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