Friday, June 22, 2007

What is craft beer?

The discussion on whether Anheuser-Busch Beach Bum Blonde Ale was 'craft beer' or not completely overwhelmed the tasting note. So I decided to shift it as neatly as I could here. Most of the comments are about that debate, I had to bring the tasting note comments along; best I could do.

So now the question of the hour: what is craft beer?
My issue: give me a good definition of craft beer, one that really addresses characteristics that you can see, taste, and smell in the glass. I haven't seen one that fits the bill yet.

Game on, geeks. I'm with you.

74 comments:

BuckSpin said...

This "craft beer/not craft beer" reminds me a lot of the way my real passion (and arguably more passionately, um, argued)...BBQ...is discussed. Is it, or isn't it.

It depends if you like the journey or the inn more. To some, barbecue is a noun....the end product. To others, it is more a verb...the way the product is arrived at. You can have great tasting "braised pork" and lousy tasting "barbecue", or the inverse. Same with beer.

I'm a card carrying BBQ as verb man. No aluminum foil, propane, electric grills, briquettes, temperature probes, set em & forget em grills, etc. In that the physical process of brewing beer is largely identical, craft & non-craft (to me) is more of the difference between a slab of ribs at a Tony Roma's or Applebee's as opposed to some from some small mom & pop in Kansas City or Memphis.

Al said...

Is it craft beer?

I suppose it comes down to this question: Can a craft beer be produced by a non-craft brewer?

But then that gets circular, because how do you define a craft brewer? Answer: A brewer that makes craft beers.

"Small batches" can't be a criterion. Just look at how much Boston Beer Company churns out, and nobody has suggested that they're not a craft brewer anymore.

"Passion" for the product taking precedence over marketing and profit considerations is not a good gauge either. Plenty of people in the craft brew space treat it like a commodity. And who's to say the guys beyond this little side project weren't passionate about it?

So here's what I think: As long as it's all-malt (no rice or corn thankyouverymuch), is flavorful (at least more flavorful than your T.A.L.L.), and doesn't have a gazillion barrels brewed per year, then, sure, it's a craft beer.

Lew Bryson said...

buckspin,

So, if I serve you a plate of pigmeat, and it's not fake meat or fakey sauce, and it's real good eating...that doesn't matter to you as much as HOW it's made?

Not saying it's right or wrong, just pushing what I think is your definition to the limits and seeing if I have it right!

Lew Bryson said...

I suppose it comes down to this question: Can a craft beer be produced by a non-craft brewer?

I don't think that is the question, actually. I don't buy the whole "craft beer" thing so much any more. Is there a difference between the beer A-B makes and the beer, say, Sierra Nevada makes? Does anyone really doubt that A-B could make beer similar to SN's beer?

We need new terminology, terminology that doesn't rely on size. Even "craft" implies size, as a craftsman vs. a factory. And passion doesn't make it, you're right: I've met A-B brewers and they're very passionate.

But I don't buy all-malt, either. I've got a piece on adjunct brewing coming out one of these days in Ale Street News that makes it clear that very good beers are made with corn, rice, and sugar. Is it a matter of "how much?" Maybe, but who decides?

Flavorful? Put a mainstream lager up against an American hefeweizen and get back to me on that one.

And not brewed in a gazillion barrels? You're going to penalize a beer, a brewery, for being successful? If Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is by God Exhibit A for craft beer in my book, should be selling 2 million barrels a year by 2012, and it's still made the same and tastes the same...how come it's no longer a craft beer?

Slippery stuff, words.

Stan Hieronymus said...

And if it's not "craft" beer?

Does that make a difference?

Lew Bryson said...

And if it's not "craft" beer?
Does that make a difference?


Not to me!

Stonch said...

al said:""Small batches" can't be a criterion. Just look at how much Boston Beer Company churns out, and nobody has suggested that they're not a craft brewer anymore."

Maybe someone should suggest the likes of Boston aren't craft brewers anymore, and see where that leads. Is small batch size seems a reasonable criteria for what "craft" means. Do vast batches mean the brewer has less control, and therefore the beer isn't in any sense "crafted" anymore? My own limited experience of brewing would suggest that isn't the case - scaling up doesn't need to mean dumbing down.

However, if you exclude all criteria like batch size etc, "craft" quickly becomes a fairly pointless label that does one of two things:

First, divides American beer between BMC beer and non-BMC beer. Plainly ridiculous.

Second, divides American beer between good beer and bad beer. That's entirely subjective, as one man's craft becomes another man's non-craft.

Rather than asking "can A-B brew a craft beer?" perhaps you should ask "can Dogfish brew a non-craft beer?"

Loren said...

Well...if it's not hand crafted by a single individual without the use of automated machines living solo on an island in the middle of a deserted lake from grains that when spent feed a solitary goat whom produces just 14oz of prized cheese sold only to the highest bidder on leap year day only...then...

Yeah...craft/macro...why should it matter?

MMM! Taste.

Forget the minutia details.

bill mc said...

will this be widely released or just in select markets? i never saw the beer last year and we do have a few good beverage centers in the albany, ny area

BuckSpin said...

So, if I serve you a plate of pigmeat, and it's not fake meat or fakey sauce, and it's real good eating...that doesn't matter to you as much as HOW it's made?

If you want to chew this bone (I couldn't resist that one), I guess to push my definition I need to push yours. What is YOUR definition of "fakey meat & sauce"?

I am all for tasty food. However, a pork butt sitting in a crock pot all day slathered in Cattleman's is not BBQ. Its cooked pork. I believe the South Carolina legislature, to protect the heritage of the product, passed legislation to the extent that any pork not cooked over real embers/wood fire cannot legally be labeled BBQ within the state. So those who chose to use gas or electric ovens can do so, but it must be labeled "cooked pork".

To expand in a different yet related direction, if someone puts a beer in a cask is it now a "cask ale"? Is it the beer in the cask, or the way the beer was stored & pulled, that makes it "cask" by definition, and whose definition is right or wrong? Does CAMRA have a definition for what is & isn't?

Jeff Bearer said...

Flavorful? Put a mainstream lager up against an American hefeweizen and get back to me on that one.

I don't understand what you are saying here, It sounds like you are saying that Americans can't make flavorful hefeweizens. But I don't think that is what you intended.

Loren said...

Well...if it's not hand crafted by a single individual without the use of automated machines living solo on an island ... to the highest bidder on leap year day only...then...


That would be artisinal, not craft, get it right ;)

And I'd be remiss not to try to define craft beer on this thread. My definition of craft beer has been undergoing renovation for a while now. And it's hard to actually draw a line, because there is always somebody on the wrong side of that line. For example how the Brewers Association's definition of craft brewer excludes breweries like Old Dominion, and Ommegang. IMO that is absurd, however I do understand that they are a trade group for craft brewers.

To me Craft Beer is beer that focuses complexity of flavor that is above the majority of beer that is available.

I feel the term Craft Beer can't exist in a vacuum, and it needs the 800 pound macro gorilla to be relevant. If everyone drank it, wouldn't the descriptor 'craft' be superflous?

I look forward to the day that Craft Beer ceases to exist. This will not be due to it's extinction, but rather when you walk into a chain resturant, or a Baseball Stadium, order a beer, and the server asks: Porter, Weizen, Macro, or Lambic?

At this point there will be a new term we no-doubtlessly will be using, and it will simply be "Good Beer".

Crap, now I have to come up with a new name for my podcast...

-
Jeff Bearer
Craft Beer Radio

Steven said...

It sounds like you are saying that Americans can't make flavorful hefeweizens. But I don't think that is what you intended.

That's exactly what it sounded like to me, and given the examples of the flagships of the style; Widmer, Pyramid, even Goose Island 312 -- I'd agree.

Toss 3 Floyds Gumballhead or Bell's Oberon into the mix and you'd be upping the ante a little more, but those are exceptional examples.

Lew Bryson said...

Hey, I'm in a rush, but a couple quick responses.

First, Jeff: I should have said "American hefeweizens", in quotes: Steven's right, I was talking about west coast-type wheaties, not stuff like Penn Weizen or Victory Sunrise. Blindfold yourself and put a Pyramid hef in with macros. There might be more body in the hef, but a lot more taste? Iffy.

Bill -- should be out there, it's national. Ask your A-B wholesaler. And I'll try to get you those NH recommendations later today!

Stonch, buckspin, Jeff...REAL good questions. That's what we need to talk about. I'll get back on it later. Good stuff, guys!

Al said...

Well, we've already moved away from the term "microbrewer" because of brewers like Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada.

Jeff Bearer: I feel the term Craft Beer can't exist in a vacuum, and it needs the 800 pound macro gorilla to be relevant. If everyone drank it, wouldn't the descriptor 'craft' be superflous?

I agree completely. For an awful lot of folks, "craft brewer" now just means "not Anheuser-Busch, Miller, or Coors". I think we need a better definition, but where to start?

That's one reason I love beer: great arguments like this.

Sage said...

I think you guys are forgetting the meaning of the word "craft".

"Craft" means an "occupation requiring skill or artistry." It can also mean something requiring wit or intelligence. (Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom was also the goddess of craft.)

A beer may be good and flavorful, but if it is mass produced, then it cannot be a "craft beer", as it is a product of machinery and automation rather than "artistry and skill". (Running a computerized brewing system may require training, but certainly not artistry.)

Additionally, a brewer may be a craftsman and produce "craft beer" as well as good, but non-craft beer.

So, the next time you want to know if the beer is "good beer" or "craft beer" (which doesn't necessarily have to be good), ask yourself -- "did a craftsman brew this beer or did a technician plug the components into a computer screen and let a multi-million dollar automated system do it?"

Lew Bryson said...

Okay, buckspin. "Fakey meat and sauce" would be pork that was parboiled or otherwise partially cooked before being put on the embers (or electric elements or gas flames), and sauce off the supermarket shelf, full of sugar and stabilizers. It's "que" that relies on the sauce for 98% of its flavor.

If you're saying there's a diff between a slab of ribs at Applebee's and a slab of ribs from a one-spot barbeque joint in Memphis, well, I'm with you, brother, but...those two aren't even made the same, and aren't intended to be the same, so where's the argument?

See, my point is that "craft beer" is not a question of process -- "macro lagers" are made pretty much the same way as "craft lagers", and the ingredients are not necessarily that different (see Great Divide's new Samurai beer with rice, just for instance). What most folks' definition of 'craft beer' revolves around -- outside of the Brewers Association's definition -- is the taste of the beer. They may say it's from a "small" brewery, but as we've already said, that's a factor that may already be moot in the case of the bigger craft brewers, and will certainly become so as 'craft' grows.

So...is taste independent of size and process? Taste is about will and skill, it's about what the brewer intends and then manages to execute. American mainstream lager isn't really a different kind of beer so much as it is just a very popular type of beer among the greater population.

