Monday, 18 October 2010

Craft or Crafty?


What's a craft brewer? A small one perhaps? One that is innovative and makes their beer to precise standards using the finest ingredients? One that uses traditional methods, or seeks genuine full on taste and quality in what is produced? One that isn't produced in bulk and is only distributed on a limited basis perhaps? Something that is of higher quality maybe? Something artisanal could be an answer, but then you get into the problem of agreeing (or not) about yet another definition. It's all a bit tricky isn't it?

I was reading that America's oldest brewer Yeungling is buying a closed brewery in Memphis with a view to increasing its distribution beyond its current 13 states. The brewery was closed by Molson-Coors (not the current owners) and was first constructed in the 1970s to brew Schlitz. It can brew rather a lot of beer, as can Yeungling; currently its production is over 2 million US barrels. What really caught my eye though was the headline " Former Coors plant in Memphis to be acquired by craft brewer Yeungling".

Now clearly the US isn't here and we should always be wary of blindly following what the US does. (A different subject, but pretty good general advice as it goes). Yeungling is by all accounts, a pretty good brewer which is becoming a bit of a cult, but is it really a craft brewer? Would we call a brewer producing 2 million barrels of beer a craft brewer here? I suspect not. Of course scale is different there. The (American) Brewer's Association defines "craft" as being under 2 million barrels a year, so Yeungling must have been pushing at that door for a while and presumably will cease to be "craft" soon. So it's size then! Or is it? There is more suggested attributes of craft brewing here. Hmm. All seems a bit woolly.

I'm not keen on the word "craft". It allows itself to be too easily stretched and redefined according to the whim of those using it. It has no precision or wide acceptance in use. In beer terms it seems to be basically " beer not brewed by one of the big "mega-brewery" corporations". Maybe that's good enough, but here it has definite connotations of quality I'd suggest; in fact of superiority. It isn't just a description that simply tells you what it is, but one which has a subliminal suggestion of something better than the norm. In the case of beer, maybe it is "better" than the mainstream stuff, but then again, in a lot of cases, it probably isn't? Either way, somehow its not a word I'm really that comfortable with. Who is a craft brewer here and who isn't? Who is in and who is out and to whom does it matter? I'm not sure, but if in doubt, follow the money. Brewers I think would generally quite like to be called "craft". It helps beer to sell; but it is a little bit Alice Through the Looking Glass.*

Nonetheless, the word is gaining a lot of currency in British brewing and blogging, but it is one I'll be using very sparingly and probably, like a lot of others, inappropriately.

*"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone," it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

Photo from craftbrewing.org.uk

20 comments:

StringersBeer said...

For me, Craft has definite connotations of handmade, individual, etc. It's not mass-produced. A "craft" producer isn't aiming to make the identical product each time, but is always aiming to make something of high-quality. Unfortunately, there's been a tendency (coming from "scientific management") to define "quality" in terms of conformance with a specification. Whereas, truly, quality is something else - not so easily quantified.

Sid Boggle said...

Complicated, isn't it? Yuengling have also operated a site in Florida for several years - should brewers who brew on multiple sites or contract-brew be considered 'craft?

The likes of Brooklyn, Southampton Publick House, to name a couple, have both had their beers contract-brewed. They're 'craft' aren't they?

I pinched the following from Alan McLeod (editor of 'A Good Beer Blog my blog for a while... "We may not know who is craft beer but we sure as hell will know what is craft beer by who isn’t"

There. Clear as mud.

Leigh said...

Just to position myself firmly on the fence 'Craft' is more about attitude than volume, barrels or even ownership. However - to put the word 'Craft Beer' on a blog has enough weight to pull in drinkers who may be inquisitive, unsure or, frankly, not as knowledgable about the subject as the more well-versed writers/bloggers. And if that means one more drinker supporting independent brewing, then I'm ok with the use. It's the end - not the means. Absolutely agree with Stringer's about Quality, though.

Ed said...

When you think about this one you can see why CAMRA define 'real ale' purely in terms of extraneous CO2. 'Quality' or 'Craft' are much harder to pin down.

Phil said...

BrewDog refer to themselves as a craft brewery - nuff said.

On Leigh's point, I think the phrase "craft beer" is just as likely to drive away those drinkers who are put off by the premiumisation, delicatessenisation, short-run-limited-editionisation and general Observer Food Monthly-isation of micro brewing - that's certainly the effect it has on me.

