Why Did People Stop Saying "Microbrew" And Start Calling It "Craft Beer"?

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On Nov. 15, 1983, The New York Times published an article on a new brewery in Northern California's technology hub of Silicon Valley. The un-bylined piece assured readers that the operation fit with a new trend called "micro-breweries" (quotation marks included in the original).

The article appears to have been the first time the nation's newspaper of record used that term — as well as either of the terms "micro-brewery" and "micro-brewer," for that matter.

The terms were years old by 1983 and, like in the Times, were used as little more than shorthand to describe the size and the reach of these smaller breweries — the only salient feature of the trend worth paying attention to, apparently, according to the newspaper:

"Despite admirable intentions and some pretty good products, many of the new beers are pretty awful — and the breweries short-lived. Most microbrewery founders are just beer lovers who want mainly to make their own idea of the perfect beer. They pick up most of their brewing experience in kitchens — with such resulting crude techniques as the use of new plastic garbage cans as fermenting tanks — and frequently have little interest in or ability to run a business."

The Times' sniffy tone could be forgiven. Many microbreweries' beers were hit or miss, and the sort of equipment available to larger concerns, the kind that produced clean, crisp beers time and again, were unavailable to most smaller breweries. And a lot of the early micro-brewery founders were mostly self-taught "beer lovers," toiling in near-obscurity, just trying to make a brew that wasn't Bud or Miller Lite.

Besides, the whole thing seemed so flash-in-the-pan. Consolidation and closures were the order of the day, as Anheuser-Busch and its macro ilk gobbled smaller competitors and squeezed distribution. (Indeed, the Silicon Valley microbrewery that the Times profiled in November 1983, one of fewer than 20 nationwide then, went out of a business a short time later.)

And yet: About two years after the Times' first usage of "micro-brewery" et al, Vince Cottone, a beer writer out of Seattle, started throwing around the terms "craft beer," "craft brewery" and "craft brewer." He used the terms in his columns for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and for trade publications, as well as in a 1986 beer guide to breweries in the Northwest.

Cottone himself seems to have picked "craft" to describe how — and, to some extent, why — the beer he was writing about was made. Whereas the Times plucked "micro" to describe size, Cottone chose "craft" to describe techniques and results. From that 1986 guide: "I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally."

The "craft" terms took off — to Cottone's apparent surprise — and so did the sector of the American brewing industry that they sought to describe. The number of craft breweries rose by the early 1990s from the dozens into the hundreds. At the start of the new century, people began talking of 1,000 craft breweries, even several times that amount (which is what happened).

As for "micro-brewery" and others, those terms fell out of rhetorical favor. Size wasn't everything, it turned out. The term "craft" seemed a better fit for just what these smaller entrants were making: beer with traditional ingredients such as hops and malted grains, and without the adjuncts or preservatives that much larger producers favored (and had to favor, in many cases, given that the likes of Bud had to survive shipment to the ends of the earth, not to the local grocery chain).

In 1995, sensing an opportunity, Miller created a new division called the American Specialty and Craft Beer Company. In 1997, Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery became the first brewery to actually use the word in its name. The main trade group cheerleading smaller breweries changed the name of its annual National Microbrewers and Pubbrewers Conference and Trade Show in 1996 to, simply, the Craft Brewers Conference.

By 2000, "craft" was everywhere. "Micro" would stagger on, but its day had passed. Like many trade and consumer publications in the late 1990s — including ones on the emerging internet — The New York Times would start using the descriptors "micro" and "craft" interchangeably to mean the same smaller, independently owned breweries using traditional ingredients and methods. "Craft," though, was the preferred term for those wishing to sound au courant.

To this end, and to help sort itself out, the Brewers Association, that main trade group, sought to define "craft brewery" and, in effect, "craft beer" in late 2005. The association declared that to be considered a craft brewery, an operation had to be mostly independently owned, to use only traditional ingredients, and to brew fewer than 2 million barrels of beer annually.

A few years later, the Brewers Association would expand that production threshold to 6 million so as to keep the biggest craft brewery of 'em all, Boston Beer (a.k.a. Sam Adams), in the craft beer fold. Also, other operations, such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, appeared about ready to tip into that multimillion-barrel neighborhood.

That 2011 move, though, meant to preserve the definitional integrity of craft beer, unwittingly sparked the beginning of the end for the term (and for "craft brewery" and "craft brewer"). It's very much in vogue now to dismiss all three as either needlessly snobbish or woefully inadequate for defining what these breweries, now numbering more than 4,000, are all about.

It's the same fate that befell "micro-brewery." Smaller breweries in the U.S. make such a wide variety of beers in myriad styles with an unprecedented array of ingredients and techniques that "craft" just doesn't do it anymore — or, at least, it does it better than "micro," but it's just kind of pointless given the diversity out there.

What to call it all then? I would propose the radical term "beer." Who's with me?

Tom Acitelli is the author of  The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution. His latest, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is a finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for best beverage book.