The terminology isn't cutting it, because it's ill-defined. It's just not that easy to come up with a definition based on taste and sense evaluation that excludes mainstream lagers without also excluding some beers considered to be 'craft.' You can do it, but it starts getting tortuous.

Lew Bryson said...

No, sage, I'm not forgetting it. I just don't necessarily agree that it applies.

For instance, Victory is all about craft beer, as commonly defined. But their brewing process is as automated as they can afford: they can start the brew from home from a PC: the grain will be automatically measured and conveyered from the silos, milled and hydrated, and start to mash without ever being touched by anyone. Hell, they can do it from Germany by Internet link. Are you going to tell me that their wonderful, excellent beers aren't craft? A technician may be pushing the buttons (they're brewers pushing the buttons at Victory, BTW), but a brewer did the formulation.

I don't buy the whole "craft beer is handmade by skilled artisans" thing. "Craft beer" is just another handy term that doesn't really mean what it says.

Lew Bryson said...

I guess what I want to know is: what use is a definition of "craft beer" if I can't tell the difference in my glass? If it's about who makes it in how big a brewery by what process...isn't that more politics than taste?

I mean what I say at the top of the blog's first page: "It's about the beer." Don't give me process and size and IBUs and lovibond and ownership percentages: I can't taste that bullshit in the glass! I can taste that a beer is bitter, but I can't give you IBUs, and if you tell me the IBUs before I taste it, you've prejudiced my tasting. I can taste that a beer is different from mainstream lager, but I can't taste if it was made by one guy in a farmhouse or by an automated process in a multi-million dollar purpose-built brewery. And you know what? As long as the brewer's not fouling the environment or using child labor...I'm not sure I care. It's about the beer. Convince me to buy it and drink it by making it good.

Steven said...

So...is taste independent of size and process?

Highly doubtful. Put a Spaten Helles next to a Michelob All Malt, or a Franziskaner Hefeweizen next to one of the new Mich Hefeweizens; 4 beers of (presumably) similar styles, made by very large breweries, yet I'd venture to say the Spaten brewmasters have a tighter grasp on their "craft." So much so that their product can even stand up to most of the best micros brewing similar styles (and when did those tables turn?).

LandmarkBeer said...

I think what people mean by craft beer is that it is made by an independent brewer, not one of the big guys. Yes AB can make great beer but is that what the craft beer movement is about. NO. Its about companies who produce beer on a small scale for a smaller segment of the market. Who have a greater conection to the consumer than the share holder and advertising department. Thats just my random thoughts. Maybe I think about it this weekend and come up with a more detail def. I do know volume produced is a factor.

Lew Bryson said...

So Steve...you're saying on one hand that Spaten/Franziskaner/InBev is really big and brews 'craftier' beer than A-B, which is also very big; and on the other hand you're saying that SFI is really big and brews as craftily as craft brewers. Aren't you kind of proving my point that taste is independent of size and process? SFI is big, they're the biggest brewery in the world, and their process is highly automated. Yet they're "as good" (yeah, that is a funny table turning) as micros?

Sage said...

lew said: I don't buy the whole "craft beer is handmade by skilled artisans" thing. "Craft beer" is just another handy term that doesn't really mean what it says.

That reasoning only works if you let marketing replace reality. Let me use another example:

I'm a big fan of the Arts & Crafts and American Craftsman movements from the late 19th / early 20th century. The style gets its name not just from the visual style, but because the production of the furniture, houses, etc, required skilled artisans to do it. Doweling instead of nails, dovetails and miters instead of butt-joints and screws, etc. -- all hand done by a skilled artisan.

A modern factory can make a Stickley rocker, but it isn't a "craftsman" chair, it's "craftsman-style" chair, because even though it imitates the style, it lacks the artisanal aspects that defined the craftsman movement.

By extension, the folks at Victory may be producing excellent beers, and the brewer who did the formulation maybe a craftsman, but if the production is turned over to technicians, it is not a "craft beer", but perhaps, a "craft-style beer". (Because, as John Ruskin, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement so often pointed out, technology is not craft.)

Steven said...

Aren't you kind of proving my point that taste is independent of size and process?

Yep. I was, sorry -- brain to keyboard thru fingers early in the morning.

Yes, I was agreeing. Zzzzzzzz.

Lew Bryson said...

landmark, sage,

What you're defining is like defining organic beer. It's not really about the flavor, the beer itself, it's not even about how it's made. It's about who makes it.

Brewing is not an artisanal process except on a very small level. If you'd like to carve out a category for "artisanal" beers that are made without any automation, it's there, and that's great, it's every bit as valid as organic beer. It's a wonderful thing, and I mean that sincerely, without any sarcasm or condescension.

But all that's really doing is disagreeing about what "craft beer" means, it's carving up the greater category of specialty beers into smaller chunks. It's not putting a working definition for that greater category on the table. That's what I'm looking for.

I do not agree with the Brewers Association-type definition that craft beer is defined by the kind of brewery that produces it. It's about the beer. Otherwise, it is marketing.

Lew Bryson said...

Sage,

No kidding, a serious question: does that mean power tools are out? And if not...where is the line drawn?

Loren said...

The whole debate over automation is a moot point as there's a ton of automated control equipment used even by 2bbl brewers. So...end of that part as a point of defining "craft".

Are motors bad too?

Oy vey.

sage said...

No kidding, a serious question: does that mean power tools are out? And if not...where is the line drawn?

