Do we really need to have this conversation again?
All right. It looks like we do. There are a lot of new folks entering the fold. Not everyone was here the previous 2,160 times we beat this deeply into the dirt, pulverizing the horse’s carcass.
That’s the only way I can explain the recent filing of a class action suit that hinges largely on the definition of “craft” brewing. In fact, the complaint addresses more important things than that, but it emphasizes the “craft” thing, so that’s what people will talk about. So let’s get on with it.
In San Diego, a law firm filed the complaint April 25 on behalf of a plaintiff named Evan Parent—and, in theory, on your behalf too, assuming you’re a beer consumer who does not like to be deceived. (You can read the full complaint right here.)
The argument is that MillerCoors has lied to us all by selling the popular Blue Moon as a “craft” beer. After all, MillerCoors brews 76 million barrels yearly at eight factories across the country. How could that be considered “craft,” a category for which we—sometimes against our better judgment—tend to pay extra?
That “craft” argument hangs its hat on the definition from the Brewers Association — an industry group for companies that fit its own, evolving, self-definition. Its members know the definition, and many writers and hard-core geeks know it (see: horse carcass, above). But few people who buy beer would have any want or need to care.
Here’s the thing: Few people outside the Brewers Association, bless their hearts, really take that definition seriously. How could we? We know that if we were to start a brewery and make 6 million barrels of imitation Bud, and were 25 percent owned by Coca-Cola, we could still be a member and call our stuff craft-brewed.
And so—this pains me —it looks like we’re going to have this “craft” talk again. But if so, let’s do right by the newcomers. Let’s start from scratch. The early stuff adds perspective. I’ll keep it short.
Pick your dictionary but in modern English the word “craft” usually denotes an art or skill; the implication is something handmade, with particular attention to quality and detail. Its first modern use in connection to beer was probably in 1977, when author Michael Jackson referred to “craft brewers” and “craft brewing” in the context of Belgium and France. My conjecture: It was his reasonable translation of the French artisanale. And like so many of Jackson’s words, it also sounded very nice.
But it didn’t stick. Instead, it would wait for the American and British microbrewing movements to take off and mature. There were a lot fewer breweries back then, and virtually none of them used the word “craft.”
In 1986, Vince Cottone in his Good Beer Guide: Brewers and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest took a stab at defining “craft brewer.” He was probably the first to try in a serious way. His definition wouldn’t stick either, but the ideal seems so quaint now that many of us might wish it had:
“I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally. I refer to this beer as True Beer…”
He went on to define “True Beer” in detail, summarizing it as “hand-made locally in small batches using quality natural ingredients, served on draft fresh and unpasteurized.”
It may be worth noting at this point that today’s independent brewers are likely to have computer-automated brewhouses (i.e., not “hand-made”), to filter their beer to pour clear from the bottle or aluminum can, or to distribute nationally or internationally. They even pasteurize it sometimes. Is it craft? Up to you. You and your dog can each write your own definitions and they will have no more or less legal significance than Cottone’s or the Brewers Association’s.
And so, these discussions have been going on for years and years now. Nobody is any closer to nailing this thing down.
My opinion: The definitions that ring truest embrace the subjective, rather than avoid it. These suggest that if craft means anything, it means that brewing decisions are based on flavor and quality over and above profit margin, rather than vice versa. But that rests on the intentions of brewers and interpretations of drinkers. It’s an ideal that winds up at the same place: businesses trying to make money. (And what’s wrong with that?)
In these discussions I’m always reminded of a saying scrawled on the courtyard walls of the Kerkom farmhouse brewery in Limburg, Belgium: “We brew it here, we drink it here, and we sell what’s left.” Many who identify as craft brewers take pains to say that they “only brew the beer that they like to drink.” But this gets harder and harder to swallow with these breweries putting out dozens or hundreds of brands, under pressure to meet our apparently insatiable demand for seasonals, one-offs, collaborations, and new new new.
So, Mr. and Ms. Brewer, you mean you like to drink all of these beers? Unlikely.
This phenomenon of endless novelty also raises the question of what craft is really about. What if it was never about quality? What if it was all about variety — just the chance to drink something new and different — from the very start?
After all, did Michael Jackson’s wonderful books do anything better than show us the wider realm of drinking possibility? He showed us the world’s variety that our shops and bars lacked.
The quality part, and flavor, those were always up to us to decide. And if it matters how much it costs, or how small the brewery is, or how close it is to home… It’s still up to us, each time we open our wallets. At least we have more choices now.
I have no idea if that lawsuit will go anywhere. (I’m not a lawyer but the word “frivolous” comes to mind.) But it will be discussed, and maybe that’s what the parties want — attention, to the issue or to themselves. Publicity. Fine. We’ll play.
Because with luck more of that attention will go to the more interesting and important issue in the complaint: truth in labeling. Not the truth about whether a beer is “craft” — have fun! — but the truth about who makes the beer we drink, and where they make it. These are discussions taking place in other countries where breweries are multiplying and companies that pretend to be breweries are cashing in.
We live in a time when many people care deeply about where their food and drink comes from, they base purchases on that information, and they probably pay extra for it. Putting it on the label doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
And hey — why not? — while we’re at it let’s tackle complete lists of ingredients, and arguably the single most important piece of health information on a label: alcohol by volume.
Unfortunately, these issues might be obscured by a class action suit that tries to dig up a dead horse, where now there is only dust.