What is craft beer? Beer brewed by a craft brewer, of course! But it is a term that has been bandied about for many years. The megabrewers used the term to describe their non-light lager brands, and that raised the ire of the small breweries who felt there was no comparison to the traditional beers they produced. Several years ago, the Brewers Association stepped up and defined the term to avoid any further confusion:

A craft brewer is small (A relative term at best). No more than 6 million barrels can be brewed in a year. That recently changed due to the fact that Sam Adams was about to exceed the previous 2 million barrel limit. Most produce less than 1 million barrels, and the smallest only several hundred barrels a year.

The brewery may not be more than 25 percent owned by another industry member who is not a craft brewer. They must also have an all-malt flagship beer or at least 50 percent of their volume brewed with all-malt or in beers that use adjuncts - ingredients such as rice or corn - to enhance the beer and not lighten its flavor.

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So now that we have a definition, let's look further at some of these breweries.

Once upon a time, there were no large craft brewers. They all began as microbreweries that brewed less than 15,000 barrels per year - a lot less! It's hard to picture Sam Adams as a small brewery when they're now the largest craft brewer in the US. In a distant second is Sierra Nevada of Chico, Calif., followed by New Belgium of Fort Collins, Colo., the latter not even having national distribution.

Careful attention to quality control, controlled growth and targeted advertising has guided this segment to meteoric growth. Now a $7 billion industry, the craft brewing segment still only represents 5 percent of the entire beer market in the U.S.

This phenomenon is not unique to this side of the pond either. Europe has seen a marked increase in new small breweries whose main market is the U.S. Odd as it sounds, Americans are always looking for the next creative and rare beer, especially ones that come from across the ocean and are willing to pony up for the chance to taste it. Our love affair with imports still exists.

Craft brewer or megabrewer, beer is still a wonderful resource worthy of our attention. Avail yourselves of all that we have and expand your palate! Cheers!

On Tap: New Jersey has finally become a viable market for craft beers and lots of new labels are being introduced in the Garden State market. Recently, Port Brewing/Lost Abbey has hit the shelves here thanks to Hunterdon Distributing and is a popular line of beers. Owner/brewer Tomme Arthur has made quite a name for himself in the beer world using unusual ingredients in his products as well as taking barrel-aging to a whole new level. Starting out as a small batch brewer at Pizza Port-Solana Beach in California, his innovative Belgian-style beers became the beers to find, but supply was very limited and confined to only a few venues outside of California. In 2006, he and his partners opened their own brewery in San Marcos and are now distributing to a much wider audience. Although draft is not always available, bottles are now being sold everywhere. Locally, White Horse Liquors in Absecon, Joe Canal's in Egg Harbor Township, Circle Liquor in Somers Point, Passion Vines in EHT and Somers Point, and restaurants such as Fitzpatrick's Crest Tavern in Wildwood Crest, Mia in Atlantic City and Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia carry the brew.

Another West Coast brewery just arriving on the scene is Pyramid from Seattle. Opening in 1984, acquired by Magic Hat in 2008, and then bought by North American Breweries in 2010, this Seattle staple has been putting out award-winning beers since its inception. Returning to N.J. after a long hiatus, Kramer Beverage has picked them up and is now distributing throughout South Jersey. Look for their flagships - Hefeweizen, Thunderhead IPA and Apricot Ale - at all retail stores and pubs such as Joe Canal's, White Horse Liquors, Passion Vines, Firewaters in Atlantic City, Crest Tavern and GoodNight Irene's in Wildwood.

All you homebrewers, don't forget to have your entries in for the At The Shore Tun Tavern Homebrew Contest again this year. Deadline is May 1. Details at tuntavern.com and presscontests.com. Happy Brewing!

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