Yes, technically for it to be "real" Arts & Crafts or Craftsman, it has to be produced entirely with hand tools and without modern fasteners such as screws or machined nails.

That's where the "craft" vs. "technology" comes in. Anyone can pick up a pattern, cut some wood on a laser-guided table saw, screw it together and produce something halfway decent. But a hand saw and chiseled mortise-and-tenon joints? -- that takes skill.

Same goes for beer. The automated brewing system is always going to make halfway decent beer (and even really good beer). But only a person can make "craft beer" (which isn't necessarily always good).

steve no n said...

This is all a pretty interesting debate. I guess I'm a fence-sitter right now, but I have a couple of questions....

What does the wine industry do to differentiate between "good" wine and jug wine (if anything at all)? Do they just leave it up to the consumer to decide? Is that what the beer industry should do?

The other question is, what is the difference between a megabrewer and a chain restaurant in your eyes, Lew? This is a sincere question, not a (total) megabrewer bash. You know that A-B is making this newer line of beers in response to the resurgence of "craft" beer popularity. Applebee's hired Tyler Florence to create menu items in response to the popularity of the Food Network and public interest in "craft" foods (as opposed to "Kraft", heh-heh).

(On a side note, when I read sage's first comment, I immediately thought of your piece on Victory.)

Stonch said...

Lew, I've been "stirring the pot" again...
What does "craft beer" mean in Britain?

LandmarkBeer said...

Lew

I guess craft beer to me is a movement. Its an alternative to mass market beer and to me anything AB is mass marketed. Anything AB does in my mind hurts the "craft beer community". If they are successful then I imagine we we start to see a decline in brands/breweries again which is not where anyone wants the market to go.

GenX at 40 said...

My two cents is this: "craft" is ultimately descriptive of nothing. If you mean "artesinal" (as I think is used on Fantome's labels) then you are describing small batch traditional brewing.

But small batch traditional brewers can be crappy and make crappy beer as in either insipid or even infected. I can think of more than a few in my geographical location. There must be a better word and I do think it has to be on the "good" "great" or "fine" continuum. This brings us back into the question of whether we are fans of the beer or the brewer and I am decidedly on the side of the beer.

I am popping over the border for the evening and will see if I can fine some Beach Bum. It is irrelevant to me if it is made in the millions or tens of gallons as long as it is good - and Lew's word on such things is usually good for me.

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

GenX at 40 said...

Am I am member of "the craft beer community"?

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

Bill said...

Lew, I see your first article for Portfolio is on craft beer! It's too late to ask us what it is!

I think it's instructive to see how the beer fansites use "craft beer" these days: as anything not BMC (with variants for other giant companies) or as anything that's not adjunct lager. Which does nothing to tell you about whether a given beer tastes differently if it's craft or not, as you point out. So what craft beer _was_ was a variety of alternatives to the massively dominant brews of a few years back. And homebrewers, small breweries, breweries that have become large, and various imported brews all made up this drive to give folks a variety of styles and tastes and beer experiences. And whether any given brewery or pub or company survives, this goal has been accomplished. The entire country hasn't gotten into it, but the huge variety of brews are there should more folks want to get into it.

So, from a drinking-the-beer experience, there's no longer craft beer -- just like no wine fan is talking about "premium" or "high-end" wine while drinking it, beer fans should stop applying "craft" to what's in our glass while drinking it. It's useful shorthand in saying one likes beers other than adjunct lagers. It's useful in discussing market segmentation. Corporate politics. Local product. But as far as increasing the range of brews we have to enjoy -- by winning this war, "craft beer" can drop the qualifier "craft."

BuckSpin said...

Perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart summed it up best when trying to define what is & is not obscene pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material but I know it when I see it.”

Substitute "craft beer" for the smut, "beer" for material and "taste" for see, and there ya go!

Perhaps it might prove easier to try to define what craft beer ISN'T, so then logically what is left....is.

You do realize this is starting to sound like *shudder* trying to write a Mission Statement for craft beer. Who brought the big drawing pad & Sharpies?

Oh, and for Sage - Mrs. BuckSpin & I are huge A&C fans. Best score to date? A signed Heywood Bros. (before they met Wakefield) Morris Chair, all original, only missing the rear support dowel, original finish, turned spindles. Leather original but needs replaced....I had to pay a whole $25 for it at a tag sale. That beats the Buffalo Pottery Deldare charger (yes, charger) my dad paid $5 for at a garage sale.

BuckSpin said...

Just saw one of those Samuel Adams "Chapters" commmercials (aka the "Who Do You Love" campaign) featuring "Independence":

http://www.samueladams.com/_commercials/ch17_independence.mov

In it he mentions being independent and brewing beer to his taste and not compromising to meet a bottom line. In other words, I'll brew what I want, how I want, when I want.

Would this "independence" to brew things like Utopias, LongShot and even generally accepted duds like the infamous Cranberry Lambic be a quantifier as far as "craft". To wit, would the owner/CEO of any of the BMCs be able to enjoy the same independence to do like Jim does, or not?

Its not the beer, its not the eschewing technology, but rather the liberty to brew what, when & how they want...could that be part of what makes it "craft"?

Lew Bryson said...

Backing into a definition of craft beer is even more unsatisfying to me, but that's really what the working definition of craft beer is: not a beer like Bud or Coors Light. Does that make anyone happy?

GenX at 40 said...

