When John Holl left legitimate journalism and entered the strange world of beer writing a couple of years back, we all had to raise our games more than a bit. Yes, he’s that good and when he has something to say, it’s wise to listen. Holl is now the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the new issue (just in the mail, on newsstands this coming week, I’d guess) cover-features his editorial suggesting that we at least consider the abolition of the word “craft” as a beer descriptor to the degree that is practical and possible.
There is a word that is used often in the beer world, but means different things to different people and organizations. The use of this particular word has seemingly muddied the water of the industry, causing confusion, blind passion and confrontation. The word, of course, is craft.
Overall, the word has become co-opted. While it is about beer, it’s also about marketing. Now the so-called big guys are in on the game, knowing that there is a trend these days toward small and local with certain products. That’s why we see brands like Blue Moon, owned by MillerCoors, using the term “Artfully Crafted” in advertisements. Conversely, Samuel Adams uses the line “For the Love of Beer” in its advertisements, with no mention of the word craft.
Now, here’s the tricky part. What does it mean?
For the Brewers Association (BA), a trade group, it means “promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” according to its mission statement. It has promoted the word craft and placed guidelines as to what craft means as a way to define its dues-paying members.
And therein lies the reason why, after having wrestled with thoughts similar to Holl’s for months, I think that the term “craft” is both appropriate and necessary in industry vocabulary. For one thing, If the primary organization devoted to supporting a significant and (the) fastest growing segment of an industry chooses that identifier, it seems a bit petty to argue otherwise. For another, its absence would leave a definite void. I write regularly for two of the major trade magazines in the beer world and there has to be a shared terminology which is generally accepted in order to report on and discuss the business of beer. “Craft” is an identifiable industry segment for business and economics writers around the world. Just “beer” cannot replace it.
As for “it’s also about marketing,” aren’t “extreme,” “session” and similar descriptors which are amorphous and often contradictory equally so? And is marketing a bad thing? Bad or misleading marketing surely, but just trying to sell your product?
For some consumers and brewers, it’s the battle of “us vs. them,” with people saying that the larger breweries make “crap” or “poor-quality” beer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those brewers use the same ingredients as smaller brewers to make the same final product: beer. And while some consumers are throwing stones at large corporations that make technically perfect beer, they are give a pass to some smaller breweries that fall under the craft banner but make and release clearly infected or inconsistent beers. Why?
It seems to me that the paragraph above is a commentary on the hypocrisy of “some consumers and brewers” and really has nothing to do with whether or not craft is a useful identifier.
One word shouldn’t be a dividing point. Ultimately, it should be about the beer in the glass, and whether it tastes good to the individual drinker. In the same way that the word microbrew is still batted around, 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?
I’d suggest that word cannot “make beer better” no matter how helpful it might be. My answer, as should be obvious at this point, is that this particular word is clearly necessary, at least until and unless someone comes up with an alternative which fills all the requirements.
Here’s another perspective to consider. In Craft Beer Daily’s story about Holl’s editorial, editor Jenn Litz-Kirk quoted New Belgium founder Kim Jordan on her interpretation of “craft,” suggesting that that it is about the brewers and not the beer:
“I think the BA was prescient in understanding it was really going to be important to know who craft brewers were. If we say that part of what has made the beer industry exciting in the last 10 years is craft brewers, and that that spark and energy that they’ve provided to the beer category is what has made us flat rather than down, then we all benefit from the notion of a connection between beer drinkers and craft brewers…So I’d suggest we all benefit from that. I do understand there is that feeling of haves, have nots. And sometimes there are consequences that everyone wishes could be different. At the same time, I think it matters.”
As do I. I honestly believe that this is a classic solution-without-a-problem issue.