Swiss breweries do not want a definition of craft beer

Do we all understand the same thing by the term craft beer? Probably not, which is why there are always attempts to define the term or the phenomenon. In our survey of Swiss breweries, we also asked what they consider craft beer to be and what they don’t consider it to be. Do the breweries agree? Here is our analysis.

Part 1 of the Swiss craftbeer survey Posts: “Swiss brewery names – or does every city need its own brew factory and garage brewing?

As is often the case with cultural movements, there is no single definition of craft beer with which everyone agrees. Only in Italy is there a legal definition of “birra artigianale”: the “Collegato Agricoltura” defines craft beer as the product of a small and independent brewery, where microfiltration and pasteurization are not part of the production process.

The definition of craft beer breweries used internationally is that of the Brewers Association of the USA. This lists three criteria: Independence, size (or small: only a maximum quantity may be produced) and traditional production process.

However, the size cannot be adopted in every country, but must be adapted: Italy sets the upper limit at 200,000 HL per year, in the USA this is 7,040,865 HL. All Swiss breweries produced a total of 3,404,000 hectoliters of beer in 2020 (in 2019, the total was still 3,675,381 hectoliters), which is less than the largest craft beer breweries in the US. So size cannot be the only relevant parameter to identify craft beer breweries. Rather, it is about characteristics, a kind of culture or identity, a behavior or ethos.

Definition attempts in Switzerland

The IG unabhängiger Schweizer Brauereien equates craft beer with “artisan brewed beer” and claims that “the 30 members of the Interessengemeinschaft unabhängiger Schweizer Brauereien (IG Bier) [are] undisputedly the true original ‘craft beer brewers’ of Switzerland” (see also this article). The first attempt to establish a Swiss Craft Brewers Association also attempted to define craft beer. In the end, criteria emerged as to what someone must fulfill to become a member, as well as an “ethos” that circumscribes how someone should behave.

When asked if an entity should define what or who is a craft beer brewery (or a synonym such as craft brewery, artisanal brewery, microbrewery, etc.), two-thirds of all brewers (67.66%) answered in the negative. This is remarkable.

In our survey, we next asked those who would like a definition who should define craft beer. A new association to be created received the most support (73.8% of the answers were Yes or Somewhat Yes) – a definition from the legislator is only wanted by slightly more than half.

This means that the brewers want to give themselves the definition, because in a new association they can exert influence. We interpret the poor performance of the IG as an ignorance of what its fields of action/impact are. Or that it is an association with characteristics that the breweries do not like. The IG would actually be predestined to take care of a definition of craft beer as an association. In this definition they could emphasize the term “independent” – for which the IG already stands. The importance of “independence” is also shown in the evaluation of the Brewers Association criteria below.

Whether the Swiss Brewers Association defines craft beer is answered by the highest proportion of participants with a strong “no”. This should not come as a surprise. However, the fact that almost 70% could imagine a definition by the SBC is very surprising.

Craft beer definition of the Brewers Association

According to the Brewers Association, three criteria must be met for a brewery to call itself a craft beer brewery:

  1. It must be independent,
  2. must not exceed a certain size,
  3. a) uses traditional brewing methods and raw materials only,…
    b) to bring about flavor or aroma.

The criterion of independence received the highest level of agreement among the Swiss breweries, followed by size, raw materials and traditional brewing methods. In view of these high agreement values, independence and size can be regarded as central definition criteria, whereby the breweries which call and perceive themselves as craft beer breweries agreed most strongly, and as expected, the non-craft beer breweries agreed least.

As already stated above, the two terms “independent” and “size” are already claimed by the IG independent small/medium breweries. Apparently, however, the IG does not succeed in positioning itself as a relevant authority so that it is given the mandate to represent all such breweries.

If asked specifically about the maximum annual production of a craft beer brewery, however, a diffuse picture emerges: the answers range from 0 to 999999999000 hectoliters, with the last quantity probably wanting to express that there should be no limit. 10,000,000 hl received the most mentions, with 13.58% of all mentions. It was asked to give hectoliters. And even if participants had misread that and indicated liters (i.e., 10 million liters), that would still be 100,000 hl, which in Switzerland corresponds to a large brewery and of which there are only six breweries in Switzerland (according to the Eidgenössische Zollverwaltung). Comparing the answers of the different brewery clusters, the non-craft beer breweries set the limit at five million, those that call themselves craft beer breweries at ten million hl, and those that only consider themselves as such at one million hectoliters.

All of this means that Swiss breweries either do not want a size limit or put it so high that it includes the biggest breweries in Switzerland.

Desired characteristics for the definition of craft beer

Asked about which characteristics should be given special consideration in a definition of craft beer, the following are

  • raw materials used,
  • artisanal production and
  • the local anchoring

identified as particularly important. The greatest deviation is found in the point “Ownership of the brewery”, where the non-craft beer breweries are of the opinion that this characteristic is not important in the definition of a craft beer brewery. While the entirety of breweries consider community affiliation to be unimportant, the breweries that call themselves craft beer breweries consider this characteristic as important. It is striking how much non-craft beer breweries rate the characteristic “ownership” as much less important than all other breweries – the opinion however is not surprising.

So we can conclude that the brewers basically do not want a definition of craft beer. If someone does define craft beer, then terms such as “independence,” “size,” “quality of raw materials,” “craft production,” and “local roots” should be given a special meaning in this definition.

This is where terms emerge with which craft beer can distinguish itself from the other beers. Quality is expected by the customer and even non-craft beer has quality. Locally anchored these can also be; a brewery can be involved in local associations or have a name that has local meaning, even if they are owned by a foreign company. What is difficult, however, is that they can call themselves independent, that their size is still “small” by Swiss standards, or that they “produce artisan”. But this is a characteristic which certain craft beer breweries no longer fulfill and actually hardly any brewery should fulfill. Because, those who still stir wort with a wooden spoon, are probably more a hobby project than a brewery.

There is no craft beer

Given this ambivalence, we should not be surprised that the large breweries resist the delineation of craft beer. For example, beer writer Stan Hieronymus quotes Tom Schmidt of the large brewery Anheuser-Busch, who says, «I don’t believe there is anything such as ‘craft beer.’ The use of the term may lead consumers to believe that beer made in some small, quaint place is much better than beer that is produced in a large, efficient brewery, where quality and consistency are the hallmarks. We all fight the same battle using the same raw materials».

In addition, it is interesting to note that many breweries in our survey perceive themselves as craft beer breweries, but do not describe themselves as such. Of the 201 responses analyzed, 121 perceive and describe themselves as craft beer breweries, while 61 perceive themselves as craft beer breweries but do not call themselves as such publicly. Breweries cite a lack of identification with the term as the reason why they perceive themselves as craft beer breweries but do not describe themselves as such. The remaining 19 breweries do not perceive themselves as craft beer breweries.

To what extent the breweries meet a definition or descriptive characteristics, i.e. whether the breweries are in fact craft beer breweries in theory or what characteristics Swiss breweries have, we will discuss in the next blog post in this series.

About the Swiss craftbeer survey
As part of a MAS (Master of Advanced Studies), Christian did a paper on the topic of “identity” and “craft beer”. Over several blogposts we will highlight and discuss one aspect of the survey.
200 Swiss and one brewery from the Principality of Lichtenstein participated in the survey. The breweries were able to indicate whether they feel and describe themselves as craft beer breweries. 121 feel and describe themselves as craft beer breweries, 61 feel but do not describe themselves as craft beer breweries, and 19 breweries do not feel they are craft beer breweries.
Special thanks to Philippe Bov Corbat for providing us with his address list.

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