07 June 2012

Commentary/Conversation: Is It Time to Get Rid of the Word "Craft" in Craft Beer?

Is it time to get rid of the word "craft" in craft beer? I say yes. The word doesn't carry much weight any more and it is being misused that craft=quality. That isn't the case. When does beer win?

We're at a point where "craft" is being used the same way "artisan" is - Domino's Artisan Pizza, for example - hell, there's a whole blog about that trend.

I guess my question is this: who's really misusing the label? Brands or people like us?

I think about the moniker like "support craft beer" or #drinkcraftbeer type items. A new brewery opens up and we say "congratulations you brew craft beer". Is that right or a misuse of advertising and riding coat tails so to speak.

It makes me think of the various buzz words used in food items that don't really mean anything anymore.

"Craft" obviously means different things to different people. When people say "support craft beer", what are they really saying? Buy local? Buy quality? Buy small batches?

The problem is that people automatically connect "craft" to "quality". That's not always true. I know of plenty of "small, independent, traditional" breweries that meet the Brewers Association definition of craft brewery but can't put a decent beer out to save their lives. But it is easy to measure the size, the ingredients, and the ownership. It is not so easy to define what is "good". Sometimes "craft beers" that I wouldn't touch end up being popular to some people. Obviously tastes differ.

What we don't have is a "mark" or "seal" for quality beers. But who would make that determination? And how?

I've noticed Mike using the term "better beer." I like that.

To me, "craft" pretty much means not Budweiser, Miller or Coors. Which is to say, any style of beer that's not American Light Lager. It doesn't mean the beer is good, it just means that it's not a global mega brand.

The whole issue doesn't bother me much. We used to call it microbrew beer. I've always just called it beer and only make the distinction when there is an obvious disconnect with the other person in the conversation. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewery by size, but that's starting to exclude a number of quality breweries. So while I agree that it seems silly that we're still using an extra adjective to describe every brewery that's not a global mega brand, there still needs to be some distinction. And while we're at it, why do we keep referring to things as "imports." BrewDog is as much of a craft brewery as Three Floyds. Referring to beer by style seems like a valid alternative, but that would get confusing really fast for the 90% of people that still think beer turns the Rockies blue. So while I'm not wild about the "craft" label, I think it's still necessary to some degree, even if we change the word "craft" to another word like "artisinal," "independent," or "zydeco."

I certainly don't place any assessment of "quality" on craft beer, just like I don't place it on artisinal or local foods. In fact, the objective quality of a mass produced product is likely much, much higher. They've invested millions of dollars in scientific research to create a repeatable level of quality. I'm pretty sure Half Acre just keeps throwing in the same ingredients with the assumption that it's going to create the same beer. Not that there's something wrong with that, but Budweiser knows when quality has changed before the beer ever hits the bottling line. But if we're talking about "quality" in the way that it just tastes good, I think that's different and entirely subjective. The market still sides with the global mega brands on this one, since their sales numbers are way higher, implying more people prefer those brands. Maybe we should start calling it Adventure Beer, since that's exactly what it is. It's a quest to try more, small scale breweries in hopes that you'll find your new favorite beer and then keeping faith in that brewery to always produce the same beer that you enjoy. When you talk about it that way, "craft" starts to make sense for a lot of the producers. The beer is hand crafted and requires an amount of skill to execute well, and you can be good or bad or even adequate at your craft. Perhaps we should start calling Miller "Science Beer."

I was having a hard time responding to this issue and I think the problem is that you have to define what craft means if you're going to have a problem with its usage. Jason nailed it that craft means different things to different people. From my perspective, it seems that craft is most often used to simply describe anyone brewing beer that isn't BMC. In that way, it's essentially a synonym for microbrew. I think I'm ok with that.

If somebody wants to take back "craft", though, I'm not going to stop them!


  1. I love this conversation. I like the term Micro Brew for these smaller breweries and Macro for the biggies (although where do you put Sam Adams b/c they are pretty Macro at this point). When I hear artisinal I think of places like New Glarus, Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Cigar City and maybe even Dogfish Head, the people doing weird, risky, innovative brews.

  2. The term craft to me implies craftsmanship, as in the way work used to happen before mass assembly line usage. This would mean that true craft breweries are the smaller ones still building beers by hand. When you get into the larger "craft" breweries with their ultra modern brew houses, you find a set up that is essentially push button. You will not find "old world" techniques in the production of their beers.

    Sadly, there was once a time when words like craft and artisnal still referred to hand crafted, old world techniques. The roots of the craft beer movement stem from hand crafted beers without all the fancy bells and whistles.

  3. I'm still struggling with imports v. domestics.

  4. I like where Rod is going: Adventure Beer, but it needs some work.

    I think when most people use "craft" they mean to identify with the process and heart soul of the product, not the quantity. However, if we accept that "craft means quantity" then by all means we need several new terms to develop a thorough range (at least 5 terms) what what kind of brewer a particular brewery is, whether craft, macro, import or whatever other label its already been given.

  5. The domestic vs. import distinction is pretty cloudy these days, too.


  6. I appreciate Jon's point about push button set ups at some of the larger nominally "craft" breweries, but for me the setup is less compelling a consideration than the development of the recipes, product conceptualization and the inputs to the beer. Even if you have a high tech, push button equipment the way that a brewer develops and concocts a recipes, chooses the yeast or even cultivates their own, selects hops and determines addition amount and times to develop, body, flavor and aroma, selects the types and amounts of grains, selects adjuncts and devises any post fermentation steps like barrel aging or dry-hopping is far more indicative of craft or artisinal in my mind.