The more I think about "craft" the less I like it. Where does Genny Cream fit, then? Or Blue Moon or one of the brews from Sam Adams? All as decent mass produced beers I would provide (have provided) as gateway brews to pals. But I would not stock them for my own use. Which gives me concerns about my own snobbery as I should be only concerned about what is in the glass.

"Craft" beer gives me the same yips from the other direction as it seems to be all about the brewer and not necessarily in the glass. I don't know if the "craft brewing community" is a guild of small brewers or a society of slow food fans and producers. Does it include the hop growers and maltsmen, too? Is it the one way street of the sale or a conversation? I think I want to know more about peoples intentions and expectations before I buy in any further.

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

Sid Boggle said...

I dunno, but maybe it's more relevant to ignore the labels and look at what 'craft' offers that 'macro' does not.

Are we talking about the growth of a movement that is a reaction against lack of choice for beer drinkers, against irrelevant marketing that sells a lifestyle? is this part of a wider passion for 'slow food' and locally produced produce? Is it about respecting beer as a crafted product and not a 'brand'?

In the UK, we don't differentiate between 'craft' and 'macro' - we have microbrewers (description based on output, although not strictly defined), then there are national and multinational brewers, but there are similar themes about choice.

Like I say, I dunno - but, for my money, if you make your beer in a chain of global factories and refer to those beers as 'brands', gauge success in terms of 'penetration', market share and ad spend, then I'd be having a hard time feeling the love...

Lew Bryson said...

We're getting some divergent ideas of what "craft beer" means.

A different kind of beer.

A different kind of brewery.

A different kind of brewing process.

A beer-centered social movement.

A different brewer's perspective.


I like Sid's UK view of 'no craft, no macro,' just 'micro' and 'brewery,' based loosely on size, but it doesn't address the beer...which is probably more a reflection of the wider variety of beer that's always been available in the UK.

There's life in this discussion, still.

Lew Bryson said...

Oh, and Sid said:
...for my money, if you make your beer in a chain of global factories and refer to those beers as 'brands', gauge success in terms of 'penetration', market share and ad spend, then I'd be having a hard time feeling the love...

I've got a hard time with that. I've met the marketing folks and the production folks in both large breweries and large distilleries, and...the production folks all lovingly talk about "cases of beer" and "rare whisky," not "units of the liquid" and "demographically skewed appeal."

It's been my experience that production folks, the ones actually making the beer or the whiskey, are definitely excited about the drink they're making. Do you fault them for the sins of the marketers?

Sid Boggle said...

Sins of the marketers? I asked the same question here...

http://girlsguidetobeer.blogspot.com/2007/06/cold-feelings.html

Fullers are marketing their organic Honeydew beer as ideal 'over ice'(jumping on the chilled cider bandwagon created by Magners).

Is Fullers Head brewer John Keeling and his team impaled on the horns of a dilemma? Fullers are getting a lot of stick, but I'd love to know what kind of discussions took place behind closed doors? As a brewer, do you feel pain when your company decides to adulterate your beer? Maybe that's the difference... Who decides what happens to that beer your 'artisans' created?

Stonch said...

Backing into a definition of craft beer is even more unsatisfying to me, but that's really what the working definition of craft beer is: not a beer like Bud or Coors Light. Does that make anyone happy?

No, you're right, it doesn't.

If the American craft beer movement defines itself as "anything but BMC", then the American craft beer movement sells itself short.

First and most obviously, the US brewing scene taken as a whole is massively diverse now - more so than any other country in the world - so such a self-deprecating defintion doesn't reflect reality. If you want to define craft beer over there, you can well afford to pick and choose what to include.

Second, it seems to suggest that somehow a brewing scene dominated by pale adjunct lagers is the natural state of things. It isn't.

Jeff Bearer said...

So it seems that nearly everyone in this discussion does not like the term Craft for one reason or another. I'd like to open up a new angle.

While I don't feel that Craft Beer accurately describes exactly what beers should and should not be included. I really do like the term when talking with Lay people. Because usually I'm working on showing them beers other than what they know as beer which nearly always is American Premium Lager. And yes, In that conversation, I'd call Blue Moon a craft beer, and then closely follow it up with 10 other witbiers that I'd rather drink ;)

Lew Bryson said...

Two good comments. Stonch, I love the "selling themselves short" angle; very true. And Jeff, yeah, 'craft beer' is an extremely useful term...which is why I continue to use it, even thought I think it's flawed.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Lew - This became a new thread since I went up to Denver to hang out with amateur craft brewers (sometimes known as homebrewers), but to return almost to the top.

Stan: And if it's not "craft" beer?
Does that make a difference?

Lew: Not to me!

Then why is this the 45th comment?

Lew Bryson said...

Put away your skewer, Stan.

It matters because that's how you and I make our living: talking about things like this and making others think about them. It matters because some people refuse to try this beer or give it a fair trial because they believe it isn't 'craft.'

It's a category that's trying to define itself; witness the BA's new definition. This thread is part of that thought.

But you know all this, right?

Stan Hieronymus said...

Sorry, no skewer intended. I was just trying to get back to the "why would you drink it? (or not)" question. The collective you, although Lew Bryson as well.

When you made this its own thread you asked for a definition "that really addresses characteristics that you can see, taste, and smell in the glass."

A great question.

And although many posts touch on why the beer in the glass might taste different they don't describe what is different.

I'm not saying it is easy to do.

Lew Bryson said...

Understood, Stan. It's kind of like the truism in business and science: if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist. Not always true, but...if I can't 'detect craft' in my glass, what IS craft?

