The Problem with “Craft”

Thanks to Abita Beer’s Jaime Jurado for pointing me to an article this morning in Los Angeles Magazine suggesting that “It’s Time to Rethink What We Mean by ‘Craft Beer’”.

That column, written by Jolie Myers, explains the definition of “craft” and goes on to describe the problems which, in this new age of $1 billion craft brewery take-overs, are inherent in that definition. In so doing, it covers much of the same ground and reiterates many of the same points that have been debated in what must now number in dozens of similar soul-searching articles. Ms. Myers’ conclusion is that “it’s time to reconfigure” the definition of “craft” and looks to, of all places, the US federal government for help.

The thing is, that’s not the problem with ‘craft.’ You know what IS the problem with ‘craft’?

Nothing.

Forget the Brewers Association definition and forget whether Ballast Point Sculpin IPA has suddenly, through an act of finance, gone from ‘craft’ to ‘crafty.’ Forget whether corn or rice may be added to the mash under the craft definition or whether 6 million barrels of production can still be considered small. (In the age of Anheuser-Busch InBev-SABMiller, believe me, it can.) ‘Craft’ is still a useful, globally significant beer term for one reason and one reason only.

People understand it.

Consumers don’t know that the BA has a definition of ‘craft,’ and if they do, they likely don’t care. They know that Michelob Ultra is not craft and Sculpin is, no matter if Constellation owns the latter and Boston Beer suddenly goes mad and decides to buy the rights to the former. Craft is about flavour vs. the lack thereof. Sculpin’s got it and Michelob Ultra doesn’t, so one is craft and the other is not.

This is popular perception and it extends far beyond the United States to China and Brazil, Italy and the U.K. (Although, admittedly, things are a bit more complicated in Britain.) A segment of those consumers, possibly a significant segment, will understand and care whether a brand is owned by a large company or a small one, and everyone within that segment will have their own definition of those terms. But the majority of people will likely go ahead thinking of Shock Top and Golden Road IPA and Goose Island Matilda and Blue Moon Pumpkin Whatever as craft simply because they taste like it.

If writers like Ms. Myers want to clarify things in popular publications, they would be wise to spend more time identifying who owns what and if smaller brewery beer X is comparable to or better than now-big brewery beer Y and less time obsessing over ‘craft.’ Because words are not defined by governments or trade organizations or columnists writing in magazines or online, they are defined by the way people use them.

6 Replies to “The Problem with “Craft””

  1. I totally agree that people talking & writing is what defines words. Those who choose to tie themselves to former definitions look a little silly to me (“organic” in food & drink does not mean the same as it does in “organic chemistry”; or in the beer work “hoppy” no longer means “bitter” per se, but that the aromatic/flavour qualities of the hops are to the fore)…that said I support the US govt’s plans to define small brewers & give them a tax break.

  2. As a small (around 2000 Hl) non-exporting (yet) craft brewer in Prague (Czech Republic – Europe), for us craft (or řemeslné) is about a personalized, “hand-made” approach to beer brewing, utilizing only natural ingredients. It’s also about an honest and open approach to the relationship with our business partners (pubs, suppliers), the local town council and most importantly our neighbors in the suburb of Branik, where we are in the process of reconstructing a Dominican Monastery, where beer was brewed from 1626 to 1899. https://www.facebook.com/zemskypivovar + https://www.facebook.com/Dominikansky.dvur for photos of the site.

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