The Origins of “Craft”

One of the hot topics of beer blogger and beer blog commentator conversation of late has been the origin of the term “craft beer.” On more than one occasion it has been suggested that this is purely a North American term — which will come as a complete surprise to all the Italian, Danish, Japanese, etc. breweries which employ it regularly — and it has also been described as a marketing term invented by Americans.

Thus, it was with great interest that this morning I came across the following lines from Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer, first edition, circa 1977:

A weighty heritage…in the Region du Nord [of France] craft-brewing survives, and there are one or two superb top-fermented specialty beers.

There you have it, craft used in direct association with brewing by a British writer referring to a European country, in the book that served as introduction to the world’s greatest beers for an entire generation of consumers, yours truly included.

I hope that settles that.

15 Replies to “The Origins of “Craft””

  1. That certainly settles the fact that it’s not American, but from whence did the Beer Hunter pluck that term, I wonder? Was “craft” widely used as a synonym for “artisanal” in the 1970s?

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I’ve been banging this drum for a while. No doubt “craft beer” looks very American from a British perspective. It looks pretty cosmopolitan from where I’m sitting here in the Valle Central.

  3. For me and for many others, it is not the origin of the word that we find annoying, it is the current use of it. With some 1600 small breweries in the US, it is clearly used as a marketing term to describe their products. Even though I live in a country with less than 100 small-medium breweries, I would laugh at anyone who tried to describe all of them as “craft.” And, from what I have tasted of some American beers, I would say the same thing of use of that term in the US.

    1. No one with any experience drinking craft beers in North America would assume that “craft = good,” Mike. Rather, it is a term used to delineate between the products of the massive “convenience” brewers and those of the exponentially smaller ones.

      1. Stephen, that may have once been the intent, but consider, for example, what the US Brewers Association says about “craft brewers”: “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” Or “Craft Brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events.”

        The original intent of the term may well have been innocent, but it has certainly been taken over by the vultures.

  4. The US Brewers Association is nothing if not a marketing group. Of course they are going to take a word that had developed some positive connotations and sell their beer with it. It doesn’t mean we throw out the word if it still fits, unless a better one comes along. I haven’t seen it yet.

    Here in Latin America the word is “artesanal” and there are equivalents in other Latin languages. The word “artisanal” has more pretentious and highfalutin connotations in English so we tend to avoid it. “Craft” is probably the best translation of a word that was probably a translation of the English “craft”, in regards to beer, in the first place.

    In the United States and most other countries in the world, with the arguable exceptions of the most traditional European beer countries, there has been a situation where very large beer companies (in many cases nationalized, monopolistic, or quasi-monopolistic) dominated and smaller ones were virtually or in fact non-existent. Suddenly a couple of smaller ones pop up here and there — not coincidentally around the time that other food-oriented consumer movements are popping up, such as Slow Food and CAMRA — and the idea spreads around. In many countries, the idea has still not arrived in any practical way, but it has an inevitability to it. That’s the backdrop against which “craft” makes perfect sense. I can accept that it may not make sense in the specific backdrops of a handful of European countries that managed to keep a range of brewery sizes.

    That’s where I’m coming from, and I can see how “craft” has come to mean over-hopped and over-carbonated in the UK, for example, but from here that looks pretty parochial.

    1. Joe, it is precisely why I am against the current use of “craft” because it has been taken over by a marketing group and thus, lost whatever original meaning it might have had.

      Why do the small breweries need a special name? I call the mega-brewers “industrial brewers”. I think that term suits them well. If they are not industrial, I don’t need to call them anything more than just brewers. If I need to make the distinction clear, I might say the non-industrial brewers. But, you could also call them small, micro, independent, etc. “Craft brewers” sounds like marketing – however you use it.

  5. Good spot, Steve. I would think Michael used the term as a variation on “the craft of brewing”, or the “brewing craft”, which are older expressions simply intended to convey that brewing well requires skill and training. He applied it to beers from small, long-established breweries on the French frontier with Belgium, of course craft breweries in the modern sense hardly existed then, but he applied it in the context appropriate to his time. He could as easily have used it for Anchor Brewery or numerous Belgian and German ones.

    You have defined well the usage of craft brewery in the North American context. I think it does apply in parts of Europe too, notably where brewing became mostly a large-scale enterprise with a lessening of variety and distinctive character, but I can see that it doesn’t fit well in many contexts there. An example is where there are sizable numbers of long-established, small or smaller brewers still operating (Bavaria, Belgium of course, England etc.).


  6. Meant to tell everyone that after I read this post I went to Amazon and ordered a used copy of the ’77 edition for less than a dollar. There are more there, in case anyone wants to add this important time capsule to the library. (I wasn’t able to buy it that year. I was busy being born and mourning Elvis.)

    The passage in question, on Page 179, is a caption beneath a small map of France and opposite a handsome photo of what I believe are two Duycks and a beer barrel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *