A long range look at the craft vs crafty debate

I am getting tired of the craft beer moniker all together. I remember back to a day when we talked about brew pubs and micro-brews, a category which almost ninety percent of craft breweries still fall under. Back in those days you could know the brewer of your beer (next I’ll be talking about walking to school up hill in the snow both ways). These were the guys that brought you beer that wasn’t Bud or Miller. They made beer with body and complex character and sometimes diacetyl. Craft beer wasn’t always good, but the brewer was a nice guy and you hoped that he would get it right next time; that it would be as good as the first keg you bought from him. Once he got that consistency down he could hire an assistant and then there would be somebody there who would always follow the recipe which was written down on a stained piece of legal pad paper. Back then, most of the fledgling breweries were like popsicle stick models, held together with Elmer’s glue seeping out around the edges, sometimes not fully dried (for some breweries, that’s still the case and I support every one of them, though I may not always drink their beer.)You could go to a festival and run in to the same people time and time again. It wasn’t (so much) about the beer as it was about the beer.

The craft beer community has gone the way that arts and crafts went when Martha Stewart became a household name (not referring to the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century but rather the stuff children used to do around the kitchen table on rainy days with popsicle sticks mom had stored up throughout the summer.) How many, now established, brewers started with a shoestring budget built upon the savings of relatives and friends? Systems were three to seven barrels. They had time to build their business and make mistakes, as long as their investors could drink for free. Today, startup breweries can get substantial sums of money in investment and loans, jumping straight into fifteen barrel and larger systems, and with greater investment, comes greater responsibility. Banks have more rigorous standards regarding the repayment of loans and today’s investors are more interested in quarterly reports then they are free pints.

I’m not suggesting that the brewers are any less craft oriented with their product. Brewers are interpreting historic styles with unique twists and developing new styles that have no precedent, maintaining integrity by what they brew; all things that the Brewers Association states are concepts related to craft beer and craft brewers. In fact, with the added pressure of investment and increased competition, brewers have to do something unique to separate themselves from the crowd and they are much more focused on quality and consistency. There are a lot of great beer recipes being put together by competent people on state of the art equipment and innovation is at an all-time high, things the craft beer community has strived for. This is happening in breweries all across the country, including breweries owned by corporations.

Goose Island makes some great beer, but their rebel without a pause craft brewer, Greg Hall left some time ago and now owner John Hall has as well. John is now a part of Anheuser-Bush’s Craft Beer Advisory Board. Goose Island is not considered a Craft Brewery, by the Brewers Association definition because they are not independent, “Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.” Anchor Brewing was purchased by The Griffin Group who also hold a minority stake (12.5%) in Brew Dog.  The Griffin Group are definitely industry members. Anderson Valley is owned by Trey White, former v.p. of United States Beverage-not a craft brewer. Gary Fish was never the brewer at Deschutes (if I’m wrong about this point, I will buy Gary a beer next time he’s in Portland), John Harris was the original brewer in 1988. When was the last time Jim Koch brewed a beer, or Ken Grossman, or Kurt or Rob Widmer? Crux Fermentation and Cascade Barrel House are questionable at best as far as ownership is concerned as well. So how is the ownership question relevant to the beer being made; it’s innovativeness, and quality? I don’t know that it is.

I think that the real problem that the beer community has does not have anything to do with the BA definition of craft brewery. Can anybody say that 6 million barrels of beer is small? Does the ownership necessarily reflect what happens inside the brewery? I’m not even going to touch on their flawed interpretation of traditional, and their narrow use of the word enhance. What we are really talking about is people and beer made by people. I would guess that the brewers that are making some really good beers at 10th and Blake are just as passionate about the beer as any other brewer. It’s easy to sit around and say they’ve sold out but think about the tools they have at their disposal now (I imagine it’s not as vast and endless as some of us would believe) and they are getting to do what how many other brewers just dream of doing; making good money with benefits and not breaking their backs humping bags of grain for a start.

We like to think of the craft brewer with some romantic image of the fiery passionate brewer who blazes new trails in to the old west of brewing, but remember that even Lewis and Clark were backed by the US government. When we argue about craft versus crafty what is it that really bothers us? AB and SAB Miller are capable to introducing more beer drinkers to these great craft styles in one Super Bowl commercial then the craft brewing industry did in its first twenty years of existence (30 years if you want to go back to Anchor in 1971). They are not going to steal away the traditional craft brewer’s, the microbrewer’s customer base. If anything they are going to open more people up to the idea of trying something new.

We are talking and talking and talking and missing the point. If people don’t know the difference between The Commons Wit, Fantome Blanche and Shock Top Belgian White then what does it matter? Just saying that the Commons or Fantome are craft beers doesn’t mean much in terms of quality and innovation. I have had a lot of true craft beers that were not as palatable as Shock Top. Breweries need to sell themselves and not rely upon being able to use the word craft to separate themselves from crappy beer. We, as an industry need to always be out there, educating the public about what we have to offer.

Words only have power if we allow them to. As with a puppet government, when it gets out of control it must be eliminated and if anarchy prevails for a time before a new structure is formed, God save us all. “Craft” is dead, long live great beer and the people who make it!

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About J Tom Field

Jack of all trades...
This entry was posted in Articles, Business and Culture, Drinks. Bookmark the permalink.

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