Within the last decade, the beer market has seen the emergence of a panoply of craft beer choices. While this means more options, styles, and SKUs for the consumer, it also means an increasingly complex vocabulary to describe and explain the ever-segmenting market. Because of this, the lines between terms like “microbrewery,” “craft brewery,” and “brewpub” seem to blur. With the help of the Brewers Association (a Colorado-based group of earnest folks working their buns off to advance craft beer), this primer should help clarify the difference between all the terms we use to describe our favorite drink and the companies brewing it.
The BA uses three words to sum up what a craft brewery is: small, independent and traditional. First, a craft brewery produces fewer than 6,000,000 barrels a year. At 31 gallons a barrel, this rather large number encompasses the vast majority of breweries in the United States. Second, at least 75% of a craft brewery’s ownership must be brewers themselves, be it an individual or group of individuals. A non-brewer may only own 25% or less of a craft brewery. Finally, a craft brewery has either an all-malt flagship (meaning their flagship beer is brewed with malted barley) or at least 50% of their portfolio is all-malt beers, with adjuncts like wheat, corn, rice or rye, used only to enhance flavor. Indeed, the ethos of individual craft brewers may include other, less-quantifiable notions like brewing philosophy, experimentation, business plan or branding, the small/independent/traditional trifecta is a bedrock.
Though the term “microbrewery” is often used as a sort of catch-all phrase for any brewery specializing in anything other than American light lagers, it actually only refers to breweries brewing under 15,000 barrels per year. Furthermore, 75% or more of this barrelage must be sold off-site, as in, not at their on-site tasting room. This would include local favorites like The Commons, located in SE Portland.
Though many Oregon breweries fall within this classification, most of the state’s oldest craft breweries do not. So, if you are a die-hard fan of Dissident, it wouldn’t technically be correct to say, “it’s from Deschutes, my favorite Oregon microbrewery,” as they brew much more than 15,000 barrels a year. They are considered a regional brewery or a “regional craft brewery.”
Regional breweries produce between 15,000 and 6,000,000 barrels per year. Encompassing Oregon beer stalwarts and spunky upstarts alike, this segment includes such titans as Full Sail, Deschutes, Rogue, Bridgeport, Ninkasi, 10 Barrel, Boneyard and Oakshire.
Anything above 6,000,000 barrels is considered a “large brewery” and includes mass-market heavy-hitters like Anheuser-Busch/InBev, SAB Miller, and Coors Brewing Company. Worth noting, however, is that the former ceiling on “regional craft brewery” was 2,000,000 barrels. The switch to the much larger 6-million-barrel cap is sometimes referred to as the “Sam Adams Bump,” due to the fact it originated around the same time that the Boston Beer Company (of Samuel Adams Boston Lager fame) was set to surpass 2-million barrels.
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Brewpubs make up another, seemingly tangential segment of the craft beer market. The Brewers Association defines a brewpub as a place where a large portion of their beer (25% or more) is brewed to be enjoyed at their on-site restaurant/bar. Having a restaurant wouldn’t necessarily make a brewery a brewpub by definition. If a brewery had a restaurant but only 20% of their beer production per year was consumed in that restaurant, they could be classified as a microbrewery or a regional brewery that just happens to serve food. Let’s use the same example as above. Deschutes, though some of their locations are restaurants, does not qualify as a brewpub, given their large percentage of sales outside of these establishments.
Though American craft breweries still represent less than 10% of the global beer market, these distinctions will continue to become ever more important. As both craft beer’s market share and market diversity expand, beer drinkers will continue to have ever more choices in what they drink and where its brewed.