That's the same problem I have with numbers-based stylistic judging, too. It's one thing to tell me as a judge that the beer style in question should have between 20 and 35 BU. But failing a lab analysis on each beer, how the hell am I supposed to know if the beer's in that range or not? Give me parameters I can taste, not read.

BuckSpin said...

I'm sorry if the idea of backing into a definition bothers you, but the fact that it does bother you tells me that you find it just as difficult to say/define what is "uncraft" (anticraft?)

You are attempting to apply a quantifying methodology to a subjective idea. Its science, or its faith...pick one.

I still see no problem with providing direction by establishing that which is not what you seek to make what you seek less cluttered. Using the most common culprits, do YOU consider Budweiser, Miller & Coors to be craft, even though, just like Justice Stewart, you don't know what that is until you taste it?

Lew Bryson said...

Buck,

My whole point is that I want a definition of craft I can taste in the glass...because I don't think that exists, but also because I think it's the only kind of definition that matters. Because what really sets the small breweries in America apart is variety. It's not technology, or marketing, or lager, or innovation, or hops, or independence, or processes; you can find valid exceptions everywhere. What sets the "craft" brewers apart is that they don't brew mainstream American-type lager as their flagship beer.

Does that mean that a brewery that does can't make craft beer? I don't think so...but it's not easy. "Craft beer" is wrapped up in emotions and prejudices. I have 'em too. I like the production guys at A-B, but I've got problems with stuff the company has done and continues to do.

When the beer's in front of me, I do my best to put all that aside. But when it's time to write about the companies and the business...blinders off.

Not a definition, I know, but...I don't really think "craft beer" is a useful definition. Useful shorthand, yes, but definition? No.

GenX at 40 said...

An assessment of what is good in beer is neither subjective or a matter of faith. It does require a reasonable lexicon on tasting concepts that, I think, the idea of "craft" dissuades us from. It does so through its implication of loyalty to "the movement" or even any brewer who is trying or makes claims to "craft" even in the face of what is in the glass.

To flesh out the better word or concept to replace "craft" I think we need to establish a bit more clearly what the goal is. IMHO, that can only relate to flavour and value and if someone can pump out a grainy pale ale with a fresh and well placed hop bitterness, what care I that the place has a staff of 1,000 rather than one?

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

Loren said...

Simple answer? There is no definition. The name was created just so the brewers association can monitor sales. Period. It's basically equal to "needing" to find a style when you try a new and unique brewing creation that doesn't fit a currently established set of guidelines. What to do...what to do...what to do...I know! Create a hybrid style so everyone against categorization for the sake of it will have something new to argue over. So you're right. Nothing fits the bill...unless the brewers association decides they need to change their definition.

Steven said...

a definition "that really addresses characteristics that you can see, taste, and smell in the glass."

This reminds me of the ages old home-brewing T-Shirt: "Warning, the beer in your glass may contain something you aren't used to in a beer -- flavor."

How about that for the bottom-line, distinguishing difference?

Stephen Beaumont said...

Sorry I'm so late to this; busy week and weekend...

Does it matter if it's craft?

Yes, it does matter because context and perception are irrevocably intertwined. For some people, even most craft beer drinkers, I'll wager, the knowledge that a beer is from A-B will lower their perception of quality and their enjoyment of it. A big part of craft beer's success, and the success of other, small producer brands and products, involves rebellion against the ever-larger multinationals seeking to homogenize what we eat and drink. Remove that factor and you immediately remove an important purchase motivator.

No, it doesn't matter because I don't drink the label, I drink the beer. If it's good, I like it and will at least on occasion buy it, regardless of its pedigree.

Lew, I suggest to you that you're quite right in purporting that there is no such thing as a definition of craft which you can taste in your glass, any more than there's a definition of macro that you can similarly perceive. I don't know about you, but I've sampled a whole lot of small brewery offerings that tasted a lot more mainstream than A-B's Michelob Hefeweizen, Bare Knuckle Stout or, presumably (because I haven't yet tasted it) Beach Bum Blonde.

And BTW, congrats on the new writing gig. You in the mainstream press is long overdue. (Although, to quote Ogden Nash, "every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little part of me dies."

BuckSpin said...

"What sets the "craft" brewers apart is that they don't brew mainstream American-type lager as their flagship beer."

So now, to define craft, we need to not only define "American-type lager" but also "mainstream" as well? However, I feel that could be quantified by numbers, both in brewing, production & distribution.

So, as a v1 Beta:

"American Craft beer is that beer whose flagship brand is not an American-style lager with (relative numbers for gravity, IBUs, ABV, etc) or with no more than (% to be determined) adjunct additivies or hops treated to prevent skunking, and is readily & easily avaialable in all 50 US states".

Sounds like a *groan* Mission Statement to me.

roan22 said...

The basis of the definition for craft beer should come from the craft perspective. Brewing is a creative process, and should be viewed as a art form. Craft beer is critiqued and reviewed like movies and music, and I don't care what anybody says, the brewing of craft beer is comparable to jewelry design, clothing design, and furniture design. It has a function even if that function is an artier way to get people drunk. Its historical. Ok you can't display actual beer in a gallery, but you can display bottles, signs etc.

Also I will throw in the no adjuncts part into my definition. Watered down beer is not crafted, its reduced.

I'm choosing to leave the "sales" aspect out of the definition.

roan22 said...

sid boggle said...
"As a brewer, do you feel pain when your company decides to adulterate your beer? Maybe that's the difference... Who decides what happens to that beer your 'artisans' created?"

