Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fallacy of "Craft" Status

One of the thousands of questions that Hoptopia tweets every day caught my attention recently. He asked whether Sam Adams should limit production to less than 2m barrels a year to keep their "craft" status. My answer was an off-the-cuff swipe at the label "craft", but I've had time to decide why I really think craft-credentials leave a sour taste.

Other bloggers have made the point that defining "craft" by volume of beer produced is meaningless. That's a dead horse I have no desire to interfere with.

The Brewers Association of America defines craft beer in a little more detail. It must be: a. small (<2m barrels/year), b. independent (at least 75%-owned by brewers themselves), and c. traditional (mostly malt and limited adjuncts). It's a decent set of criteria, made all the more critical because "craft" brewers get tax cuts as well as cache.

"Small" beers are big business in America (worth $7bn in 2009!), so defining the "craft" credential is heavily political. Result: a word that is supposed to distinguish caring producers of beer for whom profit is a secondary consideration, from bottom-line-obsessed factory-brewers, is now ironically a fiscal concept. A brief consideration of how the orange juice industry mangled the terms "pure" and "fresh" tells us that this ends badly.

So why the hell do we need these credentials in the first place?

As with any credential, "craft" is a proxy for trust in the absence of full disclosure. What that crap sentence means is that most of the beers we drink are brewed by people we don't know, who live far away, and for all we know might be evil, evil bastards. How do we know they are using fresh ingredients and sending us their "good stuff"? How do we know we're liking the right drinks?! How can we trust them to play fair?

These questions would keep us up all night if we hadn't come up with the ingenious plan of appointing referees and trusting them to set standards so we don't have to take the effort to do our own research.

Of course, none of this mattered back when beer was made either in your kitchen, by a neighbour, or worst-case scenario in the next village along. Nowadays, we're almost all guilty of an insatiable appetite for new experiences, and of hyping up hard-to-find and exotic beers to the point that locally-available fare can seem, well, a bit tame.

The best and only truly reliable way to know if you're drinking craft beer is to make it yourself, or buy it from a local brewer whose methods you can observe firsthand. Craft describes not only the production process, but also the relationship of the maker to the drinker. As with most relationships, it's a difficult one to maintain faithfully over long-distances...

Of course, your next best option is get in touch with a beer blogger who lives where the beer you want to drink is made. Beer bloggers are intelligent, honest, and absolutely never evil. Now all we need is a Beer Blogger's Association to certify that....


  1. I certify that Dan is intelligent and honest. You can certify me as evil.

  2. Well, Dan, at least we now have a Beer Bloggers Conference!

    Allan W

  3. Yes! A Beer Bloggers Association ... what a novel idea :)