The Distance: The Case for Craft

('Redacted' by opensource.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)
(‘Redacted’ by opensource.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)

 

On Friday last week, All About Beer magazine published the editorial for the forthcoming March 2015 issue on its website. The editorial announced that the magazine would cease to use the word ‘craft’ in relation to beer wherever possible. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It’s an important issue, and (I think) unusual to see a publication like AAB to set out its stall on the issue in these terms.

My first reaction to the piece was mostly positive – it suggests maturity, objectivity and uneasiness about using a term so casually banded about by anyone who uses hops beginning with C – but there was also something unnerving about it.

There a few things open to dispute in the piece, not least the assertion that “[larger] brewers use the same ingredients as smaller brewers to make the same final product: beer.” It isn’t that issue that bothers me so much, though.

Almost every blogger or communicator about beer has at one point or another had a fair old stab at what craft means in the context of beer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat any arguments or pitch a definition. This is the thing that bothered me about AAB’s editorial. They aren’t really suggesting a new, constructive angle to the debate. They’re giving up on it.

Most people who get interested in beer travel a similar journey: we start out blissfully unaware of how deep the rabbit hole goes, drinking only what we feel like and what our peers drink. Then, we have That Moment, when a door is opened to a wider world, and the period that follows can last for years, as the never-ending thirst for new experiences takes in everything it can find. Eventually, we decide that only the smaller, odder, artisanal stuff is worth anything; and then we have the Second Moment, after we discover more about processes, older breweries, bigger breweries, and more complicated beers that appear so simple at first glance. We reach The Realisation: that the size of the brewery and rarity of the beer is less important than the qualities of the beer itself. We conclude that big and small is relative, and that ultimately, it’s just beer that matters.

When you’ve taken that journey and reached that conclusion, you realise that it isn’t a conclusion at all, but the beginning of a much longer and more rewarding journey, as you pursue what good beer can be.

The editorial in AAB seems to accept that “it’s all just beer” is a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery of what “craft” means. It absolutely isn’t. And yes, “craft” is not a satisfactory term, nor will there ever be one that satisfies everyone. Good. It’s that disagreement, and the discussions and ideas and the beers that result from it that are the most important thing. It’s the whole point. That “passion and enthusiasm” that AAB finds at once so lovely but also kind of annoying, is what’s keeping this thing going. If we all decided to drop craft, do you really think we would all view beer objectively, on its own merits, as this (very well-written) blog post from Literature and Libation suggests? I’m afraid we’re simply incapable of doing so, and that’s something to be proud of. This is a subjective business, rooted in the most subjective thing possible after all: sensory input.

To simply conclude that “craft” is no longer working, and to drop it, is giving up on the pursuit of what great beer means. To its credit, AAB states “…we don’t honestly believe that the word craft will disappear anytime soon, but we do believe it’s time to have a conversation about what it really means. Is it a helpful word that makes beer better, or is it necessary at all?” Is the best way to start that conversation saying that the debate is over, so don’t worry about it? Shoving every instance of craft into a memory-hole and pretending it isn’t relevant, that it was too much hassle to figure out so it isn’t worth discussing?

I appreciate and understand the received wisdom that the UK beer scene is roughly 10 years behind the one in the US, but if this is the wishy-washy debate and shrug of dismissal that we have to look forward to 10 years time, then we need to take our beer scene in a drastically different direction. 10 years difference or not, the word means enough globally that we all have a say in whether it means anything or not.

I won’t ever agree to some hokey editorial manifesto that seeks to stop using specific words it doesn’t like, much less any school of journalism that believes it can better explore and investigate something by, uh, not talking about it anymore.

AAB makes the point that “craft” has lost its meaning now that it has been appropriated by larger breweries. It argues that we need to leave the word behind so it can no longer be misused. Do we really believe that the end of the word “craft” will result in global corporations not seeking to exploit the hard work and bright ideas of smaller, faster companies? “Craft” has certainly become a battlefield, bleak and arduous at times, and I can understand the fatigue of those that have watched it be slung back and forth, but as AAB itself acknowledges, the combined U.S. craft segment is now outselling Budweiser. It’s a war, but one that “craft”, as divisive and myriad as it is, is starting to win.

“Craft” is inflexible, it causes more arguments than it solves, it’s misused, abused, and used against the people that deserve to use it the most. It’s full of holes, the engine is shot and some of the wheels have fallen off, but this word has taken us the distance. It has a lot to answer for, but as long as it continues to create discussion, debate and more importantly progress, then I will always make the case for craft.

Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

16 thoughts on “The Distance: The Case for Craft”

  1. Whatever happens to the “craft” term one things for sure it’s gonna be very interesting watching from the sidelines.. And as a sideliner I think music genres are a great comparison here.. I think it was Duke Ellington who once said “There are only two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” I think that’s true of beer and so does it really matter what it’s defined as as long as it’s good…

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  2. Great thoughts, Chris (and thanks for the plug). I’m not suggesting we can really get rid of it, but perhaps we should start thinking a little bit more about what it means, if it limits, and over the long run, it will be beneficial. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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  3. Oddly enough for me the term “craft” isn’t very attached to beer anymore. I’m at the point where I don’t care about the size of the brewery or the dispense method, etc. I just think “Do I like this beer?” or sometimes, more objectively, “I don’t like this beer myself, but is it made well, with care and precision?” and sometimes, because “craft” sometimes seems to exclude more traditional breweries who still have excellent output I try not to use it in those terms.
    However, I do still use “craft”. As more and more outlets try to jump on the bandwagon the term risks getting… diluted. The pub next door to me bangs on about it’s craft beers. It’s draught kegs are Palm, Affligem, Asahi, Lowenbrau, Heineken, Amstel, Murphy’s etc. It actually posts photos on Twitter of these taps and mentions craft beer in the same tweet. It’s only because of discussions I’ve had on Twitter (Not entirely sensible ones) and people I’ve met that has stopped “craft” from vanishing up it’s own backside. The fun we sometimes poke at it (and each other) have kept the term grounded for me and so I can walk into a branch of The Craft Beer Co. with a (relatively) straight face. When I think “craft” now, yes it conjures up images of great beer. But also of an equally great group of people.

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  4. An interesting and provocative read but on what criteria do you base your sweeping judgement that the UK beer scene is ten years behind the US ? I certainly don’t think it is “received wisdom”. We are one of the world’s great brewing nations with our own unique traditions, have more breweries per head than just about anywhere, have a thriving and growing “craft” (for want of a better word) segment of the market producing an ever-growing variety of beers and with brewers as innovative as any in the US, as well as the world’s largest consumer organisation devoted to beer. Seems to me that you, as many new beer advocates do, interpret everything through a very rose tinted, the exotic is always better, view of the US scene and seem to consider that unless we replicate exactly what has happened in the US, we are somehow backward thinking stick-in-the-muds.

    Now I like US craft beers as much as the next man and have travelled very extensively in the US in search of them (and believe me its actually harder to find than you might think in vast swathes of the country – even in somewhere like New York I found it more of an effort to find good beer than you would in London where even chain pubs on every corner such as Nicholsons and Wetherspoons offer a wide choice of real ale) but I think we should celebrate the differences between us not seek a globally homogenised craft beer experience (its just depressing going to lauded new bars in Germany for example only to find a line up of west coast IPAs and not a single decent Helles, for example). Whilst you, and I know I’m stereotyping here, probably think we are behind the US beer scene because every pub isn’t full of highly hopped, high strength IPAs or barrel-aged or sour this and that (and nothing wrong with those beers), I’d argue that until very recently (with the emergence of session IPA) the US was behind the UK in being able to produce the relatively low strength but flavourful beers that UK breweries excel at and which reflect our own drinking and pub cultures.

    So, whilst we have many things we can learn from the US, we also have our own beer scene to be proud of and much which the US can take from us too – its a two way street (witness the great respect for cask beer in the US craft community) – and we are not “behind the US” we’re just different and long may that continue, variety being the spice of life and all that.

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    1. Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      First of all, I’m going to answer your concern about the phrase “10 years behind”, which seems to have vexed you more than what my blog post was actually about. “10 years behind” is a measurement of time, not greatness. I never say that the UK is 10 years worse, or that the US is 10 years better. We are obviously different and it’s something to be celebrated. For clarity, the current saturation of craft beer in the UK, and the proportionate growth of craft brewers here (with the exception of BrewDog, or rather, BrewDog is an example of the way things are going) is currently thought to be at a level with the scene in the US 10 years ago. Hence, 10 years behind. I see this information from a) people who work in the industry on both sides of the Atlantic, b) international beer judges who work in both countries regularly and c) people who travel to the US on a fairly regular basis. It’s a commonly repeated idiom at the moment, but it’s also only a rough estimate, and it is obvious that the UK’s scene will (and already is) developing differently.

      Secondly, at no point do I argue for the homogenisation of beer culture to meet American criteria. I state quite clearly that we need to travel in a “drastically different” direction. If you’re concerned that my post talks about the US beer scene a lot, it’s because that’s what AAB’s article is about, and I was writing about how that affects craft beer here, and globally.