This is something I always wondered too. Of course art and business ideas don't always mix (famous music example-Prince). Those artists in disagreement forced to comply will either baulk (and walk, unless a contract forbids them to leave without being sued), compromise, or suck it up and comply. To what point I wonder. I guess it depends on how bad that brewer needs that job.

I think some American brewers such as Phil M. of Southampton and all of his proteges, or someone like Neill Acer of Defiant Brewing Co. would rather be completely in charge of the direction of the beers they made, and if that was threatened, as evidenced by Defiant, would leave to run their own show.

Rick Sellers said...

Holy crap this is interesting! go away for a weekend and wow...

If you really want to define "Craft Beer" then you need to parse it out. What is beer, and then what is Craft? Craft is actually the easier of the two terms to define because, well, it is defined. Something you do with your hands (abbreviated). Can you really make a 100bbl beer by hand? Are you stirring it with stick and sweating over the kettle? Doubtful. Granted, that's a bit too tough for modern technology, so I'll give credit to those who do more than push buttons.

Now, try to define beer on its own and then it goes nutty. So, take the beer out of the equation for now and focus on the 'craft', which also has elements of education/apprenticeship involved.

When you get to the point where you are production brewing, that is following a set recipe, then I think you've moved beyond the craft.

Oh, and SN at least has a small pilot brewery where their new products are still crafted. I've seen it and don't have any beef calling Steve and his staff "Craft Brewers" - but SN Pale Ale is not a craft beer at this point. Sorry, off the cuff a bit, but my two cents.

Jeff Bearer said...

Oh, Rick, rick, rick,

Anheuser-Busch has a small pilot brewery in St. Louis where brewers like Florian Kuplent are crafting beer.

See, it's HARD to define this thing.

Stonch said...

Buckspin: "American Craft beer is that beer whose flagship brand is not an American-style lager with (relative numbers for gravity, IBUs, ABV, etc) or with no more than (% to be determined) adjunct additivies or hops treated to prevent skunking, and is readily & easily avaialable in all 50 US states".

Why is availability in all 50 States a factor? If anything, such wide availability might be considered indicative of mass-production?

Also - I think the idea that craft beer should be defined in such a rigidly American context is another example of you guys selling yourselves short. Move on from defining craft beer is "anything but BMC". Craft beer shouldn't be about bashing one style of beer (pale lager) and it isn't about bashing three brewing companies (B, M & C).

BuckSpin said...

Alan said:

"An assessment of what is good in beer is neither subjective or a matter of faith."

Well, in a pint glass (as opposed to a nurshell) you're wrong. Anything involving perception & opinion thru one of the 5 senses is incredibly subjective. Your blanket comment establishes that there is good music, good food, good aromas, good views and good feelings (and subsequently bad one as a result) that CAN be quantified by definition via a common, accpeted lexicon. My personal lexicon is shaped by thousands upon thousands of experiences, and defines for me what is good and what is not, as it does for you & everyone else.

When I taught I always used this example to help keep normal & abnormal in perspective. Normal is just a unit of measure, specifically a majority of an given environment. The term abnormal is often used to describe people with certain mental & physical disabilities, which within the context of contemporary society as we know it is accurate. However, go to a state hospital or a care facility where the overwhelming majority are those with this unfortunate afflictions and suddenly the wheels have turned - you/we/I have become the "abnormal" one in that we are now, with that environment, in the minority. Just keep that in mind when defining good/bad, craft/uncraft (anticraft, I ask again?)

As for faith, to me that is the belief and/or confidence in that which cannot be proven - so to say that you cannot have faith in a craft beer is pretty inaccurate in that it seems that no one, in words/language at least, can even prove craft beer EXIST!

I am liking Justice Potter's description more & more. To paraphrase - "I can't define it, but I know it when I taste it".

Whoda thunk this discussion would get so philosophical? Shame we can't all be debating this with a few elbow bends in a nice pub with Lew scribbling furiously on the napkins! Of course we would all be working off his tab in exchange for all these pearls falling out of everyone's mouths - great, civil discussion everyone....cheers!

scott said...

From my perspective, Loren is the only one who's gotten it right thus far.

This entire debate is trying to fit a square peg into a round whole. "Craft beer" isn't something you can percieve in your glass. The BA's definition of craft beer is designed to define the group of brewers that is represents. Lest we forget, the Brewers Association is not a consumer group, it is a TRADE group and represents breweries, not beer drinkers.

Jerry said...

I have to agree that "craft beer" isn't something you can define "in the glass". How about "a craft beer is one that is brewed to achieve a particular taste", as opposed to a particular level of sales? A-B can brew craft beers, while the guy at Joe's Brewpub who feels compelled to fill a couple of slots in the reguar lineup with beers he's not exactly passionate about can brew non-craft beers. Obviously, craft beers aren't necessarily good, nor do non-craft beers have to be bad.

Lew Bryson said...

A big part of craft beer's success, and the success of other, small producer brands and products, involves rebellion against the ever-larger multinationals seeking to homogenize what we eat and drink. Remove that factor and you immediately remove an important purchase motivator.

Forgive the long quote, but...I agree wholeheartedly with this, which is why I find limiting "craft" or "micro" breweries by size to be unfair. The label is definitely a positive for many consumers, and losing it because you were "too successful" just isn't right.

Thanks for weighing in, Steve.

Alan said...

