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What the Craft Beer Industry Really Looks Like

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The most common narrative surrounding craft beer is that it's a thriving, growing niche of small brewers looking to take on the big beer establishment.

But by whose definition?

The Brewers Association craft beer industry group reserves the right to define "craft" as its sees fit and boils its definition down to three key qualifications: A craft brewer must be small, which in this case means its produces 6 million barrels a year or less; it must be independent, which means less than 25% of it is owned by a company that is not considered a craft brewer; and it must be traditional, which requires using an all-malt beer as its flagship or using malt -- instead of adjuncts such as corn and rice -- or makes at least 50% of its beers without using those adjuncts for anything other than enhancing flavor.

By those qualifications, the craft beer industry produced 13.2 million barrels last year, up from 11.5 million in 2011. It grew 15% by volume and 17% in dollar amount last year to take a 6.5% share of the beer industry's production and 10.2% of its revenue.

That's all assuming, however, that the association's perception of craft lines up with everyone else's. The folks at beer industry publication Beer Marketer's Insights, for examples, tend to quibble with the Brewers Association on a few minor points. Within the past five years, the publication has broken out beer into seven price-based categories: imports (Guinness, Duvel), craft (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, super premium (Blue Moon, Bud Light Lime), premium (Budweiser, Coors, Miller), sub premium (Pabst Blue Ribbon, Keystone), malternatives (Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice), malt liquor (Colt 45, Steel Reserve) and no alcohol.

Beer Marketer's Insights agrees that Chicago-based Goose Island, which was bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev two years ago and has some of its beers brewed at A-B facilities, isn't craft. It has also reversed its stance on MillerCoors' Leinenkugel by rescinding its craft status and does not consider Blue Moon craft. But the publication splits with the Brewers Association in its belief that the Portland, Ore.-based Craft Brew Alliance -- and its Widmer Brothers, Redhook, Kona and Omission brands -- are craft beer. Anheuser-Busch InBev owns 32.2% of CBA and gives the company access to its distribution network, but Eric Shepard, executive editor at Beer Marketer's Insights, says his publication sees no evidence that A-B exerts any influence over the CBA brands.

"CBA, to me, is pretty easy," Shepard says. "The notion that Rob and Kurt Widmer aren't craft brewers is an absurdity to me. At 24% A-B ownership share they're pure and at 26% they're dirty? There's a certain sense of it being ludicrous."