| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

The Meanings of Craft Beer: My lockdown book, out 25th June

I’ve set myself a 13-week project: to write and self-publish a new book that I’ve been wanting to write for the last year. Here’s what it’s all about.

I find myself between jobs. Between assignments. Between books. We have no household income for now. Being a freelance writer is precarious enough at the best of times. Being a freelance writer in the first industry to be completely shut down by Coronavirus is pretty absolute.

Lockdown is psychologically tough for everyone. The thing is… back in the olden days I used to pay good money to hire a cottage near the sea where I could be on my own, not speak to anyone, and rarely leave the house. It’s something I do at least once, if not twice, in the process of writing a book. I get the most insane amount of work done in those writing weeks. So now I’m presented with similar circumstances (albeit without the sea, sadly) the sensible thing to do would seem to be to write a new book. So yesterday, I took to social media to gauge interest in a self-published e-book and audiobook (the lead times on paper books are much longer) and the response has encouraged me to make it happen. So here goes!

This is an idea that grew out of a short, ten minute talk, into a longer 25-minute talk, and then into an hour-long slideshow presentation. I was expecting people to be annoyed by it. Instead, the audiences of those shows asked me when the book was coming out. When I said there was no book, they told me in no uncertain terms that there should be.

It’s fair to say that it’s a niche topic and both my agent and the usual publishers I work with have no interest in it. But publishers work in one country at a time and the niche audience who will be interested ion this book on a global scale os pretty big, hopefully. So digital self-publishing is the way to go.

OK Pete, but what’s the frikkin’ book ABOUT? I hear you ask. OK, here goes.

A year or so ago, I picked up this then-newly published book:

It mentions craft beer once on the first page, and then never again. Instead, it puts forward an argument for working with your hands and reviving skills that our technological age has seemingly deprived us of.

It made me realise that the word ‘craft’, when shackled to the word ‘beer’, has had its meaning changed quite substantially. It also made me realise that one big reason there is no satisfactory definition of ‘craft beer’ is that in order to have one, you need to have the definition of the word ‘craft’ fairly locked down. And it isn’t. It’s a word that shifts meaning and struggles against being pinned down.

From here I went off on a journey exploring the concept of ‘craft’ in its broadest sense: the difference between craft, art and science; the artificial separation of manual work and intellectual work; the difference between learned knowledge and innate knowledge and how craft unites the two. I explored the Victorian Arts & Crafts movement and visited William Morris’s house in Walthamstow. I read books by hippie furniture makers, Victorian wheelwrights and professors of linguistics. Each book I read had something important and life-affirming in it. It was a diverse selection of voices, but each one spoke about what makes work, and ultimately life, more meaningful.

Coming back to conversations around craft beer with this broader perspective on craft, I realised that we’re talking about the wrong things. Craft beer is – or can be – an important, meaningful and nourishing concept. In fact it is. When I’ve been speaking to drinkers and makers of craft beer about some of the ideas I’ve explored, they recognise them from their own experience, instantly. But our conversations aren’t framing that experience in a useful way, and that’s why all those debates around the definition of craft beer are so fruitless and infuriating.

So at the moment, the book is called The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ Is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood, and Absolutely Essential. Like most of my books, it’s totally about beer, and at the same time, kind of not really about beer at all.

The book falls into three three parts:

Part One: ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable

I kick of by looking at the evolution of the concept of craft beer, analysing and demolishing attempts to give it a concrete, technical definition, and exploring why this is an impossible task.

Part Two: ‘Craft Beer’ is Hopelessly Misunderstood

Here, in the main part of the book, I explore the broader concept of craft and, where relevant, give examples from beer. I look at the definition of ‘craft’ itself, before going into detail around what I see as three key times when interest in craft spiked, and why:

i) The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, in response to the industrialisation of work (when brewing was going through its own industrial and technological revolution.)

ii) The craft revival of the 1970s, in response to the automation of manual labour and the growth of big brand corporations (when CAMRA appeared in the UK and what would later be called craft brewing emerged in the US.)

iii) The craft revival of the 2010s, in response to online existence, the absolute dominance of corporations, and the deskilling of white-collar work (when the craft beer boom went global.)

Part Three: Craft Beer is Absolutely Essential

Having destroyed definitions of craft beer, then looked at the world of craft more broadly, we come back to ‘craft beer’ and rebuild it using what we’ve learned. I’ll argue that even if it can’t be technically defined, it remains a meaningful and important concept, and focus on the issues that make it so. I finish by looking at alternative terms and dismissing these too, before suggesting a tongue-in-cheek solution for what we should in fact call it.

If that sounds like something you’d be interested in reading, keep checking in here, where as well as writing the book, I’ll also be going through my process, sharing my thoughts around it and talking about how I work, in case that’s useful for anyone else who is considering using this strange time to write that book you’ve always wanted to write.

I’m currently weighing up different options for publication, looking at the pros and cons of Kindle, Patreon etc. I’ll share my experience of this side of things too. My intention is to publish an e-book and audio book (with me narrating) on 25th June, retailing at somewhere between £5 and £7.

I hope you’ll buy it.

11 Comments

11 Comments

Andrew Jorgensen

I’d buy that book. I think you’re dead right to look at the broader meaning of craft first and get clear afterwards what that means for the concept of craft beer. Trying to define craft beer is made more complicated because it’s an essentially contested word because different groups of people can make money using it. The best you can hope to do, in my opinion, is find a technical definition acceptable to a knowledgeable sub-group, like how words like ‘ale’ and ‘lager’ have a technical distinction now in terms yeast behaviour.

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Sean O'Reilly

I think I saw you tweeting about this but didn’t pay much attention. Reading this outline I’m definitely interested in reading the book when it’s done.

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Lisa Harlow

I like the concept Pete and will definitely buy your book but mainly ‘cause I love ya and you gave me that top tip on a certain share issue… keep buggering on mate

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STEVE LAMOND

Would love a print on demand option as struggle to read anything online over a few thousand words

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John Clarke

Well I’ll certainly be buying that – and putting it on the top of my ‘beer books to read’ heap.

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Craig Hill

Looks like a good read – well, which of your books hasn’t been. And good luck especially with trying to link the British or, later, American “Arts and Crafts Movement” to contemporary brewing and drinking. In a previous life I found a ‘definition’ of “Arts and Crafts” as elusive as, now, “Craft Beer”. My theory was/is that there wasn’t/isn’t a ‘Movement’ but more a spectrum. In the case of arts and design, this has The Great Exhibition of 1851 and industrial mass production at one end and John Ruskin, Morris and the Kelmscott tribe at the other with the Aesthetic Movement and Christopher Dresser somewhere in-between. To my mind, for both art and design and brewing, this middle group is the more interesting: Timothy Taylors in the UK, Sierra Nevada in the US and Coopers here in Australia. Looking forward to the book.
And sorry for the rant. We’re also in voluntary self-isolation. Pubs have been closed, there have been periodic shortages at the local bottle-shop. Just too much time on my hands.

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Mark Scott

Pete, I too look forward to the book and the unravelling of the mysterious craft word – a bit like that other one ‘artisan’. I wonder where you will come down on the current state of the microbrewery ‘movement’ – whilst it was a great departure, I am a little tired of overpriced, bizarre tasting brews and still love the good old bitter of the traditional/smaller brewers, eg Harvey’s…

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Matthew Johnson

Stumbled down this rabbit hole while reading comments section on a reddit post pitcher of beer, “craft” beer came up someone linked this particular article…very cool I would definitely read!

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