I was enjoying a beer with a buddy the other day when the conversation turned to what we were drinking.
He wanted to know if there was any real difference between craft beer and just old regular beer, of the Bud or Miller persuasion, that have been brewed for donkey’s years.
As an avid beer drinker, of course I knew the answer. I just couldn’t quite put it into clear terms at the time.
So, now I’m writing up what I wish I had been able to tell him during that particular drinking session.
Craft breweries produce on a smaller scale than industrial breweries (6 million barrels max per year). Industrial beer contains artificial flavorings or additives & cheaper materials, unlike craft beer. Craft beer also tends to cover the entire spectrum of beer varieties, instead of just lagers.
That’s the bare-bones of it. But, there’s actually a lot more to it than that.
I admit I encountered some surprises in my journey to discover the real difference between these two classes of beer, but I’m glad I took the time to do it.
Honestly, I thought a lot of it would boil down to light lager versus everything else, but the differences were often a lot more measurable than I expected.
To start, let’s look at the most basic question my friend had…
What is craft beer?
Craft beer is beer that is held to different standards than regular beer.
Before we go on, let’s just decide what we mean by “regular beer”.
I think most people picture a can of Budweiser or Coors when they say “regular beer”, or some other type of light American lager.
That’s what I mean too!
In order to officially qualify as “craft beer” by the Brewers Association, the beer must be made using only traditional ingredients. This means barley, malt, hops, yeast, and water.
Other ingredients can be added, but only for taste and never for cutting costs.
Regular breweries (macrobreweries) and microbreweries can add other ingredients to their beers for cost-cutting purposes as long as they don’t claim that the resulting product is “craft” beer.
It takes a lot more human effort to make craft beers because there are no massive automatized production machines involved that can churn out many millions of barrels of beer per year like a regular (macro) brewery.
However, when it’s all said and done, brewing Craft beer and regular commercial beer (Bud etc.) the brewing processes go through all the same stages.
Mashing followed by some sort of sparging followed by fermentation and finally storage of the finished beer.
Wait, isn’t a “craft brewery” the same as a “microbrewery?”
No, not by definition.
In order to meet the definition set forth by the Brewers Association, a craft brewery must make beer the traditional way. They do this for the love of the craft itself (hence the name). In essence, it’s beer for beer geeks.
Another criteria is that craft breweries must produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer annually.
Think that sounds like small potatoes next to the millions and millions of barrels put out by bigtime breweries?
Meet the microbrewery. Microbreweries make “specialty beer” at the rate of no more than 15,000 barrels a year.
But remember—that label alone doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making their beer the traditional way (i.e. craft beer). It just means they’re making less of it because it’s special.
Although, just for the record, most craft beer is produced by microbreweries.
Why does craft beer exist?
I once met a guy who swore craft beer exists because “people will be snobs about anything they can!”
In truth, craft beer exists because it used to be the only kind of beer. There was nothing highfalutin about it in the days long before industrial-sized equipment made mass production a possibility.
It was just called “beer” back then.
In fact, according to Dave Carpenter in his fantastic book “Lager” (buy a copy on Amazon today), the USA had more than 4,000 breweries producing a number of different styles of beer before the Prohibition-era.
By 1978 there were only 89 breweries in the entire United States, many of which were pumping out the then (and to a certain extent, now) popular pale American lager.
Nowadays, craft brewing is carried on by brewers who respect the process and enjoy the flavors, aromas, and textures possible when beer is made the old-school way.
Some of these people may be snobs, but a great many of them are not. It is absolutely possible to enjoy both craft brews and macrobrews and microbrews!
Is craft beer “better” than regular beer?
That mostly depends on who’s doing the asking.
Beer is almost always brewed for the current market. As Craft beer is so hot now, there is so much choice out there which makes it almost impossible not to find something you like.
In the same breath, it is a testament to the skill and streamlined process of huge commercial brewers who can pump out gallons and gallons of largely identical batches of beer each year.
This is especially true when you consider the fact that a pale lager is an incredibly difficult beer to brew to perfection.
Does it taste better?
As a general rule, the flavor of craft beer is much stronger than that of regular beer. There’s also more room for variety among craft brew’s flavors. Some craft breweries can get pretty darned creative!
A beer drinker who isn’t used to that intensity or uniqueness of taste—maybe who grew up with the more streamlined, muted flavors of industrial beer and has come to be really attached to that—may not be a person who can get behind a craft brew.
This being said, if you are a lager person through and through, then do check out your local tap room for craft lager as it will be an obvious gateway into this new beer experience.
But people with a more open mind concerning what beer can and should taste like? Those are the ones more likely to wax poetic about a Barossa Valley Brewing Chocolate Coffee Stout.
Is it healthier?
Alcohol is alcohol, and your liver is an equal opportunity processor of it, whether it’s coming to you from the folks at Anheuser-Busch, Missouri, or the monks of Scourmont Abbey in Belgium.