      Thirdly, you say that “you, as many new beer advocates do, interpret everything through a very rose tinted, the exotic is always better, view of the US scene and seem to consider that unless we replicate exactly what has happened in the US, we are somehow backward thinking stick-in-the-muds.”

      A few paragraphs before I offended you with my received wisdom, I stated “We reach The Realisation: that the size of the brewery and rarity of the beer is less important than the qualities of the beer itself. We conclude that big and small is relative, and that ultimately, it’s just beer that matters.” I plainly do not regard rarity as qualifying criteria for a beer’s quality. Seems to me that you, as many people writing about “new beer advocates” do, have assumed that I’m only interested in bizarre, obscure beers, and that we are all somehow brainless trend-slaves who will get over this current obsession with diversity and flavour when the next social media channel or pop-up street food van is released. I can assure you this isn’t the case.

      Finally, I’m pleased that the post invoked such strong feelings in you, and I couldn’t agree more that individuality and debate are key to better understanding and appreciation of beer from around world. As I state in the blog post “disagreement, and the discussions and ideas and the beers that result from it that are the most important thing.”

      Thank you for your comment and your click.

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  5. Nice article Chris. The use of the term ‘craft’ isnt perfect but at least it opens people up to the fact that there is something else out there worth discovering than the stuff most people drink. At the very least it is a term which heightens curiosity and will hopefully lead them to discover what great beer really is for themselves. Craft or not.

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  6. Well said Reading Tom. I thought that too. This isn’t the USA and while we certainly can take inspiration from them – and have – the idea that we are ten years behind them is frankly nonsense. It is comparing apples and oranges.

    If you want it to be like the US, go to the US. Our beer culture is not the same and attempts to make it the same, draw conclusions from it etc. are unlikely to convince me and hopefully others. We are not only a different market, but a different culture. We are certainly a different beer culture.

    As for craft? It may or may not have lost its meaning, but as long as you know it when you see it, that’ll probably do.

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    1. Hi Peter,

      Sorry your comment got overzealously binned by WordPress again. To save repeating myself, I can only refer you to my reply to Tom. I meant ten years as a measurement of time, not progress or greatness. Sorry it wasn’t clear. Worried that more than one person has seen it that way.

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      1. Time from what though? As far as I’m aware microbreweries started springing up in Britain and the USA at about the same time.

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      2. Yes I think they did. Obviously the respective scenes have progressed at different speeds in different ways of course. The ’10 years’ thing is measured from what UK beer scene is like now, and that it is apparently similar to the US scene ten years ago, and progressing in a *similar* way. Hopefully one of the people who keep telling me this will pipe up in minute and expand a bit further.

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  7. I’m definitely on the page that says craft IS relevant.

    It may have been massively diluted, ruined and utterly ravaged by marketeers, but it’s a topic that still intrigues, stimulates and divides opinions. I don’t like the fact that larger brewing corps have suddenly changed branding to try and take advantage but not change themselves, but it is inevitable that they will try to sell more beer on the back of it whether you or I like the fact or the product or not.

    As an example, it’s a bit like telling supermarkets to stop using “Finest” or “Luxury”, and banning Jamie and Heston from appearing on ready meals made in a factory in Swansea, Woking or wherever, the same factory that churns out just as many “Value” products made on the same lines in different boxes.

    But, so many folks have asked me (and no doubt you all) questions on the subject, “just what is craft beer then” and such like. So for that alone at least it is getting folks to think and hopefully try and go on their own journey of beer discovery.

    Incidentally Chris, particularly loved the “beer journey” section of this piece.. Fine work

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  8. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that that specific strand of British beer which is *consciously* imitating American craft beer culture (of which BrewDog with their Stone fetish are the most obvious example) is ten years behind the US.

    Of course our beer culture is different — arguably more complex, with a fuzzier line between micro/macro — but there’s plenty to be learned from observing the US, especially as that’s exactly what some of our more interesting brewers are doing. (Including quite a few who were born there…)

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    1. I like this perspective, because when I was drinking Manchester last year, it was refreshing to be part of a decidedly different beer culture (read: not some American knock off), with strikingly different beer. Interesting that some UK brewers have openly accepted and adopted US practices, while the opposite (sadly, for me) doesn’t seem true.

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  9. There is no concept or description that you can get across with the word “craft” that would not be more accurately depicted by another more specific term.

    “Craft” is, and has always been, first and foremost a marketing term.

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