If it seems like there are more beers on the shelves at your favorite supermarket or on tap in your neighborhood bar, you’re probably right. Craft brewing is taking over America’s beer scene, and while a few die-hard brew-and-ballgame types may grouse about the gentrification of good old American beer, many newcomers are beginning to appreciate exciting innovations on the American beer scene.
So What Is Craft Beer?
"Craft beer” is just a fancy name for a beer that comes from a small, independent or traditional brewery, according to the Brewer’s Association. A "small” brewery produces 6 million or less barrels of beer each year. An "independent” means that less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an member of the alcoholic beverage industry who is not also a craft brewer. A "traditional” brewer makes beer from traditional or innovative brewing techniques along with fermentation. A true craft brewery can abide by one or all of these definitions, but the most important characteristic, according to Andy Sparhawk, craft beer program coordinator for the Brewer’s Association, is authenticity.
"I believe that small and independent craft brewers are part of a larger cultural shift in the United States towards products with character and authenticity,” Sparhawk says. "Just as Americans have expanded their horizons on different foods, such as cheese, chocolate and coffee, so to have they expanded their understanding and tastes for beer.”
Why Are There So Many Different Types of Craft Beer?
If you’ve ever been lost in the beer aisle holding up a bottle of IPA against a bottle of stout and trying to make sense of how one is different from the other, you’re not alone. Craft brews are a whole new world of beer, and they often taste very different from the beer our grandparents kept in the fridge. The reason the taste varies so much, according to Sparhawk, comes down to ingredients.
"Often times, beer categories are split between the type of yeast that is used to ferment them,” Sparhawk says. "For instance, ale yeast ferments best at relatively warmer temperature than its lager yeast counterpart does.” This difference means that ales, like India Pale Ale (IPA) and many German and Belgian styles will have more intense flavors.
Lagers, on the other hand, like pilsners, are often defined by their clean taste, and for Americans, are often the most similar to classic brands, since most large breweries in America brew lagers.
But you shouldn’t spend too much time trying to decide if you’re drinking a "good” craft beer or not. "If you’re just trying to get into craft beer, I think one can decide whether a beer is good or not by whether they are enjoying it or not,” Sparhawk says. "One of the reasons why craft beer has become so popular is because it can be enjoyed by almost anyone, the simplicity is probably one of the factors that draws people to the beverage.”
Is Craft Beer Just a Fad?
Probably not. There are more breweries in America than ever before. In fact, you’re probably closer to craft beer than you think.
"The average American lives within 10 miles of a brewery, and the United States is now home to more than 4,000 breweries, which is the most in history,” Sparhawk says. "You really can’t go anywhere in this country without being able to find a brewery or at least a strong craft beer culture.”
There’s never been a better time for beer in America that then present, so get out and get drinking!