PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When we talk about "craft beer" from this point on, realize that we're talking about more than 2,500 distinct U.S. breweries. They'll all have beermaking in common, but that's about it.
According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, the number of breweries in the U.S. was up to 2,722 by the end of last year. That's more than the 2,685 breweries that appeared on the Register of United States Breweries in 1876, but still shy of the 3,286 that existed in 1870. The Brewers Association notes that there were another 1,744 breweries in the planing stages at the end of December, though.
So who gets to decide which are "craft" and which aren't? Not Anheuser-Busch InBev and the SABMiller/MolsonCoors joint venture, whose products still account for more than 75% of all U.S. beer sales. Not Heineken and Diageo with their imported suds. No, that responsibility lies with the Brewers Association and its voting members alone.
The Boulder, Colo.-based industry trade group brings together breweries, home brewers and local brewers guilds for cool parties such as the Great American Beer Festival and keeps track of growth within the industry. It also includes several of the aforementioned big brewers on its member rolls. That's understandable, as the greater beer industry has to protect its market share from wine and spirits. According to the Demeter Group, beer's market share shrank from 55% of the overall U.S. alcohol market in 2000 to 49% in 2011.
It also engages in a vigorous defense of the term "craft" that's become increasingly necessary as A-B InBev and MillerCoors combat slumping light lager sales with their own craft-inspired Blue Moon, Leinenkugel's and Goose Island brands. With competing pieces of legislation threatening to redefine "craft beer" by production volume for the sake of cutting taxes on brewers, the Brewers Association is drawing what it considers necessary battle lines.
To ensure craft beer's survival, the Brewers' Association has produced a tightly worded definition of "craft brewer" to serve as its unwavering guideline. It also offered up its controversial Craft vs. Crafty statement on the topic in 2012 and produced a list of "non-craft beers" as a guide for consumers.
All of this has come at a price. For one, the Brewers Association's definition of "craft brewer" has been inconsistent. A revision in 2011 changed its limit for "small" brewers from 2 million barrels to 6 million, with the clear beneficiary of this change being Samuel Adams producer Boston Beer. That group turned out nearly 3 million barrels of beer alone last year, while every other brewer that BA considers "craft" produced 1 million or fewer. Boston Beer's business is bolstered by its Twisted Tea malt beverages and Angry Orchard cider. Its Alchemy & Science division in Vermont not only produces a Leinenkugel's-style shandy, but bought out both Angel City Brewing and Coney Island Craft Lagers in recent years. Founder Jim Koch, meanwhile, defended BA's definition of craft beer at a spring conference only to turn around and defend his business practices from the criticism of fellow craft brewers.
Meanwhile, BA's current craft brewer definition and Craft vs. Crafty list excludes a number of independent, pre-prohibition brewers and craft pioneers from the initial microbrew boom of the 1980s. It's a position that's becoming increasingly tough to defend, especially with "craft" brewers including Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Mo., now owned by Belgium-based Duvel Moortgat.
With those monitoring craft beer's growth taking a different view of the industry than the Brewers Association and craft beer's biggest rivals using those disparities to their benefit, it may be time for the Brewers' Association and craft beer in general to close ranks and do what they've refused to: Open up the big tent and let a few more allies in. While it may dilute craft beer's ideological purity a bit, bringing the following five brewers into the fold would bolster numbers, send petty squabbles and form a united front. It would also draw a finer line between craft beer's "us" and big beer's "them" than the gerrymandered squiggle that currently exists. It may not be perfect -- as Goose Island, Leinenkugel's and Blue Moon fans will point out -- but it beats turning away allies and amazing brewers on technicalities: