The American Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as "small, independent, and traditional." According to these terms set by the BA, Ireland's Guinness Brewery still wouldn't qualify as "craft" even if it were founded and operated in America. But before casting Guinness away as a craft pretender, lets dig into the definition, as the legendary brand might not be so easy to classify.
Guinness is undeniably huge. Brewed in 49 countries and sold in over 150, nearly 9 million glasses of the dark, velvety stout are enjoyed every single day. You don't have to know how many pints are in a US barrel (about 250) to guess that Guinness' output is well beyond the BA's limit of 6 million barrels of beer per year for a craft brewer. In fact, each year the Guinness brand produces more than all of the top 10 largest American craft breweries combined.
And then there's the issue of being independent. Though famously established in 1759 when Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease on St. James's Gate Brewery in Dublin, Guinness would eventually merge with a British property group, that also owned Burger King and Alpo dog food, to form Diageo, an international conglomerate valued at $84 billion — good for the 245th largest public company on the planet.
"Independence makes it possible for craft breweries to decide what beers they make based on what the brewers like to drink," says Will Stephens, a Certified Cicerone and co-founder of BeerMenus.com. "This factor has been important in making craft beer successful."
But no one can argue that Guinness doesn't maintain traditional brewing methods. By 1886, the brewery had become the largest in the world because of how well it upheld Arthur Guinness' original vision. According to Guinness Brand Director Emma Giles, "There have been advances in brewing technology over the years, but the heart of what we do still remains the same. We roast our own barley on site in the brewery. Almost 20,000 tons a year." In fact, Guinness's recipe has barely changed over 250 years at St. James's Gate, save for minor tweaks as ingredients improved.
The BA also states, "Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent." Guinness has such a history of innovation: "In the 1890s, we hired the first scientists to head up a ground-breaking research lab," Giles says. "It led to the use of nitrogenation in beer in the 1960s, which gives Guinness its creamy head."
Now craft brewers are adopting nitrogen carbonation for their own pale ales and stouts, and they have Guinness to thank for laying the infrastructure of nitro taps at America's better beer bars. BeerMenus sees a lot of bars that rotate between nitro craft beers and Guinness, says Stephens.
The brewery continues to play with new recipes and reinterpret the old at its Open Gate Brewery, a small-scale system built for experiments. The research brewery has inspired such beers as Guinness Blonde American Lager, Nitro IPA, and West Indies Porter. At the moment, the brewery is playing with an imperial dunkel weisse (a strong, dark German-style wheat beer), an amber Vienna-style lager, and a Belgian-influenced Antwerpen Stout.
However, a few breweries that are arguably more experimental than Guinness — such as California's Ballast Point and Lagunitas Brewing — will be removed from the BA's craft brewer list in 2016 for selling themselves to beverage corporations. According to the BA, any brewery forfeits its "craft" identity once it has the same access to the retail, distribution, and ingredients that macro brands enjoy.
With AB Inbev, SAB Miller, and Constellation buying roughly a dozen small brewers in the last year, the term "craft beer" might be losing relevance. There is a discernible line between the biggest and smallest brewing companies on a business level, the distinction is much more blurred for consumers. The beer landscape has changed so dramatically over the last 10 years that it now seems unrealistic to lump every brewery in the world into only two categories.
"I almost think we’re entering a 'post-craft' era in beer," says Giles, adding that the movement itself was a good thing for Guinness. "If the craft beer revolution has done anything, it has hugely increased the focus on beer and the people behind it, and that’s great for us."
Craft or not, most consumers deciding whether a beer is worth their dollar will be asking themselves only two questions: "Is the beer good?" and "Is the beer authentic?" Ultimately, if a beer is of excellent quality and made with genuine passion, people will — and should — drink it.