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August 20, 2022  |  Food & Drink

What is craft beer? Here's a complete guide-for beginners to vets

America’s craft beer history began nearly 200 years ago in 1829 when D.G. Yuengling & Son was founded in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Not only was it the state’s first craft brewery, but it was America’s first brewery as well. According to the Brewers Association, to this day, D.G. Yuengling & Son qualifies as a craft brewer.

Since 1829, the country’s fondness for craft beer has gradually increased. Over the past decade, however, the craft brewing business has experienced unprecedented growth. In 2011, for example, there were roughly 2,000 craft breweries in the United States. By 2021, that number grew to over 9,000.

So what is craft beer, and why is it so popular?

What is craft beer?

Definition of a craft brewer

The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as a small, independent brewer. Specifically, this means three things: 

  1. The company makes beer and has an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Notice. 
  2. The brewery's annual production is six million barrels of beer or fewer. 
  3. The company is independent.

The six craft beer market segments

  • Microbreweries: A microbrewery sells at least 75% of its beer off-site and produces fewer than 15,000 barrels per year.
  • Brewpubs: A brewpub sells at least 25% of its beer on-site and operates as a restaurant-brewery.
  • Taproom breweries: A taproom brewery sells at least 25% of its beer on-site.
  • Regional breweries: A regional brewery brews between 15,000 and 6 million barrels per year.
  • Contract brewing companies: A contract brewing company is any business that hires another brewery to brew its beer.
  • Alternating proprietors: An alternating proprietor is two or more brewers that use the same brewing space.


Craft beer vs. mass-produced beer

If you’ve only had mass-produced beer, you might think all beer tastes the same. That is because mass-produced beer doesn’t have the most diverse ingredients. To keep manufacturing costs reasonable, mass-produced beer tends to use cheaper products — rice or corn instead of hops — which makes the flavor less robust. Craft brewers, on the other hand, make smaller batches using hand-selected ingredients that offer a much broader scope of flavor.

Even more revealing, mass-produced beer is often served very cold. This is partially because cold temperatures lower a person's ability to taste certain flavors that might be considered undesirable in a beer. Craft beer, however, can be served at warmer temperatures. This helps the drinker better identify the many flavors that are present.

Mass-produced beer typically has a narrower field of color — many are pale yellow. Conversely, craft beer has a rich palette that ranges from light to dark.

Pros and cons of craft beer

Pros

The most obvious pro is craft beer has a more robust flavor palate than mass-produced beer. This means there is a greater selection — if you don’t like IPAs, maybe something fruity and sweet will be a better match for you. Also, since the beer is brewed in smaller batches, brewers often experiment with flavors, so the menu is constantly changing. 

When you purchase craft beer, you are supporting the local economy and fostering a feeling of community. Additionally, brewpubs are family-friendly. If you venture out on a weekend, you will find games, a bright environment, outdoor seating and earlier hours. Some establishments even encourage bringing along the family dog.

Cons

The biggest con of craft beer is the cost. It is not uncommon for craft beer to cost twice as much, or more, than mass-produced beer. However, if the alcohol content is important to you, you might consider craft beer a good value because it may have two to three times the alcohol content of mass-produced beer.

What types of craft beer are there?

Since the biggest benefit of craft beer is the wide variety, it is important to understand a little about the many types of brews that are available. 

Ales vs. lagers

Beers are either ales or lagers. Ales are aged over a few weeks at warm temperatures. The yeast gathers at the top, which creates a more aromatic and full-bodied flavor. Lagers are aged for about two months at cold temperatures. The yeast gathers at the bottom, which creates a crisp, refreshing flavor.

Some common ale styles

  • India pale ale: An IPA is the most popular craft beer. The wide yet distinctive flavor can range from a tropical citrus to an earthy pine.
  • Pale ale: A pale ale is similar to an IPA, only it has a lighter flavor and lower alcohol content.
  • New England-style IPA: A New England-style IPA has a less bitter taste than a regular IPA. It is an unfiltered beer with a hazy appearance.
  • Double IPA: A double IPA has a strong hoppy flavor and a high alcohol content.
  • Stout: A stout is made with roasted barley. It has a dark color and a chocolate or coffee flavor.
  • Wheat: A wheat beer is brewed with generous amounts of grain. This gives the beer a light color with a sweet bready taste.
  • Gose: A gose beer is a wheat ale that is brewed with salt. This diminishes the sweetness and gives the beer a sour, but not tart, flavor.

Some common lager styles

  • Lager: Over 80% of beer sold in the U.S. is a lager, such as Budweiser and Coors. Because lagers take longer to brew, they aren’t as popular with craft brewers.
  • Mexican lager: A Mexican lager is brewed using flaked corn. It has a refreshing flavor with a low ABV.
  • Vienna lager: A Vienna lager is brewed with toasted malts, which give it an amber color and a malty character.
  • Pilsner: A Pilsner is a highly carbonated lager that gets its distinctive flavor from hops. 
  • Helles: Helles is a light, crisp option that is similar to a Pilsner but with a sweeter flavor.


Can you make craft beer yourself?

Depending on your proclivity to try something new, one of the best things about craft beer is it is something you can do yourself. All you need to make craft beer at home is a home brew kit, some patience, an adventurous spirit and the eagerness to experiment. Even better, once you have some hands-on experience mixing different ingredients and learning how to use devices, such as a hydrometer or a refractometer, you will have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the brewing process.

FAQ

What is ABV?

A. ABV stands for alcohol by volume. So, if a beer has a 6% ABV, 6% of that drink is alcohol. The higher the ABV, the higher the alcohol content. Most mass-produced beer has an ABV of 4% to 5% while the ABV of craft beer can vary greatly depending on the style. A double IPA, for instance, can range from 7.6% to 10.6% ABV. By comparison, around 12% ABV is the average for wine.

How long does craft beer last?

A. While different brews last for different amounts of time, most craft beer is best when it is fresh. If there is no “best if used by” date on the can or bottle, ideally, you want to drink it within three to six months for the best flavor. Refrigerated storage is recommended.

What you need to buy to brew your own craft beer

Brooklyn Brew Shop Everyday IPA Beer Making Kit

If you like IPAs, this is the beer-making kit for you. It comes with everything you need to make 1 gallon of 6.8% ABV beer.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Mr. Beer Complete Beer-making Starter Kit

This starter kit is designed for first-time brewers. It has simple, step-by-step instructions, and it only requires 30 minutes of your time to brew. The beer will be ready to drink in about three to four weeks.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Brewing America Brewing Hydrometer Alcohol Tester Kit

If you’d like to test the ABV of your home brew, this alcohol tester kit lets you do that. It comes with everything you need to quickly and accurately measure alcohol levels in beer, wine, cider and mead.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

NutriChef Pressurized Beer Miniature Keg System

This compact keg is small enough to fit inside your refrigerator. It holds 64 ounces of craft beer and can keep it fresh for up to two months. The keg works with a disposable Co2 cartridge, which is not included with the purchase.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Rolf Glass Heron 16-ounce Beer Mug Set

Once you make your beer, you will want to enjoy it in style. This set of four lead-free, glass, 16-ounce mugs features a sand-engraved heron in a picturesque landscape.

Where to buy: Sold by Home Depot


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Allen Foster writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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