There is a perfectly good time and a place for drinking “regular” beer such as Coors Light or Budweiser. Those places include (but certainly aren’t limited to) tailgate parties, fishing trips and that one college dive bar where your feet literally stick to the floor.
What if you want to give your taste buds a new and flavorful experience? Well, that’s when you head down to your local brewery, where the craft beers are flowing, the brewmasters are passionate about their, ahem, craft and your feet may even lift up from the floor in one, fluid motion (no guarantees on that last one).
But let’s rewind for a second. What is craft beer? Though it may seem like a simple question, the answer is actually more complicated than you might think. In fact, the “what is craft beer” debate has been known to ignite some seriously-heated arguments between beer enthusiasts.
Unless you have the patience of a saint, you probably don’t want to listen to your friends argue for hours about what is and isn’t craft beer. To save you from the endless back and forth, here’s everything you need to know about craft beer. Cheers!
What Is Craft Beer, Exactly?
If there’s one thing we know to be true about craft beer, it’s that the taste and experiences are entirely subjective. Beer is also constantly evolving, which is yet another reason why the question “What is craft beer?” can be so darn difficult to answer.
For many, craft beer is made by small brewers who pride themselves on experimenting with new and innovative flavors (i.e., not your typical, flavored malts). Craft brewers are often heavily involved in the day-to-day process of making beer and are incredibly passionate about pushing the boundaries with their brews.
This innovative approach to brewing is made possible due to the fact that most craft brewers are locally-focused and independently owned. Because as we all know, no one has ever looked at a local brewery and said, “Hmm…you know what this charming little brewery needs? A corporate overlord in a stuffy suit who knows diddly-squat about beer to make all the most important decisions.”
Visit any local brewery and you’ll likely find the owner (typically also the brewmaster) to be on-site, usually dressed in jeans and their own merch. They might give tours to patrons or simply strike up a conversation from behind the bar with locals who are interested in how their brewery works.
So, to sum things up neatly, craft beer is often characterized by the following attributes:
- Small and independently owned. In other words, beer that is not brewed by big-name beer companies in a massive factory. It’s safe to say that you’re never going to see your local brewery advertising their beer during Super Bowl halftime (and stirring up controversy in the process, like Budweiser did last year).
- Innovative and distinctive. Craft beer is typically made from a combination of traditional ingredients (think malt, rye, hops) and unique ingredients (think guava, wild yeast strains, watermelon rind) to give the beer a distinctive flavor. That’s why us beer enthusiasts are now blessed (or cursed, depending on your view) with wild-tasting sour beers and the hoppiest of IPAs that pack one helluva flowery punch.
- Community-minded. Local breweries often host events that give back to their communities, which gives us beer drinkers yet another incentive to purchase local. Drink beer for a good cause? Count us in.
What Is Craft Beer? The “Official” Definition
So, craft beer is essentially innovative beer made by small and independent brewers. How is that in any way complicated? Well, consider these questions:
How “small” does a brewery need to be?
What happens when a small brewer is bought out by a macro brewer?
Can I call my homebrew craft beer?
Basically, what actually counts as a craft beer?
That’s where the official definition of craft beer comes into play. According to the Brewers Association (BA), beer must meet the following three criteria in order to be considered craft beer:
- Small. The annual production of beer cannot exceed 6 million barrels.
- Independent. The brewery must have less than 25 percent ownership or control by a larger alcohol company that is not a craft brewer.
- Has a Brewer’s Notice. To be considered a craft beer, the brewer must qualify with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) by obtaining a Brewer’s Notice. In other words, you can’t go around claiming that your homebrew (like the one you foisted upon all your friends, even though you know damn well it tastes like toilet water) is a “craft beer.”
If the beer meets these three criteria, then it’s craft beer. Of course, this official definition won’t stop many beer drinkers from referring to their Lagunitas or Ballast Point as craft brews. It also won’t stop them from thinking that Sam Adams Boston lager isn’t craft beer, even though it technically is, per the BA.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to three things: The taste of the beer, the experience you’re looking for and whom you feel good about giving your money to.
What shouldn’t be factored in your beer drinking decision is other people’s opinions on what you should be drinking. If anyone gives you grief about drinking your “watered-down” Natty Light (the drink of choice for beer pong and other fun tailgate games) or your “pretentious” craft brew, just ignore them.
