Defining Craft Beer in Canada

Whenever I am talking to people about the virtues of craft beer there is invariably one question that I get asked: What is craft beer?  To answer that question we really need to look at what a craft brewery is.

This is a question that seems very difficult to answer right now.  While there are craft beer associations popping up across Canada (Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia) they do not necessarily represent all of the local breweries in their area nor do they seem to offer a clear definition of what craft beer might be.

Provincial governments, who regulate liquor sales in their respective provinces, have no clear definition of craft beer in their legal frameworks.  Instead, what does exist are terms like “small brewery, microbrewery, macrobrewery and nanobrewery” in which sizes in hectolitres are used to determine the classification mostly for taxation purposes.  Even these definitions vary widely.  In Saskatchewan to be considered a small brewery you need to produce less than 5,000 HL, while in New Brunswick it is 1.5 Million HL.  The British Columbia craft beer association represents breweries that produce less than 160,000 HL each year (Source) while Ontario Crafter Brewers set their limit at 400,000 HL. (Source)

Yet none of this actually defines what craft beer actually is.  The Ontario Craft Brewers association gives a definition, similar to that of the US brewers’ association, to define what craft beer means to their members saying:

Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) are local and defined as:

SMALL – Most Ontario Craft Brewers are small and many are family-owned. The current maximum size of an Ontario Craft Brewer is 400,000 hectolitres of annual worldwide beer production.

INDEPENDENT – Locally-owned and is not significantly controlled by a beer company who does not qualify as an Ontario Craft Brewer.

TRADITIONAL – Pledge to brew traditional and innovative beers according to the

Ontario Craft Brewers’ Brewing Philosophy. The original Philosophy was signed on

April 12, 2006 and was updated in September 2013. It is set out below.

Ontario Craft Brewers must locate and run their primary breweries in Ontario, close to the markets and the communities they serve. The breweries are open to the public, other brewers and beer enthusiasts.

(Source, p. 2)

U.S. Brewers Association

Small – Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent – Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional – A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

The following are some concepts related to craft beer and craft brewers:

  • Craft brewers are small brewers.
  • The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.
  • Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
  • Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events.
  • Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
  • Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.
  • The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer.

(Source)

This definition uses more than just the size of the brewery as a means of defining what craft beer actually is.  The US based brewers’ association lays out some concepts surrounding craft beer as well, which expand and start to develop a definition of craft beer – something I’d like to see replicated in Canada. Craft Brewers must meet these criteria in order to qualify to use the associations’ logo on their beer.

When we think of craft beer though, size isn’t what necessarily comes to mind.  Take Sierra Nevada for example in the United States.  Many would consider them to be a craft brewery, yet, they produce over 900,000 HL and so would not fall into the some of the size restrictions here in Canada.  What is important in respect to size limitation is that it be consistent.

With  Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABinBev) buying SABMiller to become the largest beer company in the world, I think it is important that craft beer be defined in a way that is consistent and recognizable and national.  Even more so, if we want this definition to mean something more and to protect what craft beer means and is, then this definition needs to be put into law.

This is where the conversation comes in.  There is no clear definition of craft beer that can be used Canada wide, yet, there is a great deal of opinion and anyone you ask will likely have their own way of defining craft beer.  www.hoptahouse.ca wrote an article similar to this one and cited a book from 1986 saying:

The term appears to have been coined by Vince Cottone, author of Good Beer Guide: Breweries and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest (Homestead Book Co., Seattle, 1986). Cottone had a very narrow definition in mind, saying that craft beers are produced by “a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally.” Cottone’s definition was so strict that that he excluded pasteurized beers, as well as brewers that use malt extracts.

While this provides a good starting point for what craft beer is, it is incomplete, so I’d like to offer a definition of my own.  I want to stress that this is my opinion and I know there will be others that disagree or have a different definition.  Part of the problem I suppose, but here we go.

For me, craft beer is a locally owned brewery that produces handcrafted beers.  They are breweries who are making beer for the love of the craft, who are creative, experimental, and willing to try out of the box ideas.  A brewery that is not afraid to make a beer not everyone will like but will make beer that they want to drink.

This is an important conversation to have. With Manitobans buying 76.2 Million Litres of beer between May 2014 and May 2015, this is not a small market.  And yet, 81.5% of this market is dominated by the Macro-breweries represented mostly by ABinBev.  The market for Craft Beer has room to grow.

Yet we have seen craft breweries in Canada and elsewhere purchased by ABinBev as they try to get their foot into the craft beer market in an attempt to halt market share loss.   Canadian micro-breweries now have 4.2% of beer sales but have also grown by 19% in dollars and 12% in litres over the past year (Source). The problem is, does this include Goose Island (owned by ABinBev) and Mill Street (recently bought by ABinBev) and does that even matter?  Is non-craft beer “bad” beer?  Does being craft beer automatically make you good?  We also need to ask those questions when defining craft beer.

While there is great work being done by brewery associations in their respective provinces, and while a definition for craft beer is starting to become clearer in some provinces, without a nationwide definition and laws to support it, it’s hard to know what craft beer really is and whether what you are buying is what you think it is.  At least with the Ontario Craft Brewers and the American Brewers’ Association beers which meet their criteria and are members are identified right on the bottle.  Seeing something like this Canada wide that helps beer drinkers recognize beers as “craft beers” would be great, we just need to make sure the reason we are doing it is sound.

To conclude, I sent out a tweet asking for people to define what craft beer is to them. I didn’t get back many responses but I did get a few.  If you’d like to share how you view craft beer I’d be happy to add.  Still, I’d like to finish by sharing the definitions I did receive with you:

@ThousandThought – Going with: Locally owned and operated, committed to quality ingredients and practices, prioritizing craft before profit.

@colinkoop – Craft beer is brewed by an independently-owned brewery using natural high-quality ingredients. It is an artisanal product that can both adhere to style guidelines and bend them. Craft beer feeds back into its local economy and culture. It focuses on quality over quantity and profit. Craft brewers grow craft beer culture by respecting other craft breweries and embracing a collaborative/cooperative marketplace.

J.M. – Meticulously crafted, small batch beer. Often with particular flavours and themes not found in your typical macrobrewery.

M.S – A passion to explore the flavour and strength of different ingredients and different brewing methods.

@beerideas – Beer Ideas responded on his own blog. Check out his essay about craft beer here.

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