What makes a craft brewery?

Photos from Creative Commons

My articles on this blog have focused on (showing off) craft breweries throughout Ontario and primarily on Ottawa. I thought it would be helpful to discuss just what defines a craft brewery.

While there are some rigid definitions out there I think what makes a craft brewery is having creative control over their product and with it, the freedom to innovate and bring new products to market.

A good definition to start this discussion with is provided by the Brewer’s Association. According to this group, a craft brewer in America is small, producing less than six million barrels of beer a year; independent, with less than 25 per cent of the brewery owned by an alcoholic beverage industry member that isn’t another craft brewery; and traditional, with a majority of their beers deriving from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.

There are some recent examples here in Canada that differ from this definition. Granville Island Brewing was the first microbrewery in Canada, opening in 1984. It was then purchased in 1989 by a company that is currently part of the wine conglomerate Andrew Peller Ltd. It remained part of that company for two decades until being bought by Creemore Springs in 2009. Creemore Springs was itself bought by Molson in 2005. While Creemore Springs has said that it wanted to purchase Granville Island as an attempt to spread their beer further west it’s tough to see this as little more than a big brewer buying up some competition to remain in a growing sector of the market.

CC, Molson Canadian

These are exciting times for other craft breweries of course. The Toronto Beer Festival had 333 beers attend and the upcoming Ottawa Craft Beer Festival will be showcasing 40 breweries. There are some crazy things being done, like Broadhead Brewing’s Bodacious Blueberry Blonde, and Waller Street Brewing’s Scotch River Sour. These are just a few examples of changing market space that is allowing these breweries to branch out and be different.

CC, Granville Island

So are Granville Island and Creemore Springs still craft breweries? I think the answer depends on creative control. What makes a macrobrewery is the release of beer that doesn’t change, with very few new additions to their lineup and an apparent unwillingness to release new beers. If the brewers have the ability to make the beer they want, and the ability to experiment instead of being forced to answer to market research then yes it is a craft brewery.

The idea of a small group of scrappy underdog brewers taking on the world is an intoxicating idea but ignores the practical reality of funding and ensuring a level of financial stability that allows these breweries to continue to create the beer that we love. That’s the most important thing, and as long as there’s still the room and the chance to brew great tasting beer then I’m all for it.

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