You know what they need? A good beer to help them chill the ’eff out.
Microbrewery vs. Nanobrewery vs. Craft Brewery – What’s the Difference?
Just when you thought you had craft beer all figured out, some beer snob (probably a guy named Ignatius or Cleo or some other hipster-y name) starts yammering on about microbreweries and nanobreweries. Um, say what now?
If you’ve heard of these terms before but have no idea what they mean, you’re definitely not alone. Below, we’ll break down the similarities and differences to help clear up some of the confusion.
What Is a Microbrewery?
A microbrewery is often used interchangeably with craft brewery, even though there is a slight difference between the two. Put simply, a microbrewery is a specific type of craft brewery that produces small batches of beer, typically fewer than 15,000 barrels annually.
In other words, a microbrewery is a craft brewery, but a craft brewery isn’t necessarily a microbrewery. Is your head hurting yet? Feel free to crack open a brewski before we move onto nanobreweries.
What Is a Nanobrewery?
Although nanobreweries have a somewhat murky definition, the general consensus is that nanobreweries are a scaled-down version of the microbrewery. Nanobreweries typically produce less than 2,000 barrels per year and are often started by brewers who are looking to test the market (along with their deliciously-unique craft beers).
The great thing about nanobreweries is their unique, hole-in-the-wall feel. Many of them are located off the beaten path, and stumbling upon one accidentally can give you an unbridled sense of joy that is perhaps only rivaled by this guy’s discovery of a double rainbow. Just pure, unadulterated happiness.
Visiting a Brewery? Here’s What You Need to Know
So, what’s the best way to enjoy craft beer? Well, that depends on whom you ask! If you want to drink a chocolate stout at home in your comfy loungewear while eating bagel bites, that’s your prerogative. Just don’t mention it to your beer snob coworker, who might judge you for your unconventional food pairing (it’s called SELF-CARE, KYLE, look it up).
Of course, one of the absolute best ways to enjoy craft beer is by popping down to your local brewery. By going straight to the source, you have the opportunity to take a tour of the brewery, enjoy craft brews in a relaxing environment and sneak in some quality time with your friends.
There are literally thousands of breweries in the country, with each one offering their own unique flavors and experiences. So, why not get out there and try something new? Before you go, here are a few key things you should know to make your brewery experience a roaring success.
What to Wear to a Brewery
Breweries are known for their chill vibes and unpretentious atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean you should show up looking like a slob. You want to dress well without looking like you’re actually dressed up, which can be a tricky line to toe.
To help you ace the look, we’ve put together some of our favorite smart-casual looks for a day of brewery hopping. Even if you and your friends have no idea what to do at a beer tasting, well—at least you’ll look the part.
For the Men
- Pants. Those trusty work trousers you wear M-F? Yeah, it’s time to bench those for the weekend and swap ’em for a comfortable pair of men’s jeans that won’t make you stick out like a sore thumb. Choose a pair with a dark wash to help hide the ketchup stain you’ll inevitably spill on your pants. You’re welcome in advance.
- Top. To nail the smart casual look, pair your denim with a men’s casual button down shirt. Consider bringing a men’s quarter-zip pullover to keep you nice and warm if you’ll be visiting the brewery during chillier times of year. The main tasting room can get crowded quickly so it’s smart to have an extra layer of warmth in case you and your crew need to seek refuge outside in the biergarten.
- Shoes. If you’re going to be doing a little brewery hopping, be sure to wear comfortable shoes—preferably, ones that you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Breweries may not be as dirty as your old frat house (to be fair, that was some next-level filth), but at the end of the day, they are a bar and not the best place to break in those new white sneakers of yours.
- Additional Items. Are you going to be chillin’ outside on the patio in the summertime? For the love of your incredibly pale skin, BRING SUNSCREEN. We guarantee that none of your bros will remind you to do this, but we will because we care. And because sunburns are the worst. Also, don’t forget to bring your Southern Tide YETI cooler in case you want to buy a growler to take home.
For the Women
- Pants. Similar to the guys, you’ll want to wear skinny jeans that are cute and comfortable, preferably with a hint of stretch. This way, you can really get into cornhole/ring toss/Jenga or whatever game is available and destroy your opponent’s hopes and dreams.
