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The craft beer conundrum: What does it mean?

Beer on the mindI looked up the word conundrum to make sure I was using it appropriately (a question or problem having only a conjectural answer). I already knew I couldn’t look up “craft beer” – thus the conundrum.

We’ve debated the challenge of defining craft beer in this blog and maybe 80 percent of those listed to the right, as well as at Rate Beer, Beer Advocate, the Real Beer community and in at least 1,387 American brewpubs. Good bar talk – as witnessed by the scores of comments in the most recent discussion started by Lew Bryson.

A lot of good – and important – reading, but I don’t see a succinct definition emerging. It’s pretty obvious that debating the meaning of craft beer could occupy an entire semester of Beer Philosophy 101 and still there’d be no conclusion.

I can live with that. I spent a good portion of my working life as a copy editor and supervising copy editors. Writing and editing is a lot easier when you’ve got a dictionary to fall back on. And have I little choice but to use the term craft beer in some stories that I write. I just did a quick search in a story I filed last week for New Brewer, the publication that goes to Brewers Association members, and I see I used the phrase three times. In all three cases, even though the definition is imperfect, no other would have worked as well.

So perhaps whenever I type craft beer here I should include a link to the 50th comment, posted by Mr. Bryson himself.

The real subject is beer, or as Lew writes the beer in the glass.

Which takes us back to where the discussion started, a Anheuser-Busch Beach Bum Blonde Ale tasting note, and Lew’s column earlier in the month about the benefits of tasting beer blind.

I have this blog with a name – that to many people doesn’t exactly make sense – predicated on the idea that where your beer comes from (way before it gets in your glass) and how it is made changes what is in the glass and how you feel about it. So I think it’s OK to give extra points (were we scoring the beer – which of course we don’t do around here) to New Belgium Mothership Wit beer because it’s organic or because of the brewery’s commitment to sustainability or because you like bicycles.

But you are shorting yourself if you don’t objectively evaluate what’s in the glass. That means you don’t give a brewer you like a pass when he or she conjures up a below average beer. It means that if you see a good reason to try a beer from a brewery you’re not a fan of that you give yourself an honest chance to like the beer.

Craft is not a synonym for good or an antonym for evil empire.

I started to write a comment to meet Lew’s request to describe the “characteristics (of craft beer) that you can see, taste, and smell in the glass” before I realized (d’oh) the description wasn’t about craft beer, but just beer itself.

16 Responses to The craft beer conundrum: What does it mean?

  1. SteveH June 25, 2007 at 9:38 am #

    “I started to write a comment to meet Lew’s request to describe the ‘characteristics (of craft beer) that you can see, taste, and smell in the glass’ before I realized (d’oh) the description wasn’t about craft beer, but just beer itself.”

    Are you so sure? There are many beverages out there claiming to be beer that don’t have much to see, taste, or smell. I posed that question at Lew’s. Maybe that’s the core of craft beer? Real color, flavor, and aroma?

  2. Stan Hieronymus June 25, 2007 at 11:09 am #

    Steve – That gets to the core of the problem.

    My description would be what sets the beer I like apart from others – generally perceptions that cannot be measured (like IBU or apparent attenuation).

    Stuff like complexity, depth of flavor, hop flavor (vs. IBU), texture.

    “Craft” has been a handy way to ask for the things – color, flavor, aroma – you mention. But really we are asking for them in something we’d happily just call beer.

    Make sense?

  3. SteveH June 25, 2007 at 11:38 am #

    Character.

  4. Loren June 26, 2007 at 4:49 am #

    “Craft is not a synonym for good or an antonym for evil empire.”

    Well..it is a term mainly defined by the brewers association to track numerical success of “favored” breweries versus those considered “evil”, don’t you think? Which is why trying to nail down the exact meaning of craft amongst geeks is such a terrible question to ask. But…ask the CEOs of Bud, Miller and Coors why don’t ‘ya? I bet they’re ALL on the same page.

  5. Stan Hieronymus June 26, 2007 at 5:41 am #

    But…ask the CEOs of Bud, Miller and Coors why don’t ‘ya? I bet they’re ALL on the same page.

    Yes, that their beer is a well-crafted, quality product.

  6. HopsFanatic June 26, 2007 at 6:30 am #

    So would craft beer be one of those I know what it is when I see it things?

    In that case would Beach Bum Blond be a craft beer?

  7. SteveH June 26, 2007 at 6:40 am #

    That’s how the whole conversation started: http://lewbryson.blogspot.com/

    Scroll down to the review of Beach Bum, that spawned the split discussion of Craft Beer.

  8. HopsFanatic June 26, 2007 at 8:13 am #

    Maybe I’m just being a troublemaker, but I want Stan to say if he considers Beach Bum a craft beer.

    And if it passes the “complexity, depth of flavor, hop flavor (vs. IBU), texture” test.

  9. SteveH June 26, 2007 at 10:18 am #

    Have to tell ya, if you ever had the opportunity to try the Michelob Hefeweizen that was part of the variety pack last fall/winter, you’d probably be surprised. OTOH, the new all malt Michelob falls far short in all categories — IMHO.

  10. Stan Hieronymus June 26, 2007 at 11:04 am #

    First, HopsFanatic, didn’t mean to duck your question. I was working on the next post.

    Since my sense of “craft” is based on the Brewers Association definition (though I would include Widmer, Goose Island, et al in the club) I couldn’t call it craft. I would call it a specialty beer.

    As to my personal test, I haven’t had the current version (Lew suggests it is different). But last year’s didn’t have the character that would cause me to pick it – and I’m using a local, draft example – over Il Vicino Pig Tail.

