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What Is Craft Beer?

Almost anyone who has wandered the beer sections of grocery stores or neighborhood bodegas knows that not all beers are created equal. On the one hand, there are the familiar light lagers produced by massive macro breweries that dominate global market shares. On the other, there are the independently owned small-scale breweries producing interesting and varied drinks like the bitter, hoppy India Pale Ale or the boozy, viscous bourbon barrel-aged stout. The latter beers are considered craft, and they’ve helped transform a global beverage industry that has been dominated by the same multinational companies for more than a century.

But what exactly is craft beer? Ask five different beer enthusiasts and you’ll probably get five different answers. Some passionately uphold Reinheitsgebot (the German purity law), requiring that only traditional ingredients—water, malted barley, hops, and yeast—be used. Others are more adventurous, pouring brews with a medley of wild organisms or inventing new equipment to take flavor to the next level.

In general, the term “craft” refers to a brewery that is independent and small. The Brewers Association, which represents the majority of US breweries, defined this size by setting the number of barrels brewed annually at less than two million. This seemed reasonable at the time, since it coincided with a Federal tax code exemption that allowed breweries that made less than two million barrels per year to receive a discount on their taxes. It also helped ensure that breweries could avoid the label of being too big to qualify as a microbrewery.

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