because they risk losing you as a customer, which is why they’re terrified of selling you something you won’t like. Meanwhile, craft brewers have faith in the fact that, as a discerning adult, you’re more than capable of educating yourself in terms of what you do or don’t like, and changing your tastes accordingly. If you don’t like one brewery’s beers, it’s cool, someone else will, and there’s no doubt other craft beers that you would enjoy. It is the craft beer industry that treats its drinkers like individuals rather than masses that need to be converted to product X. And it’s because they treat us like humans that we will be drawn to and support their cause.

The human element also explains why community is such an important part of the craft brewing industry. From festivals, to beer collaborations, tasting sessions, forums and online groups, they all express our human need to come together in order to create, learn, discuss, or simply enjoy the company of those who share the same thoughts and interests. (photo credit: Bereta at Haze Fest)

Now, the pitfall of any attempt to define ‘craft beer’ is that you risk removing the human element from the product. By default, any definition (whether legal or lexical) is constrictive because it only allows the term to exist within a predetermined outline. Basically, it restricts what brewers can or cannot do. And as we’ve seen in the case of the US Brewers Association back in 2014, it infringes on the brewers’ freedom to be creative and innovative. And the moment you infringe on that, you’re no different from macro breweries acquiring a share and telling the craft brewers how to make their beers. You can’t tell them: ‘You can’t produce more than X hectoliters, you must only use these ingredients and methods, you can’t partner up with this or that business’. True, doing so would make defining craft beer easier, but at the same time, it’s pretty much asking them to renounce their individuality, and as a result, what makes them human. If you look at it this way, defining ‘craft beer’ is not craft at all.

Does this mean that there’s no point in trying to come up with a definition? Not at all. If anything, this highlights a paradox that explains why we’re all struggling to come up with something that rings true to the meaning of the term. You can’t define craft beer without first defining what ‘craft’ is, and defining ‘craft’ is tedious and complex because it’s essentially trying to define what it means to be human.

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‘Is this the real life…’

You can draw an interesting parallel between craft beer and one of the most beloved song of our times: Bohemian Rhapsody.

No matter how many times Freddie and Brian have told us that the lyrics are just a jumble of nonsense, we flat out refuse to accept it, and insist that there must be some deeper, secret meaning that will reveal itself eventually. It’s the same with craft beer. No matter what definition brewers associations come up with, we will still try to give it a deeper meaning, something that also takes us into account, our emotional attachment and our expectations of the product.

It may seem that this only proves that trying to define craft beer is an exercise in futility, but here’s something to put your mind at ease: just because we struggle to define a concept doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. That’s the problem with all abstract words – including ‘craft’. Also, the fact that the definition of ‘craft beer’ has changed and adapted constantly since the advent of craft brewing is proof that it is, still, very much needed.

So where do we go from here? We’ve reached a crossroads where, as brewers and drinkers, we must part ways and pursue different goals. Brewers need to come together and defend their interests if they want to set themselves apart on the market from macro beers that pretend to be craft. To do so, they need to come up with a legal definition for craft beer that is objective, concise, and easy to implement. Meanwhile, we need to defend our rights as consumers by demanding that the beers sold to us are of good quality, and remain vigilant of the faux-craft that is being dished out by macro breweries. Will our paths ever converge? Perhaps. The craft beer scene in Romania is so young that we still have the chance to pull something off where quality, skill, and independence become the defining craft beer traits, backed by an authorized entity.

In the meantime, it’s the human element of beer and drinking that will always bring us together. True, it’s no longer possible to use the strict meaning of the word ‘craft’ to define craft beer – that ship has sailed long ago. Yet the brewing ethos that stems from it is still there, and at the end of the day, as both brewers and drinkers, we share a love for good beer. So next time you have difficulties trying to explain what is craft beer, don’t beat yourself up about it. What matters is that, deep down, you already know what it is. Just try to enjoy it, and encourage others to do the same.

Before we wrap this up, there’s one book that we must recommend: Pete Brown’s ‘Craft: An Argument’. It’s a book that has helped us put our thoughts in order and revealed some of our own fallacies, and it’s an essential read especially if, like us, you want to better understand the intricacies of defining craft beer.

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PS: we’re not going to change our guidelines for what ‘craft beer’ is. Which means that all the breweries listed on this website are still craft – for now, and by our reckoning. Cheers!

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