Craft Beer vs Draft Beer: What’s the Difference?

If you’re new to the beer scene, it’s likely you’ve come across the terms “craft beer” and “draft beer” and wondered what the difference is. Even some of us hardened old-hand beer drinkers are confused by some of today’s labels. What happened to it just being called “beer?”

In this modern society where everybody seems obsessed with labels, what exactly is a “craft beer” and what is a “draft or draught beer”? What’s the difference?

Can a draft beer be a craft beer and vice versa? Let’s try and answer all of your questions about the difference between craft beer and draft beer.

beer dispensers with full glasses of beer
Photo by Fábio Alves on Unsplash

What Is Craft Beer?

Craft beer is the current darling of the beer industry. It’s responsible for the growth in millennial beer drinkers of what was traditionally viewed again as an old man’s drink.

In the UK, drinkers of real ale (the precursor to craft beers) are normally stereotyped as men in woolly jumpers smoking pipes and discussing cellar temperatures and the like!

Craft beer is a relatively new term when it comes to the long history of beer and nobody is quite sure who first came up with this new categorization for beers. The Brewers Association, however, defines a craft beer as one being produced by a craft brewer who is a small and independent brewer.

Red and White Neon Lights Craft Beer
Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels

Craft breweries should have a notice from the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to state they are small and independent. To be considered small, the brewers must produce less than 6 million barrels per year.

To be considered an independent brewery the craft brewer must own at least 75% of the company while larger breweries that don’t produce craft beer can hold the remaining 25%.

A more accurate name for this type of beer would be artisanal beer, even your home brew could be classed as craft beer, as it’s been “crafted” by a smaller producer.

In much the same way as artisanal cheeses are produced by smaller cheesemakers driven with a passion for innovation in their recipes, a craft (or artisanal) beer is a customized brew inspired by the craft beer brewer’s own personal tastes and preferences in a direct reaction to the often lacking in flavor mass-produced beers.

Being a smaller operation allows the brewer to experiment with many different brewing processes and more kinds of ingredients, with more obscure ingredients, without the risk of losing the larger quantity of ingredients used in large-scale beer productions.

Craft brewers have the freedom to follow traditional brewing methods, which are virtually impossible with the industrialization of the major breweries, to create refined flavors that appeal to the needs of beer enthusiasts.

Artisan beers also tend to be more sustainable with the brewer often sourcing local premium quality ingredients that have been ethically produced.

Not all “craft” beers are artisan beer though, as many of the major brewery companies are now producing what many craft beer fans consider craft beer knock-offs.

Trying to muscle in on the craft beer niche, the conglomerates are now producing draft and mass-produced beer in a craft style such as the IPAs and other popular craft beer styles.

Technically, if a beer is not custom-made beer by a smaller craft brewery, it’s not craft and may lack some of the passion and flavors you only find in an authentic smaller produced craft beer.

What Is Draft Beer?

person filling clear glass with beer
Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

Draft beer, which is also commonly known as draught beer, is any type of beer that is drawn from a beer faucet or a beer tap. How “draft” is spelled depends pretty much on the country you’re in. Here in the US, we tend to say “draft” more (as in Miller Genuine Draft) but in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand it will be referred to as “draught”.

Interesting fact: the word draught comes from the old English word for to carry, “dragan”. Before 1785, the beers in England were actually drawn straight from the cask or barrel and then carried to the customer in their favorite tankard or mug. As more words and ideas were introduced to the English language, draught moved away from the serving and drinking of beer to refer more to how it was actually poured.

Here in the US, draft beer will traditionally be stored in a stainless steel keg that has been carbonated, pretty much like the kegerator devices used by many home-based breweries.

However, in much of Europe, real ales will still be stored as traditional beer casksCraft beers being a living ale with the “draught” process using some form of gravity-fed system (rather than carbonation) like the traditional hand pumps you see in many English style taverns.

Tap-drawn beer/draft beer is the choice among beer enthusiasts as keg storage will keep the beer fresh for a longer period of time, and the beer will have more of a full body and be crisper.

Many regular beers seem to take on a different taste when compared to the bottled beer version as they will generally be younger fresh beers that have just left the brewery rather than a case that could have sat on the shelf for several months.

Kegs for draft beer typically come in 50, 20, and 5-liter sizes to suit the needs of both the home consumer and larger crowds. You can even get smaller dispensing machines for the home, allowing beer lovers to enjoy tap beer in your own living room, with alcohol brands such as Heineken or even craft beers like Lagunitas available in the 5-liter kegs size.

Craft vs Draft Beer: Can Craft Beer Be Draft Beer?

Draft beer is not a type of beer but rather refers to the method of serving the beer. Any beer which is served straight from the keg and poured into a glass from the beer tap is considered a draft.

All categories of beer go into kegs, whether they are regular beers or artisanal, custom-made beers, and become what we know as draft beer.

two gray stainless steel beer kegs and black boxes with beer bottles
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

Confused? All craft beers can become draft beer if properly stored in a keg, but not all draft beers can be considered craft beer. Beer makers are known to put all types of beers into a keg of beer and you will even find ciders, porters, and stouts in kegs too.

