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WTF is Craft Beer?

October 25, 2019

written by Sam Chiew

edited by Alexa T

illustrated by JLIN

The stereotype of beers being unimaginative, bland and cheap was widespread in many countries, until the revival of craft beer brewing in the 70s. Beers are usually overlooked by booze aficionados. Oftentimes, people opt for haute beverages like wines and whiskeys – traditionally marketed as premium and exclusive. Beer, the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, has been staying in the shadows. Certain drinkers surmise beers as cheap, dull and bitter – a drink that has no tasting value. Others may perceive “exotic” labels (e.g. Hoegaarden, Tsingtao or Budwiser) as superior to the locally produced Tigers and Carlsbergs.

WTF is craft beer?

What is craft beer? Perhaps the most frequently asked question from a novice, is a complex one to answer. From a technical aspect, the Brewer Association of America defines craft breweries (the brewers of craft beers, also known as microbreweries) as “small, independent and traditional”, producing beers not more than (1,800,000 liters; 460,000 U.S. gallons) annually. Generally, craft beers are characterized by the small quantity, traditional (or novel) production methods, usage of special ingredients and emphasis on taste and quality.

In contrast, mega breweries (the top four: Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken Group, Carlsberg Group and SABMiller) focus more on branding and manufacturing output (volume). They have been producing the same beers (with unaltered recipes usually) for the longest of time, operate with a higher efficiency, and have a significantly wider commercial reach to an international audience. These companies don’t really focus on innovation or experimenting with tastes. Simply put, craft beer to commercial beer is like the traditional neighbourhood curry noodle to the commercially available Maggi noodle: small scale, independent versus the mammoth, highly industrialized, and unchanged.

illustrated by JLIN

Okay, how do I tell them apart?

One of the many ways to distinguish craft beers and commercial beers visually is the label. Craft beers usually feature quirky label designs which are almost always changing. Here’s another one – if you see a beer on a commercial or advertising board, it’s very likely that isn’t a craft beer. Craft breweries generally do not put up ads, they let their beers speak for themselves.

Now that you have an idea of what craft beer is, let’s have a crash course in beer taxanonomy. Beer brewing requires four main ingredients – water, hops (the most important ingredient and backbone of the beers’ bitterness and aroma), malt and yeast. Be it beers from ancient Mesopotamia, beers in UK during the 18th century industrial revolution, or the beers we enjoy today, there is one similarity – people brew with the ingredients available to them.

Beers are also basically divided into two types – ales and lagers. The main differences between both are the fermentation method and yeast of choice: Ales are top-fermented using top fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, while lagers are bottom-fermented using Sacchoromyces uvarum (I know, but please bear with me). These yeasts work under different optimum temperatures and naturally, requires different brewing methods. The differences are summarized below:

Different terroir and different parts of the world, give rise to different yields of ingredients for brewing. Differences between grains of choice, hops cultivation and yeast species, combined with people’s divergent palates, gave way to the emergence of craft beer brewing. This has given us various beer styles, ranging from the crispy and refreshing commercial lagers to the rich and flavorful imperial stouts. Craft beer brewing is relatively popular in the West due to the relatively lax brewing regulations. However, Southeast Asia is not spared from the nouveau beer craze. With surging demands, we could expect a craft beer boom sooner or later in the future.

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