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What Is Craft Beer?

A stroll through the beer aisle in any supermarket reveals that not all beers are created equal. The majority of brands lining shelves in supermarkets and neighborhood bodegas are mass-produced, uniformly colored, and brewed by global beverage conglomerates. Amidst the familiar macro brews, you’ll find the more interesting, locally made, and artisanal creations known as craft beers.

When writer Vince Cottone used the term “craft beer” in 1984, it was a fairly new designation for a handful of small-scale brewing companies that were challenging the dominance of large alcohol conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. The phrase caught on, making its way into the titles of brewing-industry trade magazines and the inaugural Craft Brewers Conference. By the mid-1990s, the Institute of Brewing Studies—which ultimately merged with today’s dominant brewing industry trade group, the Brewers Association—had formalized a definition that included: a brewer must be independent; the brewer must use no more than 10 percent of adjunct ingredients (other than sugar); the brewer must not sell to more than one-third of other noncraft breweries; and the brewer must not produce more than three million barrels per year.

The word has come to mean much more than a narrowly defined set of criteria; it refers to a world of beer that’s a true kaleidoscope of flavors, from the bitterness of an India Pale Ale to the viscous, boozy richness of a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout. From experimenting with hop varieties to highlighting the nuanced flavors of coffee and even fruit, craft beer continues to be a fascinating and ever-evolving field of brewing.

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