Draft vs Tap Beer: Can Draft Beer Be Sold as Canned Beer?

You may remember in the 90s seeing Miller Genuine Draft sold in cans or bottles, but how can it be draft if it’s not served out of a tap?

Strictly speaking, it isn’t a draft at all. To be considered a type of draft beer, the beer flows out of a tap or beer faucet. Perhaps what the brewer is intending to state is the beer in cans or bottles is the same product as sold on draft!

However, the TBB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) states in their Beverage Alcohol Manual that for a beer to be labeled draft or draught, it must be packaged in containers larger than one gallon and drawn off through a tap, a spigot or faucet.

Pasteurized beers, however, can be labeled as “draft brewed,” “draft beer flavor,” or “draft style” as long as it’s made clear on the label.

Kegs are used to serve authentic draft beer, as it prevents oxygen from entering the beer with it being stored in an airtight sealed aluminum keg that keeps the beer fresh for even longer.

Cask-served beer that is often sold as beer in cans and labeled as draft or “draught” doesn’t normally have any artificial carbonation from CO2 added to a cask, which offers a completely different taste to beer enthusiasts.

Where there is contention between beer drinkers is with the label “draught flow,” which you’ll see on some of the more popular common beers or stouts. Again, how can a can offer a draught flow when it’s poured out of a can?

Although canned draft beer sounds like an impossibility, draught flow beers were developed by groundbreaking beer makers, such as Guinness, to recreate the same foamy head you get when the ale is poured from a tap, but instead fresh from a can.

Using a “widget,” cans contain small amounts of nitrogen gas which is only released into the beer when the can is cracked open. The release of nitrogen into the beer helps to produce the same frothy drink you get from a tap.

By comparison, craft beers can be sold as beers in cans, beers in bottles, or beers on draft–in fact anyway the brewer can package it and get it to the customer.

The Advantages of Draft Beer

Now that we’ve established draft beer can be all types of beer, what are the advantages of choosing a draft beer next time you’re out with friends at the local bar or hosting a party?

  • Draft Beer is often less expensive. If you’re looking for cheap swill, a tankard or mug of the draft beer will normally be much less than the bottled or canned equivalent beer in the fridges behind the bar. Most draft beer that is produced by a non-craft brewery will be far cheaper and produced in larger quantities than craft beers.
  • Quicker distribution. With draft beer, there is a much more rapid time from the beer being packaged, transported from the brewery, and then passed on to the distributors and bars.
  • More suited for large crowds. Keg parties just wouldn’t be the same without a keg. Next time you’re having a BBQ in the backyard or a tailgating party at the local stadium, consider getting a keg in, you’ll find most craft brewers now offer some of their classic custom-made artisan craft beers in kegs and some may even lend you the equipment (or hire) to serve it if you’re lucky.
  • A distinctive taste experience. Beer geeks may argue that beer served straight from the keg tends to taste fresher, crispier, and more full-bodied, and authentic draft beer often has more flavor than its counterpart packaged in cans or bottles.
  • The stainless steel or aluminum kegs can protect the beer from the degrading effects of UV light (sunshine) far more than any bottle can, even brown bottles. No more light-struck beer if properly stored in a keg and having to deal with that skunky off-taste of oxidized beers either.
  • Draft beer is a more sociable way of drinking. Pitchers or jugs of beer poured from a tap are an ideal way to spend a summer’s afternoon with beer-drinking pals. Getting a round in is much easier when it just means paying for the next pitcher.
  • For businesses, draft beer drinkers tend to be more loyal customers. Beer lovers who prefer draft will visit the bar more as they find it hard to get that same draft taste at home.
  • Draft beer can also be a boom for many craft breweries who can try out new beers on draft in their tap room before committing to bottle it. It also allows for a more varied selection with some brewers like Mikellar often having over 50 beers on tap.

Craft Beer vs Draft Beer – The Takeaway

Craft beer may be the big buzzword among younger, sophisticated drinkers but it can also be served as a draft beer as well as in your favorite cans or bottles. There is no significant difference between draft and craft beer.

Draft beer may have a longer history, but at the heart of it, draft beer is just beer that is well stored to protect it from the harmful effects of light and oxygen and then served directly from the keg.

Many would argue this gives the beer a fresher flavor, but it’s the beer inside which makes the most difference. Mass-produced common beers that are offered on the draft may lack the innovation and rich flavors of an artisanal craft beer.

In the end, craft beer can be served in bottles or cans and tapped to make it a draft beer. Draft beer that is stored in kegs can either be regular beer or artisanal/craft beer as long as it’s served from a tap or faucet.

Draft beer isn’t something you’ll find in cans, and considering the poorer quality of many of the mass-produced draft beers, why would you want to?

This blog is reader-supported. Posts may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.