A great deal of discussion has been seen on the Internet lately due to the sale of some high profile breweries to the big mass producers of beer. A large spectrum of opinions exist on this topic, and we will certainly see debate increasing as we see more breweries being sold to a variety of interests. Some are beginning to question the very idea of Craft Beer, and what follows here is a primer of sorts defining what traditional Craft is.
One topic of great interest to many is if whether breweries that sell to large corporations can still be considered Craft breweries. Some even take the idea a step further and say that if it can’t be defined, the idea of “Craft” beer isn’t legitimate, real or authentic. Others still have said that there can never be a things such as ‘Craft’ as all beer is the same. What follows is an examination of some of the ideas and issues and perhaps a small bit of illumination on the subject. To declare bias – yes, this writer believes firmly that there is something known as Craft Beer, and that it is significantly different in many ways. Indeed, it is typically positioned opposite Big Beer.
Perhaps the best place to start with this argument is in definition. Some would have us believe that if something cannot be defined, it cannot exist. This rational is fallacious and disingenuous and smacks of typical post-modern thought. It’s as if those holding the idea are thinking ‘If we assume that something can’t be defined rigidly, then it cannot be real’. It may be best to explore these things with a couple of simple examples in the next few paragraphs.
What is a city?
Most any member of modern society can agree and understand that cities are real and exist. (If not, you are not the target audience for this piece) Yet to define a city is a difficult concept. Following these three links illustrates the many definitions of a city.
- A dictionary definition of a city
- Good old WIkipedia’s entry for a city
- Definitions of city according to some countries
While the language, definition and specifics of a city are hard to pin down, clearly they do exist.
What is a mountain?
Many people understand that mountains exist and are different from hills. Hills of course exist, and are understood to be similar to mountains though smaller in size. The difference between the two are thus the ways that humans attempt to categorize them. Despite the fact that two people (or even interested bodies, be they political or professional) may have somewhat different definitions, many will agree that Mount Everest exists and is a mountain. True, there will be overlap between some definitions, but one would be foolish to suggest that mountains don’t exist. Of course citing a particular example may have folks arguing whether a specific geographic feature is one or the other, all should be able to agree that both hills and mountains exist. To say otherwise is choosing to be obtuse.
What’s the point?
Craft Beer does exist, even if some folks have a hard time defining it exactly. And to head off another weak argument, yes, definitions can and do change over time. A city today does not represent the same thing as one a hundred years ago, just like Craft Beer 20 years ago was different than Craft Beer today.
But what about Example Brewery X?
In any given system, we have to understand some basic facts. When examining Craft Beer, we must acknowledge certain things. With any given definition there will be examples that fit well, some that won’t fit at all, and some outliers. Outliers exist that complicate matters, but this is a principle of defining something – we can’t take every example or attribute into account as not all qualities apply to all examples. While we would love the world to be black and white, we most definitely live in a world of greys. (grays if you prefer) The Boston Beer Company and others such as Goose Island Beer Company will always make it difficult for enthusiastic debaters to pin down what exactly Craft Beer is or is not.
With those aspects out of the way, we can begin to look at the idea of defining (though imperfectly) what makes or does not make a brewery a Craft Beer one. Please note that the following are not in a particular order, and not all will apply to everyone’s understanding of the term. Perhaps it is best to think of these ideas as a framework, where there will be much in common but not necessarily all will be in perfect agreement. Hopefully this sort of framework will get people (and breweries) to think deeply about what Craft Beer is.
Local – many demand that a Craft brewery be local. While desirable, the reality is that as many grow, they will expand their distribution or even build sister breweries (Consider Stone Brewing, Sierra Nevada etc)
Ownership – Most agree that the ownership (some argue the majority of ownership) of the operation not be held by a MultiNational Corporation (MNC). Some add other stipulations such as a lack of ownership by Big Beer, or others add that ownership should be by people and not companies such as investment firms.
Ownership 2 – Many believe that the majority of the ownership should work actively in the business. This gets tricky when breweries start up and seek capital from many places such as family and friends. One might consider that the majority owners should be involved in the brewery operations on a day to day level and not act as figureheads.