So no, craft brews and regular brews are equal in this regard.
But industrial beer does contain more cost-cutting additives, many of which are suspected culprits in hangovers.
As a student, I did find that a couple of pints of Stella Artois caused a much harder next day than the same equivalent of ale.
Is it more expensive?
It’s true that craft beer is notably pricier due to ingredient quality and the extra time and manpower required in making it.
Some people say there’s no contest—the value for money you get with a craft beer makes it worth it.
Other people disagree.
For more information on the actual difference in the cost of commercial craft beer and home-brewed beer, you can read my article here.
Does it have higher ABV?
Generally speaking, yes. Craft beers are boozier, but not by as much as you’d think. The average craft beer comes in at 5.9% and the average macrobrew at 5%.
There are certainly outliers, though, and most of the high-end outliers occur on the craft side of the spectrum. It would take a heck of a lot more Coors (4.2%) to get you drunk than Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (15-18%).
What does mean for drinkers?
If you’re looking to spend a long day tipping them back with buddies but also want to maintain an upright position and intelligible speech, it doesn’t really matter what you reach for in the average beer cooler (so long as no one snuck a 120 Minute IPA in there).
Uniqueness (lack of predictability)
Uniqueness in beer could be thought of as a lack of predictability, and some people like that. Novelty is the spice of life, and there’s never a lack of novelty in the craft beer scene.
Craft brewers take great joy in trying new recipes, flavorings, ratios, etc.
For other people, predictability is good. If you’re living abroad and it’s the familiar taste of home that you crave, it can be comforting knowing that the Budweiser you get on a exotic vaction will taste like the Bud you’d get in a Food Lion in North Carolina.
How did craft beer become popular in the US?
The US is definitely the modern home of craft brewing, a big market that really owes its success to Fritz Maytag.
In 1965, young Fritz Maytag (yes, from that family of Maytags) bought a 51% stake in the Anchor Steam brewery, which was on the verge of closing down.
To save the company (and his investment), he started producing a range of previously unheard-of beer styles that made 1960s American beer drinkers—accustomed to tame macrobrews—sit up and take notice.
By 1975, the American palate had started to catch on.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter signed a bill allowing homebrewing of beer stronger than 0.5% (check out my article on the legality of making beer in the USA).
Hobbyist homebrewers developed a passion for the craft, and microbrewery growth soared until 1997 when the market had become oversaturated with breweries—many of them dreadful.
In the mid-90s, there was so much bad beer out there that beer geekdom was spawned as a kind of natural reactive force.
With nothing to lose, beer geeks began making brews that were weirder, hoppier, and boozier than anything known before.
A new brand of brewery was created. Think Dogfish Head (1995) and Stone Brewing (1996). The USA was rocking the beer scene.
It wasn’t long before big macrobreweries started wanting in on the action. Craft-esque microbrews like Michelob Amber Bock and Blue Moon (both 1995) came into existence.
This eventually led to the outright purchasing of craft breweries (or at least hefty percentages of them) by macrobreweries. Maybe the most famous example of this is Anheuser-Busch’s 2011 acquiring of Goose Island for nearly $40 million.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Real Ale movement
As we’ve been talking about Craft beer, it seems the right time to also mention another tradition of beer which some beer lovers are willing to defend, the British tradition of “real ale”.
Real ale involves serving unfiltered beer, traditionally in a cask, which hasn’t been carbonated artificially with CO2. Instead the cask, or firkin, is filled with beer and then naturally carbonated with priming sugar.
This produces light carbonation in the beer and probably has given rise to the popular notion among Americans that the Brits drink warm flat beer, which is true.
However, drinking real ale over highly carbonated lager beer, which would have been imported from central Europe, was really the first example of craft beer versus regular beer ceturies before it was kick started in the 70s by Fritz Maytag.
Want to make your own craft beer at home?
I love drinking beer and above all else, I love brewing beer. If you’ve read this far, you probably are either already making your own beer or would be a perfect homebrewer in the making!
If you want to start making your own beer then I can highly recommend the following beer making kits:
Everything you need
The Northern Brewer Premium Craft brewing kit really does give you everything you need to make the perfect homebrewed beer. What’s more, you probably won’t need to upgrade this kit for years as your passion for homebrewing grows
You can check out the latest prices and availability on Amazon.
Get started for less than $100
Perhaps you can’t really justify spending a lot of money on a hobby you’ve never tried. If that’s the case then get started with this basic but totally dependable Northern Brewer brewing kit, also sold on Amazon.
Getting a small taste
If you just want to have a go and aren’t 100% sold on brewing for the rest of your life (it often turns out that way), then this 1 gallon kit is a great way to try it out.
See all the different recipes you can try when you buy this kit on Amazon.
For more suggestions for essential gear to start homebrewing and other ideas, please check out my recommended gear page.