What is Craft Beer?


By Jack Horzempa
Homebrewed Craft Beer

What isn’t craft beer?

For some folks this is an easier question to answer. For them, non-craft are the type of beers that the vast majority of beer consumers worldwide drink: “Fizzy yellow beer” as Greg Koch would describe it. Alternative terminology would be American Adjunct Lager (AAL) where the adjunct could be corn, rice, sugars (e.g., corn syrup), etc. And despite the nod to geography (America) these types of beer are produced worldwide: China, Brazil, etc. The most popular beer in the UK is not a ‘traditional’ beer like a Bitter Ale but is instead Carling Lager which is an AAL beer.

When did “craft beer” become a term?

Many decades ago the breweries that started producing non-AAL beers in America were referred to as microbreweries. This was an acknowledgment that these new breweries were small scale producers in comparison to the megabrewers of the day (e.g., Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, etc.) and even the regional breweries such as Yuengling, Genesee, Rainier, etc.
Who was the person who coined the term “craft beer”? There is debate here but Vince Cottone (beer writer/consultant) was among the first to use the term “craft brewery” in the 1980’s. A benefit of this terminology is that it does not just refer to the scale of beer production but also to the quality and taste profile of the product itself. A craft beer may be produced by a small brewery but it was more: a beer that was not “fizzy yellow beer”. But wasn’t beer that was not “fizzy yellow beer” produced before the 1980’s in America? The short answer: heck yeah!

‘Craft Beer’ brewing in America back in the day

Beer has been brewed in America by European settlers since the 1600’s. Those were not AAL beers. But I will not be going quite that far back in this article’s discussion.

Yuengling Brewery

Yuengling Brewery has the distinction of being “America’s Oldest Brewery”. There were other breweries operating in America before the 1829 founding of Yuengling (known then as Eagle Brewery) but it is the oldest continuously operating brewery in the US. It might interest some to know that the oldest continuously operating brewery in North America is Molson (1786).
The first beers brewed by Yuengling were not AAL beers but instead were beers brewed with ale yeast. On the Yuengling website they list as their first beers: Lord Chesterfield Ale and Porter. Both of these beers are available today, but Lord Chesterfield ‘Ale’ and Porter are now brewed using lager yeast.
The bestselling Yuengling beer today by far is Yuengling Traditional Lager (an amber colored AAL) but they have a portfolio of beers that include non-AAL beers. In 2015 the Brewers Association re-defined what constitutes a “craft brewery” and Yuengling was then deemed to be one.
yuengling brewery


Peter Ballantine came to the US from Scotland in 1820. He first started brewing in 1833 in Albany, NY. He then co-founded Patterson & Ballantine Brewing Company in1840 in Newark, New Jersey, and those beers were ales. The early brewing tradition of America was based upon British brewing: the grains would have been predominantly pale malt, fermented with ale yeast strains and brewed with both domestically grown hops and imported hops.
Ballantine was also one of the oldest and long-lived breweries to produce an IPA. Would Peter Ballantine have known then that he was producing the most popular craft beer style of 2021? Of course not, but tasty beer is tasty beer. Ballantine IPA was produced in a different manner than they are today but there are similarities: mostly pale malt and heavily hopped.
A few interesting differences in the production of Ballantine IPA in the years of yore: they aged the beer for extended time in wooden vats and they used distilled hop extracts to augment the aroma of those beers.
There were a number of other American breweries producing IPAs in the 1800’s with a few examples: C. H. Evans, Frank Jones, Christian Feigenspan and Matthew Vassar. A number of breweries ahead of their time?
ballantine brewing


By the middle to late 1800’s the dominant beers in America were lagers with light colored adjunct lagers being the most popular.  However, those beers were not like contemporary AAL beers since they were more heavily hopped. But there were American breweries that chose to brew lagers akin to how they were brewed in Europe, Piels Bros in New York City being one. In the early 1900’s they produced all malt beers (brewed via decoction mashing) solely utilizing imported Saaz hops. They produced four brands: Dortmunder, Muenchener, Kapuziner, and Pilsener.
Piels Brewing
In the decades after Repeal, the brewery would eventually concentrate on brewing a standard AAL as its flagship. My father drank a lot of Piels Real Draft in the middle of the 1900’s and beyond.

