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‘Craft’ beer & existentialism: an identity crisis?

In the front matter of his new book, Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation’s Finest Beers and Breweries, Andy Crouch revisits the never-ending discussion about “What the heck is craft beer anyway?” If you’ve followed this online, including at Crouch’s blog, this won’t be new.

That he notes it is (at least in part) an “existential debate” seems relevant to a guest post this week at WashingtonCityPaper.com. Greg Engert, the beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, writes that “Craft Brewing Faces an Identity Crisis.”

The debates that continue to arise as to what craft brewing is are inevitable and often interesting. What I find more interesting is the need for craft beer drinkers, myself included, to pin this down, to specifically signify when identifying something as craft-brewed. And these debates always seem to intensify in the face of further complexity, as if craft beer drinkers need to maintain a sort of ownership and authority over a product that is becoming harder and harder to identify by definition. Perhaps even more importantly, the industry is becoming more complex and more difficult to understand and define just as it is also becoming more popular and—dare I say it?—mainstream.

Engert concludes, “In the end, debates about what craft beer is may in actuality be a burgeoning debate about who craft beer may be.”

Existentialists, have at it.

14 Responses to ‘Craft’ beer & existentialism: an identity crisis?

  1. Alan August 10, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    “In the end, debates about what craft beer is may in actuality be a burgeoning debate about who craft beer may be.”

    Whachamazat? I am a clever man whose read his Camus in college but I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. “Who” meaning the brewer? The Drinker? The celebrity jet set brewers lining up for TV gigs that add to the number of things that keep them from actual brewing equipment? Is that the “who”?

    I was thinking about my failed Wicker Man moment idea but I think you just gave it life! If the “who” is the person who makes the first splash on Discovery Food Geographic TV then the first who crashes and burns and embarrasses all will be doing the Wicker Man. As Tiger Woods is to golf (and himself) these days, so shall that person be to good beer.

    We may not know who is craft beer but we sure as hell will know what is craft beer by who isn’t.

  2. Stan Hieronymus August 10, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    “We may not know who is craft beer but we sure as hell will know what is craft beer by who isn’t.”

    If somebody puts that on a T-shirt I may buy it.

  3. Pivní Filosof August 10, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Isn’t this turning into a discussion of what is essentially a label?

    I mean, let’s the stars align in such way that one day we will all say in unison “THIS is what Craft Beer is” (or who). Great! Fantastic! We give ourselves pats in the back and all that, but would it mean “Craft=Good”? I very much doubt it.

    Therefore, even if we did agree on a definition of craft beer it would never guarantee quality. And since the only important thing is what you’ve got in the glass and whether you like it or not, whether that thing is “Craft Beer” or not is absolutely irrelevant.

  4. J August 10, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Ha, I’m with you Stan, I love the quote. I just added it to my rotating database so it may come up next time you visit the Bulletin.

  5. Stan Hieronymus August 10, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    “And since the only important thing is what you’ve got in the glass and whether you like it or not, whether that thing is ‘Craft Beer’ or not is absolutely irrelevant.”

    Max – I would say yes and no. I’m fine with people liking what is in the glass better because the want to drink local or because they like smaller breweries. Just so they realize those things don’t guarantee quality.

    I understand why the Brewers Association needs to be able to define “craft beer” for statistical purposes, but I assure you that most of the beer drinking population pays little attention to that definition. In fact, in our recent road trip through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana I saw “microbrews” advertised many times at bars and in liquor stores. Not sure I saw “craft beer” even once.

  6. Pivní Filosof August 10, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    Seen from the other side of the counter, I see your point, but as a consumer, all those things are irrelevant (though in fact, they can make for interesting topics of conversation and blogging).

    Local, Regional, Micro. Those are concepts that are more easily definable and lately, they’ve been the ones I’m trying to use instead of Craft. Of course, they won’t guarantee quality, either; but then again, nothing but the proper work of a skilled brewer can do it, and still, it will always come down to whether you like that beer or not.

  7. Mike August 11, 2010 at 2:09 am #

    What’s in a name? (disclaimer: I didn’t make that up) Frankly, I don’t care what a beer is called (that includes “beer styles”). How does it taste? Do I want another? If I come back six months from now, will it taste the same?