Dare to be Different – In some manner or another, it is expected that Craft breweries will be doing things differently from Big Beer. This could be producing experimental beers, historical beers, non-traditional beers, but essentially boil down to doing things beyond the norm from mass market beers offered by the big guys. Making a simple lager with corn or rice adjuncts isn’t typically considered Craft, but doing the same and adding a large late hop addition typically would be.
Be Convivial – This is one that many new/startup breweries need to consider as some are starting to miss this characteristic, one that is part of the heart and soul of Craft. Craft Beer should be friendly, nice and kind to not only customers, but also to other Craft Beer. We’ve seen it argued that ‘it’s a business’, but that misses the point. Yes beer producers exist to sell beer, but the idea of Craft is to be in opposition to Big Beer. Craft Beer is still a tiny (but growing) part of the market and it has grown in opposition to the big breweries. Part of this opposition is to operate differently than Big Beer, and part of this opposition is to care about the each other (in taking on the Big Beer), the community and consumers.
Not everything has to be for profit – This is hard to concept for many to wrap their brains around, but it also highlights a key precept of Craft. Some decisions are about furthering the love of good beer, and not about making money. Two great examples are the Sam Adams Longshot competition that operates at a clear financial loss, and Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp. While critics may argue that they are about marketing, the reality is that they represent a significant investment in time and money that could otherwise be put into the business itself, a business which is largely capital intensive.
Strive to Improve – While a key concept in many businesses, we often see breweries that seem more focused on expanding than they do about true quality and making a better product. We’ve seen over the years how Sierra Nevada has furthered the cause of many improvements in beer and technology yet it has kept the product at a high and consistent level of quality as the company continues to grow. If an example is needed, consider oxygen fixing caps and experiments in distilling essential hop oils.
Be involved – Many well respected Craft companies choose to be involved in causes in their community. These causes are often many and varied, but they show a level of commitment to be more than a profit driven entity. Whether we see breweries involved in cycling, the arts or homebrewing (to name just a few), their involvement is appreciated and often beneficial to both parties as well as to the Craft Movement.
It’s not just a business, its an Ethos – Rather than be a faceless business juggernaut, many successful Craft breweries have reputations of being businesses that are simply more ethical and more morally sound than Big Beer. They habitually make decisions that impact them and their communities, and they choose to make decisions that are ethically justified rather than solely profit motivated. Quality ethical business practices should be seen in a Craft brewery in its dealings both internal and external.
Collaboration not Destruction – a key concept in Craft Beer is collaboration within and without the Craft community. Craft benefits from seeing breweries work with other breweries, but also with other stakeholders in the community. If a Craft brewer is making a coffee based beer it only makes sense to use locally procured coffee. Rather than bad-mouthing and poaching from each other, true Craft breweries seek to work together for a mutual benefit. Rather than use loose morals to undermine each other, Craft breweries benefit from working together in opposition to Big Beer. This pretty much says it all.
Us vs Them – The reality of Craft Beer is that it is a small segment of the North American beer market. Big Beer makes decisions based on profit, and part of that is making decisions to undermine the growth of Craft Beer. Indeed, it makes a point of regularly pointing out its opposition to Craft Beer much like Craft itself does the same. Both sides acknowledge their differences, and these should be maintained so as not to blur the lines between the two.
The bottom line
Craft is a cultural identity, not a marketing scheme. To be Craft is to choose to do things in a particular way and stand in opposition to Big Beer.
For those that say “all beer is the same” one merely has to consider a similar product, such as food.
Is a hamburger from a bulk buying chain the same as one that is made from a local butcher from ethically raised beef?
One is made in a factory from ingredients of dubious sourcing and ethics, and the other is an artisanal product. One exists to exploit supply chains and economies of scale, while the other exists to make a good product and at the same time make ethically impactful decisions. Both might make money, but only one leaves the profits in the local economy.
Spread the Word
Craft Beer does exist, but it seems as if many newer breweries that identify as such are not following many of these practices so we should be urging them to consider how their businesses are run. To those that stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the difference between Craft and Big Beer, we can only hope that they use some time for reflection and navel gazing.
This article was written in part as a reply to the work of another author. For another point of view, please read his work here at Beer Winnipeg: Beer Winnipeg on Craft Beer in Canada