Buckspin: I never meant to imply common, though essentially saying "not not subjective" would be take that way. What I mean is a lexicon of taste that anyone can dip into as they wish. Just because we share a common dictionary does not mean we are going to write the same essay. But I also think that beery dictionary is not yet established as Websters did for American English. To do so will take the primary experience of glass to lips being recognized as the most important part of good beer followed by the expression of what each person tasted. There is a rigor in this that goes beyond rating or even taste wheels. Also an acknowledgment that the same collection of organic chemicals found in beer (or cheese or produce) can recombine differently for different people.

So I think it is better to say that you and I each do not have a personal lexicon so much as a personal experience expressed through a common lexicon but that common lexicon is not yet fully detailed.

On the matter of faith, you can have faith in craft beer but that is like being a fan. I am a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I know how useless that experience is. Yet still I am one.

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

Jeff Bearer said...

Jerry Said: How about "a craft beer is one that is brewed to achieve a particular taste", as opposed to a particular level of sales?

This was one of my first thoughts last year, around the time that I sold out with Lew in the hop fields. But this is not clear line either.

I used to want to work into the definition, is craft beer is beer where the brewer is uncompromising on the product. Flavor over sales, etc.

But what exactly is a compromise? If a small craft brewer, changes their process, even slightly to remove an inefficiency, and save some money is that a compromise?

Not if the beer isn't changed, you might say, but that is even a more subjective metric.

Or what if the brewer changes the process, saves a ton of money, the beer is very different, but many people think it's better, is that a craft beer?

There is only one way that this conversation will ever end, that will be when Lew closes commenting on this post. :)

Tom & Heather said...

Simply put, craft beer is ANY beer that, when someone who knows and loves beer or brewing tastes the product, he can clearly percieve the exceptional level of skill that went into making both a distinctive and pleasing beer.

This is a drinkers definition and as such, it seeks to operate outside of industry production caps or methods and focuses on the product. There are world class beers from large breweries like Sierra Nevada or Goose Island, and there are really unimagenative and sorry beers from guys who are one step up from homebrewing. If the beer didn't change, I'd drink Hennepin Saison if they made enough of it to put on tap at every restaurant in the world, including McDonald's!

Jeffrey said...

To me, a craft brewer should be growing and malting his own grains and growing his own hops. When I hear the term "craft brewer," I just picture their little brewery in front of a huge field of grain. Not possible, I know. Maybe we should dispense with the Craft Beer label, and replace it with MicroBrewed beer.

Mark said...

Craft beer to me is beer developed and brewed by the brewer and not by the marketing department.

It sounds over simplistic, but beer that is brewed to sell well based first and foremost on its quality is craft beer, whereas alcofizz designed to cost as little as possible to brew and designed to sell well because of the power of advertising and mass distribution is not.

Mark said...

To me, craft beer is any beer designed to be purchased primarily on the quality of the beer, not the quality of the marketing department.

A craftsman is someone who creates something with great skill. Not someone who makes something as cheaply as possible, relying on a huge distribution network and millions of marketing dollars to sell it.

It's true with furniture, and it's true with beer.

Lew Bryson said...

So Mark...the guys at A-B tell me -- and I have no reason to disbelieve them, because pretty much everything they HAVE told me in the past has turned out to be true; it's the things that they don't say that you have to watch them on -- that the regional beers they're doing, like Burnin' Helles and Devil Ray Red and so on, are beers that the brewers at their regional facilities came up with, on their own, and they're being put out in draft with very little fanfare or promotional support, just because they want to do them.

By your definition, that's craft, no? If I'm missing something, tell me, but I'd agree, mainly because I think "craft" in this sense has become something else than "craft" means in a broader sense, kind of like the way "gay" has shifted in meaning.

Further discussion, anyone?

Mark said...

Yeah, by my definition, that A-B stuff COULD be craft beer. There's no reason a major brewery couldn't make a craft beer. The brewers are certainly skilled enough, and if the beer is good, I'll drink it.

Unfortunately here's the bugaboo whenever the majors try to do craft beers: the suits ruin it. They don't give a specialty product enough time to develop within its niche. Profits have to go up quarterly, and that's barely enough time to brew and serve a specialty lager.

IKEA could sell fine expensive hand-built Swedish furniture, but it's outside their business model. Thus is the case every craft beer the Macros try, too. The only way they've been able to keep a foot in the door of the craft beer industry is by purchasing breweries like Red Hook and keeping their marketing departments the hell away from them.

It's that eye on the shareholder that always keeps the majors from really contributing to craft beer.

If they let their regional beers run independently, and don't attempt to sell them with the same marketing model as Budweiser or Bud Select, and protect them from the finance department, then they have a real craft beer.

Lew Bryson said...

Well-said. I think...that this may be evidence that the big boys, or at least A-B, is getting the idea that these brands must be marketed differently. I asked about this, and was told that they understood the smaller numbers involved, the longer sales growth times involved, and the softer sell needed for this kind of beer. It's more a wine model. The production guys understand it. They tell me that marketing gets it. They do hire smart people, so I think there's a chance they'll give these beers a fair chance.

The big question is whether beer drinkers will. That may be a matter of timing. Blue Moon is selling like mad right now, and most folks are drinking it because the taste is different and they like that...not because it's made by Coors. Blue Moon is a perfect example of how to market a beer like this: gently. Late-blooming smarts? Maybe.

Graham said...

Craft beer-does it matter what it's called as long as tastes okay.
Graham from www.logo-n-stitch.co.uk