- Top. Again, you really can’t go wrong with wearing a women’s button-down shirt to a brewery. It’s cool, casual, comfortable—let’s see, are we forgetting any C words? Well, it could be a little bit cringey if you decide to match your boyfriend’s button down shirt too closely, so make sure you pick a different color to avoid being THAT couple. Also, wear a pullover to stay warm in the Biergarten after the sun goes down. Or just steal your BF’s (if he truly loves you, he’ll fork it over).
- Shoes. Heels are possibly the worst footwear choice to wear to a brewery. If you’re taking a tour or doing some brewery hoppin’, trust us when we say that your feet will be killing you by the end of the night and the bar staff will quietly laugh at your pain. Plus, someone sloshing their beer on your feet has to be one of the worst feelings ever (sticky toes = bad time). Stick to a comfortable pair of sneakers that look effortlessly stylish with your skinny jeans.
- Additional Items. Look, you probably know to bring sunscreen for your outdoor imbibing activities. Instead, we’ll recommend something you might not think to bring: Hand sanitizer. We’re not saying that breweries are gross or anything. We’re just saying that some breweries have graffitied bathrooms with, shall we say, a lot of…charm? Interpret that as you will.
What to Drink at a Brewery
Just kidding. If you have no idea what to order at a brewery, consider starting with a flight of beer and asking the bar staff for guidance (they really do want you to find something you’ll enjoy). This gives you a chance to sample different varieties so you can order a full pint of your favorite on your next trip.
Most flights of beer are purposely arranged from light to dark. This isn’t just for aesthetics. Light-colored beer is typically more refreshing and less filling than dark beer, so oftentimes it’s recommended that you take your samples from light to dark to enhance your drinking experience.
Also, don’t forget to take sips of water in between each beer sample! This will help refresh your palette and help you experience the full flavor of each brew.
Oh, and we’d like to give you a piece of advice: While many breweries do offer other non-beer options such as wine or cider, do not, we repeat DO NOT, get upset with the bar staff if they don’t offer it. You’re at a craft brewery after all. That would be like going to a Mexican restaurant and getting upset that spaghetti isn’t on the menu.
How to Choose the Best Food and Beer Pairings
Most breweries have food available, whether it be from their menu or a food truck parked outside. The food serves two important purposes: To keep you there longer, and to keep you drinking without you getting absolutely smashed.
Put simply, it’s in your best interest to order an appetizer before you start your imbibing. If you really want to maximize your craft beer experience, you should consider which types of foods pair best with different beer flavors. Here’s a short-and-dirty guide on the best beer and food combinations:
- Brown Ale. The light caramel notes and nuttiness are the perfect contrast to meats and cheeses. Pair with roast pork, burgers and Romano cheeses.
- Dark Lager. The “gateway beer,” as it’s sometimes called, pairs well with hearty dishes such as bangers and mash, Bavarian pretzels and sausage.
- Light Lager. Anything, really. Buffalo wings, French fries, hot dogs, etc. Their light and refreshing taste pairs best with spicy foods.
- Porters. The rich and deep flavor of a porter is the perfect complement to game meats, barbecue and Mexican dishes.
- Stouts. Sweeter, fuller and richer than a porter, stouts have a creamy texture that pairs well with oysters, venison stews, BBQ and chocolate desserts.
- Indian Pale Ale (IPA). The hoppy and bitter taste of IPAs perfectly counterbalances the taste of salty, fried dishes. Pair with fish and chips, curry dishes and French fries.
- Wheat Beers. This type of beer has lighter carbonation and a smooth taste, which pairs well with fruity flavors found in salads or pastries.
Remember, these are just recommendations. Want to have a German beer and a glazed donut? Be our guest. Considering an IPA with a PB+J? Do it. A Gose with Sour Patch Kids? Our mouths are puckering just thinking about that combo, but you do you.
Cheers to Good Beer
At the end of the day, it’s not about what type of beer you drink. It’s all about the experience. If you want to explore new and exciting flavors, the world of craft beer welcomes you with open arms. If you want to drink your trusty Miller Lite or Corona on occasion, that’s fine, too. We’re always happy to cheer to a fellow beer lover, no matter what you’re sippin’.