The impact of the phrase "campaign for real ale" has become a bit dulled over time, but when you look at it it's a powerful statement of intent. It doesn't say "we (unlike most people) want something special, exotic, different, handmade by artisans"; it says "we want the real thing, and we want everyone to have a chance to have the real thing".

StringersBeer said...

Phil, why can't everyone have something "special, exotic, different, handmade by artisans", if they want it, exactly? Or (other way round) are you suggesting that "most people" wouldn't want such a thing, if it was available to them?

Coxy said...

"Craft " Something the wife likes to do after she is bored with leaf kicking, " shall we go to the craft fair at the village hall today darling?" I say " no Fuck off, if I want shit I will empty the cess pit"
CAMRA has enough problems with woolly jumpers and beard images in the UK to start using the word Craft, its ok in Europe or the States as good beer is quite trendy at the moment. Marge says " A rose is rose by any other name" Homer says " even if you called it Stinkweed"

RedNev said...

I don't think I've ever heard anyone, beyond beer blogs, use the word "craft" in a beer context. It's simply a buzz word that has an undefined implication of quality. I saw a sandwich shop a couple of weeks ago that advertised "bespoke sandwiches" ~ I suppose "made to order" doesn't have the same suggestion of loving craftmanship bestowed on your lunchtime cheese and tomato butty. Thus is it with "craft" and beer.

StringersBeer said...

Yes, people misuse the word a lot. Let's retire it. And any other word that gets misused by marketeers. And words that are commonly mispelt. Also words from foreign languages. Sheesh.

Gazza Prescott said...

To me, craft is the polar opposite of industrial and therefore means handmade with all the idiosyncrasies that implies... not always the same, each batch slightly different, made by hand not machine and so on.

Craft=small hands-on brewer, that's why we call ourselves craft.

Phil said...

Stringers, I didn't say that I don't think everyone should have access to special, exotic (etc) beer, or that most people wouldn't want them (although I do think that only a deranged ticker would want something exotic every time they went in a pub).

What I said was that there's a big difference between the messages sent by the phrases "real ale" and "craft beer". To be in favour of "real ale" is to want to live in a world where every cheap, anonymous pint of session bitter is "real" - and of better quality than its present-day equivalent. We may never get there, but that's the direction of travel. To be in favour of "craft beer" is to want exotic, handcrafted beers for those who want them and can afford them; everyone else can go back to drinking their mass-marketed, bland, cheaply-made, watered-down lager (as I read on a beer bottle somewhere).

Erlangernick said...

Usage of the term "craft-brewed" started up in the US years ago when "micro-brewed" became too narrow a term to encompass GoodBeer brewed by non-microbreweries. Back then, there was mega-brewed lout, micro-brewed beer, brewpub beer, lout from old regional breweries like Yuengling, and the Samuel Adams ilk somewhere in between. It was confusing.

Then the term caught on, and fuck all knows what it means nowadays. Mercifully, the term ain't caught on in Krautley yet.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

I had to come up with a definition of craft beer last year for a consumer publication that did a beer feature that i was part of the panel for.

I cant exactly remeber what I came up with but I used the wikipedia definition as a starting point

"beer that is brewed using traditional methods, without adjuncts such as rice or corn, and with an eye (or a tongue) to what's distinctive and flavorful rather than mass appeal"

I think that sums it up pretty well, although I am suspicious of the part about adjunct as that reeks of reinhestbigot silliness.

And yes you should always be wary of blindly following the US.

Barm said...

Stupid term, problematic in the US and completely useless in the UK context. Beer is good or bad. That's it.

Tandleman said...

Barm - Maybe a slight over simplification, but I see where you are coming from. I've heard nothing from anyone though to convince me that Humpty Dumpty hasn't got the right of it.

"Craft" is just a flag of convenience?

StringersBeer said...

You can see the problem that brewers of "craft" keg (and the like) have
(please note - I'm not one). The biggest beer consumer group doesn't give them the respect that it affords to things like cider/perry or (even) "fast cask". Equally, a some beer fans find it odd that CAMRA seems to actively support mass producers of dull products simply because of the packaging process that they use.

Tandleman said...

@Stringers Beer. And CAMRA are responsible for AIDS, the scrapping of Ark Royal, biscuits going soft, odd socks in the washing basket and the awful weather.

StringersBeer said...

Mr. T: You've been speaking to Jeff Pickthall then?

Tandleman said...

He'd have a longer list! (-;

Ron Pattinson said...

"Craft beer" is a shit, useless expression used by the lazy and uncaring.