Does the term 'craft beer' imply a small operation? Photo: Sahlan Hayes
Some brewers refuse to discuss it. Beer drinkers have furious arguments about it. Breweries from the huge to the infinitesimal stick it on their packaging, hoping for some reflected credibility. But what does the term "craft beer" actually mean?
Alex Troncoso smiles as he considers the question. The former head brewer at Little Creatures in Fremantle, who is now doing the same job at Camden Town in London, is well aware of just how sensitive this subject can be.
"For me, craft beer is a philosophy," he says."If you go back to the industrial revolution ... before then, if you were going to build something, you would make all the parts yourself. I think that's one thing a craft brewer has to be: conversant with how brewing is done, all the way from mashing through to bottling beers.
"It's also about quality – by which I don't mean crazy flavours, but something really balanced and well made. A brewery where everything is precise and organised. Whatever happens in the warehouse, the beer is going to taste great – not a great batch here, a bad batch there."
The controversy over the term has grown recently as a result of larger breweries seeking to enter the craft beer market. Some believe a craft brewer should be small, but Troncoso (whose former brewery was bought by Lion in 2012) doesn't agree that the size of the brewery matters. "I'd love to run a brewery the size of (German brewery) Beck's," he says. "I make no apologies for that."
This puts him at odds with the only definition available, that produced by the Brewers' Association in the USA, which states that a craft brewer must produce no more than six million barrels of beer a year – although that appears to be a flexible rule, having changed from two million barrels in 2011.
Nonetheless, it's a stipulation that finds favour with Garrett Oliver, head brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York and editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer. As a frequent traveller around the world, visiting breweries and promoting beer, Oliver knows more than most about craft beer.
"It's a term for beer made by traditional means and brewed to create interesting, complex flavours," he says. "It does imply that you are talking about a relatively small and independent brewery. That stipulation has been part and parcel of the whole movement ... up until now, the only people who were really interested in making these beers were us (smaller, independent breweries)."
Oliver believes there is a human aspect to craft beer that the bigger, multinational brewers lack.
"Real beer is made by people, not by machines," he says. "Nobody knows the names of any of the brewers at the big breweries. Even their top distributors don't know their names. The brands, the beers are divorced from people.
"The difference with craft beer is that when you're talking about a brewery, you know whose beer that is. It's a very personal thing."
One thing is clear: the global craft-beer movement is focusing attention on beer and brewers in an unprecedented fashion. For Guy Greenstone, co-owner of Local Taphouse and director of The Great Australian SpecTAPular, this is the key thing.
"The semantics about what is or isn't craft beer could be debated forever," he says. "The most important thing is that craft beer is currently a big conversation. There's a lot of energy. The craft-beer revolution isn't isolated to Australia: it's happening in the UK, Italy, Scandinavia, all over."
Both Oliver and Troncoso have first-hand experience of this. Troncoso says Melbourne's beer scene stacks up well when compared to what is happening in London. "I would say Melbourne and London are almost mirroring each other," he says. "Melbourne is getting a lot of good venues, a lot of good beer events. More and more pubs are interested in having independent taps rather than contract taps. I see that happening here too."
Perhaps the highlight of Melbourne's beer calendar is the Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular. Both Camden Town (which is sending its version of a Dusseldorf-style altbier) and Brooklyn (which has produced a grand cru, a Belgian-inspired strong ale) will have beers at the festival, but the real focus will be on domestic products, Greenstone says.
"It's a celebration of how great the Australian scene is doing, and the fact that we can match it with the best of the best," he says. "It will show that we can really hold our own."
Sounds like the perfect place to find out a bit more about what craft beer means.
The Great Australian SpecTAPular takes place at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton from May 24-26.