A fellow student once asked our German instructor how the small breweries around Munich could make such good beer even though they were using outdated brewing methods. The answer was simple: These beers are consumed within sight of the brewery’s chimney! In other words, the beer was only sold in the immediate area and, therefore, consumed too quickly for shortcomings in processing to negatively affect the taste. We learned a good lesson in support of local beer—the importance of freshness.
While the term “craft” may be perceived as synonymous with “quality,” a better descriptor might be “full flavored.” The major differences between craft and national beers relate to recipe. To be fair, the national breweries have chosen to produce mild-tasting beers because that is the recipe that is preferred by the majority of beer drinkers. The national breweries’ success is tied to their ability to economically and consistently reproduce the brewer’s branded flavor and to protect the flavor’s stability over an expansive market area.
The quality of craft beer is enhanced by a limited market area if this leads to rapid consumption of the beer. As craft breweries expand sales and distribute beyond “the sight of their chimneys,” their attention to quality also grows in importance. Consequently, the term “quality” in the craft beer industry must describe more than robust flavor; it must also include the technological skill perfected by the large brewers to produce consistent and stable products.
So, What’s the Answer?
Beer in its many forms is probably the oldest and most widespread alcoholic beverage in the world. Beer has provided nutrition and a safe source of drinking water for thousands of years and is today one of the most natural and unadulterated beverages available to consumers. The large numbers of imports and craft beers for sale in the United States provide consumers with perhaps the most diverse selection of styles in the world.
So, are craft beers really different? I would answer, “yes,” because craft beers represent many styles and brewing techniques not offered by the large national breweries. However, the differences between the two segments of the beer industry have a lot to do with differences in taste preferences and each brewery’s decision about which consumer group to serve. Whether it’s a “national” or “craft” brewery, the goal should be the same: Provide the consumer with a high quality, natural product regardless of the difference in recipe or the consumer market served.