What is craft beer? What is a craft brewer? What isn’t craft? What’s up with crafty? In the beer business these are sometimes sensitive questions that keep making the rounds. The answers come from all points of view and the conversation sometimes gets emotional. The actual definition of a craft brewer appears on the Brewers Association’s web page.
At first I might say, “Getting emotional about craft beer is not the point,” but maybe it is the entire point. I’ve been amongst beer enthusiasts since 1970 when I noticed that my first batches of homebrew instilled a sense of “ownership” by all who enjoyed a perceived “new” phenomena.” It was my observation that personally crafted beer instilled a “gut” reaction amongst beer drinkers. Personal discovery, hope, knowing the brewer, vision, excitement, a hope of what beer could become suddenly became meaningful in the context of beer and brewing.
Good things developed over the past 40+ years. Beer drinkers are taking their beer more personally than ever before. Taking beer personally is actually nothing new. Even when there was little choice and the American beer landscape was ubiquitously all about light American lager, beer drinkers took their beer personally. We can confidently imagine that even a hundred or three hundred years ago as beer drinkers gathered wherever they enjoyed beer & camaraderie they always took their beer personally. In my opinion beer was never meant to be a commodity.
The emotional attachment beer enthusiasts are now developing for their beer goes more deeply and more personal than ever before. For a growing number of beer drinkers it is no longer sufficient to simply identify with a mass marketed brand image. For many it is about knowing about the brewery and brewer; it’s about flavor, local brand image and real or imagined emotional attachment.
It’s about the individual wanting to differentiate themselves by belonging to a group that mirrors their lifestyle and ideals.
The world of small and independent breweries has always desired to maintain differentiation between what they do and what the large brewing companies do. The effort to differentiate has evolved from tagging themselves as small brewers, microbrewers and now to defining themselves as craft brewers.
The term “craft brewers” is an effort by small and independent brewers to differentiate themselves. It is not an effort to denigrate others who are not craft brewers.
The argument against the definition of craft brewer gets messy and off track if you take the term literally. Of course if you look up the definition of “craft” in a dictionary it would say something like: “something produced skillfully by hand,” “to make or produce something skillfully” or “an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.”
Kjell Nordstrom once offered the perspective, “The U.S. is not a nation state. It is an idea. It is a piece of paper. It is the U.S. Constitution.”
The point that the definition of craft brewer tries to establish is not about using the word “craft” literally. “Craft Brewer” is an idea. Sure, there are brewmasters throughout the world that take pride in skillfully brewing their beer. Literally speaking I can understand that there may be some hurt feelings in the brewers’ world. But take to heart, I don’t think the craft brewers definition was meant to demean anyone’s skills, expertise or the integrity of any company.
The point of the craft brewer definition is to frame the spirit beer drinkers want to embrace and what small & independent brewers represent in the world of beer and brewing. It is natural for small and independent brewers and their beer fans to have a desire to frame their differentiation from the much larger companies. In the process of doing so they have succeeded in de-commoditizing beer. That is a good thing for all brewers large and small.
Quibbling about terminology in an effort to destroy the efforts of small and independent brewers is a no win proposition for every brewing company and every beer drinker.
The term “craft” is not about snobbery or being elitist as some have suggested. It is not a claim about the quality of the beer. It is not about what’s in the bottle or can. It is about giving the beer drinker a tool enabling them to identify who makes the beer they enjoy. Being able to identifying what is small and independent is good. It is important to enough beer drinkers that it makes the craft brewer definition a legitimate point of differentiation. It is important to craft brewers by offering an opportunity for honest transparent identification of the craft beers they brew.
Beer drinkers would rather personalize their enjoyment and celebration of beer rather than a simply knock down a commodity product.
There are many ways to personalize enjoyment of beer. All beer is good. Respect all beer drinkers. Differentiation is good.