| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Craft - An Argument

The future of “craft beer” depends upon us changing the arguments around it.

My new book, Craft: An Argument is published today. Written and self-published in the last thirteen weeks, it’s an argument at least ten years in the making.

Does anyone still care about the meaning of the term “craft beer”?

I’m afraid I do – passionately.

Debates – sometimes furious arguments – have been going on for at least fifteen years now. I often hear craft beer dismissed as a “meaningless marketing term”, both by people who think it’s been co-opted by big brewers, and by people who think it never meant anything in the first place, on the grounds that it lacks a tight, technical definition.

Attempts by industry bodies to create such a definition have been fighting an orderly retreat since 2005: they began as multi-faceted lists of all the attributes many of us visualise when we think of craft beer. Thanks to both the growth and diversification of craft brewers and the attempts by Big Beer to co-opt craft, from an industry point of view, the only meaningful aspect of “craft beer” is that it is produced by an independent brewery. Brewer’s Associations around the world are steadily rebranding as associations of independent brewers, and seem to be quietly retiring the word “craft” from use, just as they did “microbrewery” a decade ago.

So “craft beer” is in all kinds of problems. If we say craft = independent, like the US Brewers Association currently does, then Yuengling Light – a cheap, adjunct-filled mass-market lager made by a massive corporation – is officially a craft beer. Meanwhile, Goose Island Bourbon County Barrel-aged stout – regarded by many as the best barrel-aged stout in the world – is not a craft beer, on the grounds that Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. In this warped reality, it’s hardly surprising if people think “craft beer” has lost its usefulness.

The thing is, millions of people around the world are really into something they call “craft beer”. To many of them – particularly the early adopters and the people who are really engaged whit the industry, independent ownership is a really important part of what they’re buying into. But to people who are already happy drinking beer owned by large corporations, and just getting into craft, telling them they “should” be drinking independent beer is a bigger task.

So this book is an attempt to separate craft beer from independence, and express its meaning in a way that works for any beer or brewery.

I argue that small, independent breweries not only need protection from rapacious Big Beer for their own sake, but also because they give the whole beer market the energy and dynamism that keep it healthy.

But that’s no longer quite the same thing as craft, because big breweries and craft breweries change as they affect one another. So to find a new understanding of and relevance for the idea of craft beer, I’ve looked at the much older idea of craft as it applies beyond beer.

Firstly, there’s this nonsensical idea, which many craft beer fans are reluctant to acknowledge, that craft beer has to be from a newish brewer rather an a traditional, long-established firm, and that it has to come with cool, funky packaging and design. There is no other area of craft where these factors are even considered. But every time someone argues that traditional British cask ale, which is produced in small batches by a master craftsperson, marketed locally, using established techniques and ingredients to create a product that is more flavourful and complex than mainstream beer, is not a craft beer, they expose the fact that for them, craft is more about image than the beer itself.

Looking closer at the broader idea of craft puts real ale at the heart of craft beer. And maybe that’s why these are the beers that directly inspired the US craft beer movement the first place.

In addition, I found that independence and ownership are never mentioned in discussions of “craft” outside beer. Craftspeople always had wealthy patrons, sponsors or customers. What really matters is that craftspeople have some independence of action – that they are in charge of how they work, and can feel some degree of ownership over the tools they use, and a say in how the work turns out. It is far, far more likely that this will happen in a small, independent organisation than a large corporation, but not exclusively so.

Another important point to note is that we assume crafted products will be higher quality than mainstream, mass-manufactured products, and that the person making them will have a higher than average degree of skill. We expect this in craft beer and take it for granted. But it is absolutely not guaranteed. Craftspeople in other areas serve long apprenticeships before they can adopt that title. While there are apprenticeships and qualifications in craft brewing, no one is under any obligation to take them before buying a brew kit and calling themselves a craft brewer. Problems of quality and consistency in craft brewing are a threat to its integrity.

Finally, craft is as much an emotional idea as it is a practical one. It’s a rejection of the values of a mainstream that enforces homogeneity and conformity. When you can buy a cheap, perfectly made thing of reliable quality, even if it’s a bit dull – be that an IKEA chair, a Big Mac or a can of Budweiser – you’re making a statement by spending more money on a crafted alternative. You’re buying into a set of ethics and values as well as buying a thing.

Again, it’s far more likely that small, independent brewers will embody all of these aspects, but it’s not guaranteed that a big brewer never will or a small craft brewer always will. So there’s a crucial difference between small and independent, and craft.

This doesn’t get us to a tight, measurable definition of a craft beer or a craft brewer. But tight, measurable definitions go against what craft is all about. Craft is the embodiment of innate knowledge and skill, to the extent that many people who possess this skill cannot begin to put it into words. Craft beer is a concept that is full of meaning, far richer than any attempt to pin it down to a tight definition has ever captured. The lack of such a definition doesn’t really diminish that meaning. For craft beer to survive and flourish, we need to hold any brewery to account on the skills and behaviours that truly make it craft – or not. Because this is what any craft beer drinker – be they a passionate flag-bearer for independence or a mainstream drinker looking for a change from Bud – is expecting when they buy the product.

Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential,is available now in e-book format on nearly all major platforms around the world.(Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site, Kobo, Nook, and Google Play. It will be on Apple iBooks as soon as we figure out their Kafkaesque bugginess.) The book will also be available in a print-on-demand version by the end of the week, and an audiobook as soon as the incessant fucking drilling outside our house allows us to finish recording it.

Advance Reviews of Craft: An Argument

“One of the leading beer thinkers of our time, Pete delivers up well crafted, important insights into the nature of modern brewing. A must-read for brewers wanting to find their sense of place amongst the shifting sands of marketing, business, consumers and trends.”
Matt Kirkegaard, Brews News

“In 2009’s Hops and Glory, Pete Brown took a cask to India in order to reveal the true nature of India pale ale. In 2020’s Craft: An Argument, he does the metaphorical equivalent to arrive at the meaning of ‘craft’ as it pertains to beer. While the journey is certainly shorter, it is no less rigorous, compelling, or splendidly entertaining.”
Stephen Beaumont, co-author, The World Atlas of Beer

“Exciting and exuberant, this is a fascinating and fantastically articulate argument and polemic that heads straight to the heart of craft beer, written by a master craftsman at the height of his literary powers.”
Adrian Tierney-Jones, 1001 Beers: You Must Try Before You Die

9 Comments

9 Comments

Frank

For a moment I wasn’t sure whether I should wait for the printed version and reserve space next to your other books, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I bought the kindle version in advance. Stay safe and keep up the good work!

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Martijn Broeders

Hi Pete,

I am possibly interested in buying your book Craft: an argument. Do you still have Hops and Glory available as well for me to buy them in a package? Is shipment to The Netherlanfs possible?

Best regards,
Martijn Broeders

Reply
Graham

I’ve always felt a lot of the “craft purism” arguments correlates strongly with music snobbery, whether “I heard them first”, or “major label masquerading as independent / DIY”. Being as my musical experience began in the mid 80s I don’t know if that’s so relevant to the streaming generation but I have personal experience of this with the indie and hardcore scenes and I know it exists in folk, jazz and no doubt most other genres. For example, from the above:
= “independent”, with endless arguments over who is actually “independent” (one extreme that I know of: a major 90s punk zine refused to review any record with a bar code)
= “should always be new and differently packaged”, i.e. image > substance
= new bands supposedly and automatically have a higher skill level than those who’ve been playing for years
= ignorance that small bands and record labels can be as rapacious as the big ones.
= emotional connection to ‘rejecting the mainstream’
Compare, for example, with Camden Town brewery: well regarded ‘craft’ (i.e. ‘sticking it to The Man’) which was actually founded by the son of a hedgie with the express – though hidden to the public – intent of getting it big enough to sell on for £squillions. The purists screamed “betrayal” when it was sold but in hindsight they’d been fooled from day one.
Being an old fashioned sort of reader I look forward to seeing the print-on-demand version.

Reply
PeteBrown

Hi Graham,

Funnily enough this is a comparison I explore in some detail in the book! The book even ends up back there explicitly in the postscript, and my experience and timeline on the issue is exactly the same as yours.

Print version is now up on Amazon!
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Craft-completely-undefinable-hopelessly-misunderstood/dp/1838049819/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Not very Indie, but far, far easier to sort out than any other channel re print-on-demand. We’re still struggling to upload it elsewhere…

Cheers

Pete

Reply
MJW

I love what I consider US craft classics like Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn and Anchor Steam but I’m finding that a lot of current UK ‘craft’ is increasingly feeble home brew style beer that’s been overhopped to make up for its deficiencies. There are endless thin, grainy, pale ales and IPAs that are a pastiche of the classic US beers. It’s just boring now.

Reply
Ian Laker

If you think home brewed beer is second rate you’re out of touch. Exactly the same range of ingredients are available (including the yeast strains). It’s then down to the skill and passion of the brewer (at whatever scale) to equal or surpass commercial equivalents.

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Ian Laker

As usual there are so many ‘yes!’ moments of agreement in this book, which I’ve interrupted my re-reading of Miracle Brew for, that it’s too much to go into here. Suffice to say my loudest ‘yes!’ And guffaw was in reaction to the point about the mechanised sparge arm. As an experienced home brewer, I still use a watering can to sparge with, recently for my Willamette green hop beer. Great book once again Pete and a worthy product of lockdown, as is my diverse ‘craft’ home brew. If I do say so etc.

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Iain Beauchamp

Any chance of a way to buy that doesn’t add to Amazon’s coffers?

It seems ironic to buy a book on the importance of craft (and maintaining competition), through a channel which is probably the prime (pun intended) example of big business resulting in the closure of independents?

I’d ideally like a physical copy that can sit with your other 3 books, but I’d be willing to PayPal you for access to a secure part of the site to read it…

Keep up the good work!

Reply
PeteBrown

Hi Iain, I feel your frustration and share it to a very large degree. Our initial plan was to publish with a variety of platforms, and we would have followed through on that if we could have. Amazon was the easiest to navigate, and when we got stuck on alternative platforms, such as with file not uploading when they should have, they wouldn’t even reply to repeated requests for help. So we were stuck with Amazon. I do have a stock of printed books. Again, these are printed by Amazon (and there’s a tiny blurb on then last page that we cannot remove) as it was by far the cheapest and quickest alternative, but I can at least sell them direct, meaning very little of your money goes to them. If you ping us a message with your details via the contact form, I can sort that out.

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