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What is a “Craft Brew”?

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I’m late to the party on this one because I was out of town (and I’ve been drinking Olde English 800). Over at Seen Through a Glass Lew Bryson is mulling the meaning of the term “craft beer” and whether it applies Anheuser-Busch’s Beach Bum Blonde Ale.

There’s a lot of back and forth in the comments as to the definition (including my own), but it’s not all that difficult as long as one remembers the meaning of the word “craft”. And I’m not talking some marketing hack’s spin on the word “craft” — marketers play fast and loose with words (I know, I am one) — I’m talking the real meaning.

From my handy-dandy Websters New International Dictionary of English:

Craft: ‘kraft 1: Dexterity, Skill 2: an occupation requiring dexterity or artistic skill.

By extension, a “craftsman” is one who exercises his artistic skill, and one who is “crafty” is clever or skilled.

So then, what is a “craft beer”?

Obviously, it’s one that is produced by dexterity or artistic skill (and perhaps with a little cleverness).

Is AB’s Beach Bum Blonde good beer? Perhaps. (I’ve never tasted it.) But is it “craft beer”? No. Because anyone who’s ever taken a tour of an AB brewing plant knows that the system is highly automated and controlled. Malt is boiled, wort is pumped, hops are added, wort is chilled and fermented, and beer is eventually bottled all via computer control according to a pre-programmed recipe. Human involvement is usually limited to people in bunny suits pushing buttons and looking at display screens. (And maybe a QA person taking some weights and measures to see if the system is on track.)

Now go to your favorite local small brewery and take a look at its system. Do you see technicians in bunny suits behind big glass windows monitoring computer controlled hoppers and automated heating, transfer and chilling systems? I doubt it. Most likely you see guys in rubber boots running around the brewery checking gauges, running pumps and double-checking their notes.

AB is “technology”, your local brewery is “craft”.

I think people are getting muddled in their thinking because they are making “craft brew” synonymous with “micro brewery” and “good beer”, but that’s simply not the case.

“Technology breweries” and “craft breweries” can be any size. If you’ve got the money you can build a totally automated brewery that produces only 30 barrels. And if you’ve got the manpower, you can have a non-automated brewery that produces 3 million barrels. Each is equally capable of making good beers as well as bad ones. (I’d even go as far as to say that craft brewers produce more bad beer because the lack of automation allows for more human error.) Both would probably even employ true craftsmen as brewers. (Someone has to design the beer.)

It’s how they go about producing their product that separates the two. If you rely on technology and systems to produce your beer, you’re one kind — a technology brewery — and you’re usually large. If you rely on your skill, artistry and manual dexterity to make your beer, then you’re a craft brewer — and you’re usually small.

It’s that simple. One is not better than the other. (In fact, one often starts as the other — every big American brewery was a craft brewer at one point.) Don’t fall into the marketing hacks’ trap and let them make “craft brew” a code phrase for “microbrew is better than macrobrew”. It’s the beer that makes the difference, not how it’s produced.

5 Comments

  1. Steve

    hmmm… the way you described A-B facilities… could also describe Stone’s….. I get what you are saying, but does the technology really countervail the art and science of something?

    Still, for the main point, I agree it’s not craft beer, but this is an easy one because it’s one of the world’s largest breweries we’re talking about here…. now if it were Sam Adams………………..

    Reply
  2. Beer Sage

    You’re right — it does describe Stone now. It’s no longer “craft beer” — really good beer, yes, just not craft beer. (Ask Stone’s former brewer Lee Chase).

    I think we need to get away from automatically assuming that trowing the word “craft” in front of “beer” somehow makes the beer better. All great beers start out as “craft beers”. The ones that are truly exceptional become popular and move out of a “craft” stage and get mass-produced.

    Nothing wrong with that. It makes good beer more available.

    Reply
  3. Stan Hieronymus

    Sage,

    1 I’ve always been partial to this quote from Dirk Naudts of De Proef Brouwerij in Belgium:

    “We want to show our customers that the craft of brewing is as important today as it ever was. Brewing with the necessary craftsmanship, following the rules of the art. Artisanal is not a synonym for dirty or old-fashioned; it means brewing as one ought to, while at the same time applying modern know-how and technology.”

    I would argue that you can employ the most modern technology and still have a beer with soul, or be small, low tech and soul-less.

    Leading us to …

    2. It’s the beer that makes the difference, not how it’s produced.

    How it’s produced is part of the beer to some of us: Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel, Soul.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan

    I don’t know if any of ya’ll listen to James Spencer’s Basic Brewing Radio (a free podcast), but he’s been discussing this topic the last few months. It seems to be cropping up a lot lately. I think he dedicated a half hour to the subject, pouring over listener-submitted comments. Some are good, some are… not. But if you’re interested, check it out: basicbrewingradio.com.

    Reply

So, what do you think ?