The Modern craft beer era

I suppose folks will have their own thoughts on when the modern craft beer era began but for me there is a clear answer: 1965 

Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing Company

Fritz Maytag (of the Maytag appliance family) used to drink beer from a small San Francisco brewery: Anchor Brewing Company. Anchor has a long history, having been founded in1896 producing a hybrid beer using lager yeast fermented at warmer temperatures than normally used for lager brewing (the low 60’s °F). These beers were commonly referred to as Steam Beer in the1800’s with lots of lore surrounding this name. Nobody knows for sure but one story is that as the wort cooled in shallow vessels on the roof of the breweries, the steam that was seen coming off was the source of the term “Steam”. Another story is that these beers would be highly carbonated and as the barrel was tapped would make a hissing sound reminiscent of escaping steam. The Anchor Brewing Company has trademarked the term “Steam Beer” so the beer style is now referred to as California Common beer.
Anchor Steam Beer was a rather unique beer in the 1960’s. However, due to the financial situation of the brewery the beers were of inconsistent quality. In 1965 Fritz Maytag, with his family resources, was willing to purchase and invest in the brewery. Fritz purchased controlling interest of the brewery for five thousand dollars but that was only the beginning of his investment. The business was in debt and in need of capital investment to improve brewery operations. By1969 he had full ownership of Anchor Brewery. The Steam Beer brand was not exactly a new beer style but there was potential to expand production and sales to beer drinkers who had only experienced AAL beers such as Budweiser. “Boutique Beer” was a term that some beer writers used in that era and Steam Beer was certainly in that category.
In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Fritz Maytag decided to reformulate the recipe for Steam Beer. One decision was to change the hops used to brew the beer: Northern Brewer hops. This was a relatively new hop within the context of the long history of brewing California Common beers since it was not developed until 1934 in England. Northern Brewer provides unique flavors with a bit of a woody, minty aspect. This was indeed an interesting choice for this reformulated beer.
Anchor Brewing
But it did not stop there with more beer brands introduced in the 1970’s. First there was Anchor Porter in 1972. As previously discussed, Yuengling produced a Porter in 1829 which was still available in 1972.   However, Yuengling being an East Coast brewery and Anchor Brewing, distributing to the West Coast this was a new beer for lots of American beer consumers of that day. And in 1975 another new beer brand was introduced, Liberty Ale, using a hop variety newly released in 1972: Cascade. 
The term “innovation” seems to be popularly debated when it comes to brewing but I have a strong viewpoint that the introduction of Cascade hops was an innovation to the brewing industry. Cascade hops provide vibrant flavor of citrus (often grapefruit-like) along with floral/spicy aspects. Beers which featured Cascade hops tasted very different from other existing beer styles/brands. This was indeed a situation of a brave new world for the brewing industry.
The brand Liberty Ale was not marketed as an IPA when it was produced in 1975 but in my opinion it was indeed the first modern IPA. And with the vibrant flavors of Cascade hops it was notably different from the ‘old school’ IPAs such as Ballantine IPA which was available during that time.
Liberty Ale

A homebrewer decides to produce beer: Ken Grossman

One of the pivotal dates for the craft brewing industry was October 14, 1978. That was the day that President Carter enacted into law legalization of homebrewing. Not that industrious folks did not homebrew prior to that date, but now a homebrewing industry could develop to serve them. One industrious person who homebrewed beer prior to legalization was Ken Grossman (owner of Sierra Nevada Brewing). In 1969 he brewed his first homebrew (unbeknownst to his mother) then in 1976 opened a homebrew store called the Home Brew Shop (hmm, I wonder what President Carter thought of this early opening?). But it was not too long thereafter that Ken made the decision to start commercially brewing beer. In 1979 he founded Sierra Nevada Brewing Company along with his partner Paul Camusi in Chico, California. They brewed their flagship beer Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in 1980 and Ken & Paul borrowed something from the Anchor playbook, deciding that Cascade hops would be featured in this beer.
Ken Grossman was a pioneer of the burgeoning craft beer industry not only for producing the tasty craft beer Sierra Nevada Pale Ale but also for providing the needed role model: a homebrewer turns pro.
Sierra Nevada Brewing

What makes craft beer different?

As previously discussed a quick answer here could be a beer that isn’t an AAL but let’s peel the onion here.

No adjuncts

Craft beer generally speaking is brewed all malt; specifically without corn or rice. To this day there is quite a bit of prejudice within the craft beer community when it comes to the topic of adjuncts like corn and rice. These ingredients are associated with the ‘bad’ beers of BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors). This prejudice is unfortunate since these ingredients can indeed be used to produce high quality beers but once a bad reputation is started it is a challenge to overcome. Perhaps someday in the future craft breweries will popularize beers like they were brewed circa 1900; a beer we homebrewers call Classic American Pilsner?
The predominant malt used to brew these all malt beers is pale malt. It is produced from barley and is kilned at a lower temperature to produce a beer per its name: pale(er) in color. It won’t be as light in color as an AAL beer, which is straw yellow, but more of a medium golden color. In the early days of the modern craft beer movement, a darker color was a discriminator, so the breweries would often add some crystal malt to the grain bill to further darken the color and add some additional malt flavor as well. These beers were distinct in both appearance and flavor from mainstream AAL beers.