    SteveH, my Michelob experience is a total flip. I was impressed by the Hefe last October at GABF, and it was the reason I went to a little bit of trouble to track down the variety pack. Maybe it was an antcipation thing, but then the Hefe didn’t stand up to what’s dependable here – Weihenstephan and Flying Dog.

    And maybe it was because I had no preconceptions about the all-malt Michelob but I was impressed. Didn’t pass the “but it” test but there was a lot there.

  11. SteveH June 26, 2007 at 12:09 pm #

    I didn’t have an opportunity to try the Mich Hefe pre-variety pack as you did, but don’t get me wrong either; I was surprised by the quality and character to style in coming from A-B, but would I pick it over Schneider, Capital, Sprecher or other outstanding Hefeweizens available? Probably not, it didn’t stand up that well, but I wouldn’t hesitate to drink it at a spot that carried A-B products only (a common occurance around Chicago).

  12. Jeff Alworth June 27, 2007 at 7:20 pm #

    You’re right that the only way to evaluate whether a beer is a “craft” beer is to strap on the blinders and taste a beer straight. For me, a “craft” beer is one in which the brewer’s commitment is to the beer, not the sale. Craft beer can be made by big breweries, and crap beer can be made by micros. In fact, when you go into a brewpub, there’s almost always a beer or two that the brewer obviously just mailed in. In our neck of the woods, “goldens” are code for “drink this if you want a Bud substitute.” The drinker won’t love it, and the brewer doesn’t love it, but there it is.

    The craft beer movement came out of the impulse to make good beer, not to get rich. With the exception of that speculative five-year span in the early 90s or 20 years, that was the only intention. A-B could make beer that half the country drank, but ‘Lil Brewery X opened up to make great beer for people in the neighborhood.

    Inevitably, business has entered the equation. The lines between “craft” breweries” and commercial breweries is getting a little blurry (I recently wrote a post on Henry Weinhard’s new Amber–a $7-per-sixer “commercial” organic). A lot of craft breweries are focus-grouping their new releases to find saleable offerings.

    But it still seems evident to me what “craft” beer is. It’s right there in the name–

    craft (n) – an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill.

  13. Lew Bryson June 27, 2007 at 9:15 pm #

    Jeff,
    You say strap on the blinders…but then you define “craft” beer by things that the blinders keep out! Your definition of “craft” beer works fine for a “craft” brewery, but if this is all just about who’s making the beer and not what it tastes like…shit, man, wasn’t that one of the big problems we all had with macrolager? Didn’t matter what it tasted like, so long as the brand was there and the ads told us to drink it?

  14. Stan Hieronymus June 28, 2007 at 5:30 am #

    I’m OK with being loyal to a brand – isn’t there some anticipation in tasting what’s new from one of your favorite breweries?

    You just have to keep your bearings, evaluate how that brewery/brand is doing. And be willing to accept that the next beer from Anheuser-Busch may blow your socks off.

    I love this line: For me, a “craft” beer is one in which the brewer’s commitment is to the beer, not the sale.

    My only quibble would be you can be committed to both.

    If you are as goofy as me you think that this translates into something tangible you can taste in the glass.

  15. Jeff Alworth June 28, 2007 at 3:42 pm #

    Lew, I’m not following you totally here (though I appreciate the conversation you started). My feeling is that macros can make craft beer. They tend to sabotauge (sp?) themselves by thinking of a mass audience though, which means they dumb down the beer. This is just the thing–they moderate the “craft” by thinking about the market. You can’t serve two masters. (Okay, that’s not true–Stan’s right, but more in a minute.)

    Actually, the local Willamette Week had me lead a tasting a couple years back when AB came out with a couple winter seasonals (Budweiser Brew Masters Private Reserve and the “oak-aged dark vanilla” Michelob Celebrate). Obviously, AB has the greatest assembled talent in America on its team and could, if it wished, produce a sublime winter ale. We got together a couple brewers (Christian Ettinger, Alan Sprints) a barkeep, and a bunch of WW staffers, and then tried the beer in a flight with NW seasonals. The second the two AB products came out, literally everyone in the room knew it, and mocking ensued.

    And the flip side is also true. Mostly in the NW, breweries don’t carefully “craft” their sessions and milds. This is a minor theme of mine, because they’re actually the hardest beers to brew well. My guess is that they are brewing up light beers for people they assume don’t like beer–something for Aunt Millie, when she comes along with the fam. Anyway, whatever their motivation, these aren’t well-crafted.

    An even better example are those periodic micros that come along purely as a business venture; they make midrange, inoffensive, focus-grouped beers that are brewed in “craft” styles, but are nevertheless purely commercial products.

    To Stan, who rightly points out that commerce and art need not be different. For the brave who trust their beers, this is spot-on. I cite Deschutes in the Oregon market as a classic case of this. When we had the late-90s shakeout, a lot of breweries hired PR firms and tried to overcome the dip with good packaging and mass-market appeal (in their recipes as well). But Deschutes kept on plugging away, counter-intuitively making more characterful beers while other breweries were searching for a mass-audience winner. In what was a perfectly predictable outcome, Deschutes used that moment to outstrip the competition and has grown like crazy. Other breweries got the message, and now Oregon breweries mostly don’t mess around with mass-market offerings. And surprise! Oregon’s beer is far outselling the national craft market (up 17% last year).

    And now, having gone on too long, I’ll shut up.

  16. Jeff Alworth June 28, 2007 at 3:44 pm #

    Oh, and one other example: Guinness, which is among the biggest breweries in the world. While I find their American draft pretty thin soup, Extra Stout is on my top ten list. Macro craft.

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