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.

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