    These are the issues I prefer to deal with.

    Who says big breweries can’t make good beer (i.e., Moortgat, Palm, Pilsener Urquell, et al)?

    Stan, I completely disagree that the Brewers Association has a valid reason for using the phrase. Can you name one other industry that divides its companies into large/small, good/bad? Neither can I.

  8. Stan Hieronymus August 11, 2010 at 5:55 am #

    Mike – I guess you would call it an “insider” thing. Those within the beer industry have long broken what is sold into categories. Here is an example:

    IRI Beer Category Mid-Year Sales Overview.

  9. Mike August 11, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    Stan, that information comes from Modern Brewery Age (magazine?). What does that have to do with the Brewers Association making up a category called “craft”? And, again, can you name another industry group that defines member companies by the (alleged) quality of their products?

  10. Jeff Alworth August 11, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Definitely existential. There are too many moving parts, and they don’t inhabit the same symbolic space. You have brewery size on the one hand and some very nebulous idea about “quality” on the other. Add into this the always irrelevant question of ingredients, and you have an unsolvable riddle. Other confounding factors: style (how do you handle lite beer on the one hand and lambic, say, on the other), intention (stuff that comes in cans sold by national campaigns featuring scantily-clad women), market dominion, and “independence” (another pretty random criteria of the Brewers Association).

    I tend to think of “good beer” and “bad beer.” Definitions must be based on the liquid in the glass, not the size of vat from which it issued. It raises an entirely different set of problems, but at least they all track to one another.

    The fact that we continue to have this debate is an artifact of the industry’s youth. In 50 years, Americans won’t be discussing this at all.

    In related news, Pyramid/MacTarnahan’s/Magic Hat was today purchased by a massive conglomerate.

  11. Stan Hieronymus August 11, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    I don’t want to revisit the debate at the BA definition (read the achives at Crouch’s blog, here, or many other places). I pointed to the link because – outside of that curious last sentence – Engert’s suggestion to look at it from the drinker’s view makes sense.

    Mike, to answer you question about the IRI link. I wanted to point out that categorization is not done at the behest of the BA but for those who sell beer. IRI tracks thousands of products in thousands of stores. I don’t see the breakdown beyond beer but it makes sense they treat other products the same way. Nielsen does the same thing. People selling stuff have been tracking it long before the BA existed.

    Although I have no urge to discuss the BA definition I did take a look at it and don’t see quality as part of the definition.

    Finally, the government divides breweries into size for taxation purposes.

  12. Mike August 12, 2010 at 2:36 am #

    Rest easy, Stan, I don’t want to bring up that debate either.

    What I was reacting to was your sentence: “I understand why the Brewers Association needs to be able to define “craft beer” for statistical purposes…” I still see no connection whatever between the Brewers Association and the statistics you quoted above or any other connection.

    Secondly, you wrote: “Although I have no urge to discuss the BA definition I did take a look at it and don’t see quality as part of the definition.” Stan, it’s in the definition of the word. Why didn’t they just use “microbrewery”?

    I have long been convinced that marketing plays an unhealthy role in the US beer scene. I assume it began with the industrial brewers, but it seems to have been picked up enthusiastically by the microbrewers as well. I would imagine that marketing is also within the purview of the Brewers Association.

  13. Stan Hieronymus August 12, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

    Mike – Will send longer (too long for comment) explanation of categorization and the need of stats via email.

    That craft describes process, but does not assure quality, is one reason this became an “existential debate.” Micro was reserved long ago for smaller (first 10,000 barrels, then 15,000) breweries.

  14. TLeeJr August 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    How do the folks in Italy define the industry that makes the wines for the small bistro’s and restaurants? They’re most often served from casks into colorful pitchers onto every table, a red and a white. Some of them are made in the back room by the Chef/Cook, some are made by his cousin/friend/brother/sister/etc. down the block or across town or across the country.
    I define it as good wine, or not so good wine. Origin? The pitcher on my table. If it’s locally produced, I like it better, because that’s why I go to other places, to experience them. Why try to name that which cannot, (and should not), be named? You’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle. fuggitaboudit.

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