Thursday, June 2, 2011

I Don't Like Craft Beer

Okay, that's not entirely true. I love the beer part — I just don't like the word "craft."

Now, hold on and hear me out... It's not the concept of hand-crafted beer that bothers me; it's what can be inferred by using the word "craft" or "crafted," that I find a bit sticky.

Yesterday, I commented on Mark Dredge's blog about a beer list he'd come up with for the UK burger chain, Byron Hamburgers. In my comment I referred to his US beer choices as a batch of American craft brews. In response, Zak Avery, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, cracked off that neither Goose Island nor Brooklyn are true "craft" beers. Goose Island is negated because, in his words, they are ABInBev's glove puppet (which is a fantastic phrase, by the way) and Brooklyn gets checked off the list because it's contract brewed in Utica—180 miles north by north-west, of Brooklyn—by the Matt Brewing Company. Zak's mischievous comment-bomb, got me thinking about the nature of "craft" as it relates to beer.

So, herein lies my issues with using the word "craft."

It's way to easy, to infer that all "craft" beer is the result of some storybook, cottage industry. Contrary to popular belief not all "craft" breweries were started by two best friends, who against all odds, using only the freshest, local ingredients, made good and now produce award winning liquid gold—using only their four little hands. I'm pretty sure Harpoon or Left Hand or Stone have some fairly complicated computer systems monitoring all their production variables. These companies are far from up-scaled, home brew or brew pub operations. "Craft" brewing may have started in someone's garage back in the 1970s, but it's big business now—which leads me to my next point.

There is an implication that "craft" brewers are always the tiny underdog, fighting the good fight against the monsterous big boys of beer. Yes, craft breweries are smaller in comparison to ABInbev, MolsonCoors, SABMiller, Carlsburg, or even Guinness. Guess what? So are the majority of companies in the US and Europe. The two largest craft breweries in the US—Boston Beer Company and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company—sold more than 2.5 million barrels of beer last year. That's not as much as the macros, but that's still a lot of beer, and that's still a lot of profit (50.1M for Sam alone, in 2010). Last week, Jim Koch founder of Samuel Adams, said that being the largest "craft" brewer in the US, is like being the tallest pygmy. What kind of airplane do you think that pygmy flies around in?

Lastly, "craft" also implies homemade goodness; as in small, local "craft" brewers produce a better, more wholesome product than large multi-national, uberconglomerates. Again, that's not always the case.. I've had good and bad beer from both parties. Michelob's craft line is great, and it's accessible to novice beer drinkers, right in the grocery store. Small doesn't mean good, nor does large equal bad. The majors don't necessarily make bad products—if they did, they wouldn't be in business. Do I agree with all of their business tactics? No. But, I'm sure that some "craft" brewers engage in some less than noble efforts to get their beer out there, too. If it tastes good, while it's getting to my belly, then I'm happy.

Here's my conundrum. I still say craft beer—I hate it, but I do. Honestly, it's for lack of a better term. Independent beer? No, that's not right. Regional beer? Nope, not right either. Independent regional brewers with a national or international presence? Yeah, that's a bit wordy. Do you know what I need? I need, an O-fficial-like, bona-fide definition on "craft." So here goes:'s top two definitions for craft are:

1. skill in planning, making, or executing

2. an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.

Those are pretty open-ended parameters. "Craft brewing" isn't quite as magnanimous, when you look at that way. So, the bottom line is, let's not get caught up in craft or real, micro or macro, new or traditional. Let's get caught up in unique and unusual or best of all great beer, from whatever the source.    

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