Ale vs. lager

Since AAL beers include the word “lager” there was also negative connotations here as well. The opposite of “lager” was/is “ale” so it was decided by the modern craft breweries to produce ales. These beers would be brewed using ale yeast strains and fermented warm. As discussed above examples were the hoppy ales such as Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale but also other beers styles like Porters.
A paradigm shift would occur in 1984 when Jim Koch made a decision to produce Sam Adams Boston Lager. This was not the first lager that could be associated with the descriptor of a craft beer (heck, Piels was producing all malt lagers in the early 1900’s) but under the salesmanship of Jim Koch this would become an influential beer within the craft beer market. Jim would sell the story that this beer was brewed per the recipe of his great-great-grandfather, it was all malt, it was brewed using imported German hops,…You have to give Jim Koch credit in that he was a very successful salesman here. He is reportedly worth well over a billion dollars today.
Boston Lager

We want more flavor

Those early craft beers, from Yuengling Lord Chesterfield Ale (1829) to Ballantine IPA (later-1800’s) to Anchor Steam (reformulated circa 1970) to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (1980) were quite flavorful beers and within the context of 1965 and beyond those beers were very flavorful in comparison to the mainstream AAL beers. This contrast between very little flavor (e.g., Bud) vs. a beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale must have been very striking to the beer drinkers of that time. I could imagine that getting a Bud drinker to switch to a beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would have been a daunting challenge but there was a subset of the beer consumer market which wanted and importantly were willing to pay top dollar for a beer which had more flavor. And over the years that portion of the beer consumer market would grow. Craft beer drinkers are still a minority of the market but given their willingness to pay more for flavorful beers they have a financial influence greater than their numbers.
For contemporary craft beer consumers there seems to be an increasing demand for more and more flavors in their beers whether that is via adding more and different flavorings to the beer (e.g., coffee, fruits, snickerdoodles, etc.), outrageous amounts of hops and multiple additions (e.g., triple dry hopping), the sky’s the limit here it seems.

It started in America but wait, there’s more

The term “craft beer” is typically associated with America and mostly within the context of the modern era (e.g., 1965 and afterwards). The poster child for craft beer today is IPA (American style IPA). And while there is a long history of brewing IPAs since circa 1800 in Great Britain the IPAs of the American craft breweries are notably different owing to the development of new, vibrant hop varieties. Cascade hops may have been the beginning but over the past decade(s) the development of new hop varieties has exploded with all sorts of vibrant and unique aroma/flavor profiles. In addition the amounts utilized and dry hopping strategies result in ever increasing aroma profiles. It would be interesting to see how a person who drank a British brewed IPA in the early-mid 1800s would react to drinking a contemporary American IPA.

Craft Brewing outside of America

Craft breweries now exist in many countries outside the US. A few countries/regions worth highlighting are UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Each country/region likely has their own unique stories but one aspect which seems common is the production of hoppy beers using the large variety of aroma hops that are available to brewers today. It would seem that it is not just American craft beer drinkers who just can’t get enough of the vibrant and differing aroma/flavors these new aroma hops bring to the party.

What is the future of craft brewing?

As with anything predicting the future of industries is a challenging avocation. Would anybody in 1965 have predicted the steep decline of companies like Kodak or Xerox to today? But let’s see if there are some potential themes which could come into play here.

Just add more and more stuff to beer

Well, in 2021 there sure seems to be no lack of brewers coming up with ideas on how they can “kick it up a notch” as Emeril Lagasse would phrase it. I just recently read on a brewing forum about a brewer producing Kool-Aid inspired beers (i.e., beers that taste like Kool-Aid flavors). I personally will not be drinking these beers but I have no doubt that some craft beer consumers will buy them. How many will they buy?
There just seems to be no lack of imagination by brewers on what sorts of ingredients to brew with. Whether it be culinary ingredients (lemon verbena, black limes, prickly pear cactus,..) or processed foods (chocolate chip cookies, marshmallows, breakfast cereals,..) or whatever. Do these additions produce better beers? I suppose it is like the old saying: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Back to the future

Will there be increased consumer demand for the beers of yore? Jim Koch started his business (Boston Beer Company) with a beer he claimed was based upon a recipe from circa 1880 and while Sam Adams Boston Lager is not as dominant as it was within the craft beer sector decades ago, Jim did indeed make a lot of money producing this brand. 
There still is a large market for beer flavored beer with millions (billions?) of beer consumers preferring to drink beers like Bud/Bud Light. There has been some growth in the past few years for craft beer consumers drinking more brands of lagers (e.g., Pilsners). Is there further growth potential in providing craft beer drinkers a product which tastes more like beer, with a nice flavor profile of bready malt accompanied with the flavor of noble hops (i.e., Pilsners)?

Will other countries take the lead here

The craft beer movement has to a large extent been an American phenomenon but more and more brewers outside the US are producing craft beer. Perhaps with their differing cultural backgrounds/environment they will come up with unique ideas on what is craft beer. Maybe with their influences the craft beers we will be drinking 10-20 years from now will be notably different from the popular craft beer types of today.

Let’s place a bet

It is clear that I don’t have the answer on what craft beers will be popular in the future but I am willing to make one prediction that I am very confident about.  Whatever craft beer style(s) becomes the new ‘it’ beer(s) of the future; they will be developed by folks who started off as homebrewers.


All contents copyright 2024 by MoreFlavor Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.