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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Medium-Shallow Thoughts on Sierra Nevada, Plus Even Shallower Thoughts on Other Matters

I don't like to pick on commenters, for I get most of my pleasure in writing this blog by chatting with people in comments. But something Shawn said stuck in my craw:
Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams really aren't 'craft beer', though. By the legal definition they are, but not by any honest, realistic definition. Of course the 'most popular' are going to be the most widely distributed.
The definition of "craft" beer is one of no little controversy, but can we agree that there's no definition that eliminates Sierra Nevada, makers of some of the finest beer on this or any other planet? Everything about Sierra Nevada bespeaks quality, from their processes to ingredients to recipes to quality control.

Okay, I guess there's one way to critique the brewery: size. Ken Grossman does not stand over a three-barrel mash tun with a wooden canoe paddle. His beer is brewed in industrial-sized tanks with the help of lots of technology. Some people feel that you can't craft a hundred-barrel batch of beer (or whatever Sierra Nevada's is); somehow, the volume prohibits it. The Brewers Association made a similar connection when it declared that craft breweries had to be small and independent, until the independent breweries grew--and now you don't have to be small anymore.

The problem with this of course, is that it means that every small brewery is a craft brewery, no matter if they turn out delicious beer or pond water. (And everyone who loves good beer has had the pond-water experience at some little brewery or another.) Brewery size and beer quality are not correlated. Good beer is good beer, no matter which system it's brewed on or who owns it.

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I commend you to this hilarious, exquisite post from Alan, wherein he writes, among other things:
On the nose, there are notes of petroleum jelly and brown crayon. In my mouth, it is not the beer of yesteryear but a reasonably moderately soft slightly rummy middle with acrid burnt toast finishing beer. Bitter like a bit of white grapefruit set alight by a bit of damp cocoa pod coaxed into flame by a bit of gasoline. There it is - that tang of the plastic and cat sick on the carpet taste that I recall but, to be fair, it is very neatly tucked into a corner. Hardly notice it at all.
You'll have to click through to discover which beer he's writing about.

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More beer-and-Obama news.

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A titanic rant against Budweiser. (A huge amount of wrongness contained therein, but the misinformation and bias sort of adds to the fun.)

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have started to think in terms of national craft, regional craft and local craft. Does that work?

Alan
A Good Beer Blog

a non-mouse said...

Jeff, thanks for standing up for the big guy. ;-) Sierra Nevada had a big part in _defining_ craft brewing, and the fact that they've grown big and successful (while maintaining consistent quality standards, it's important to note) doesn't make them any less a craft brewery. One only has to look at the wide variety of special releases they've brought to market over the past few years to see that brewing is still a *craft* for them.

And Alan, I think your national / regional / local notion is spot on. Craft doesn't equate to small.

olllllo said...

I have the same thoughts about comments, but every once in awhile you have to issue a challenge when something seems unsubstantiated.

The other day someone said there were no "local" beers in AZ because none of the ingredients (including water) were locally sourced.

Another person said that a particular beer was "undrinkable". After I caused him to explain, all he supposedly meant was that it would not be the beer of his choice in a line up of 25.

Words matter.

Shawn said...

So, does craft == good? What is the definition of craft? If Budweiser started making a beer that was on par with the quality of Sierra Nevada, would it be considered a craft beer? If Coca-Cola is good, does that make them a craft soda? Is a Schwinn a craft bike? People love Schwinns, does that make them craft? Or is 'craft' a better description of the bike that an artisan makes by hand in a workshop?

According to dictionary.com: craft - an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.

Is it craft if it's made by computer by the thousand-of-barrels?

I think people throw the word 'craft' around, but no one really knows exactly what it means. I'm not trying to be a pain-in-the-butt, I really am curious to know what is and isn't. Thanks!

Jeff Alworth said...

Shawn, glad I didn't offend you into not commenting.

As you say, "craft" involves making beer with artistry and, err, craft. There's definitely a quality of "good" in there. Breweries all do the same thing whether a guy hauls grain sacks or dispenses malt from a mill by the push of a button. (And everyone I've talked to who has to haul sacks would trade that act in a second if they could automate it.) What matters are the recipes, the way the beer is handled, and the ingredients. Sierra has amazing recipes, they handle their beer better than anyone in the business, and they use the best ingredients--including whole cone hops (which I generally don't rate as better, but it shows how much they care about their craft).

Beyond homebreweries and nanos, all breweries are automated to some degree. I could imagine a traditional (read: ancient) brewery declaring every US brewery a macro because they use pumps instead of gravity to move their beer. Or because they don't wood-fire their kettles or because they use glycol jackets on their fermenters.

If you begin going down the "tech is bad" road, pretty soon you eliminate every American brewery. It's the spirit that counts and, ultimately, the product.

Jeff Alworth said...

Alan, that works for the time being. I think ultimately we're going to have to substantially update the notion of "craft" because, inevitably, there will be a tangle of ownership relationships and the only thing we'll know for sure is whether a beer is well-made. We can look at recipes and ingredients to help with the judgment, but it will not be clear in any case.

Anonymous said...

Well, I sorta use national craft as a euphemism for something that is already questionable. Bulk craft sorta seems to be an oxymoron.

Alan

Shawn said...

So, Jeff, who decides what is 'good'? And how good is good? Some people LOVE Fat Tire. Does that make it craft? Beer geeks cringe at the thought of Fat Tire touching their lips (OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea...). What if I don't like Sierra Nevada? Does that mean I can consider it not craft? See the point that I'm getting at?

If someone takes pride in their beer, but it's just mediocre at best, is that craft?

So what is craft? Widmer Hef? New Belgium Fat Tire or Trippel? Red Hook? Rogue? Heineken?

Jeff Alworth said...

Shawn, I've given you a couple definitions. I haven't heard one from you yet. I think it has to include subjectivity, and it's a sure bet that no definition will deliver us from uncertainty. Let's hear you take a crack at it.

Perros De Maiz said...

yuck! Fat tire.

a non-mouse said...

Shawn, FWIW I for one don't particularly like New Belgium and I _do_ pretty much cringe at the notion of Fat Tire passing my lips, but I still consider them to be a craft brewery.

Perros De Maiz said...

The "what is craft"? What is art"? argument is a tough one. First define it, then describe in those terms.

timdogg said...

"Craft beer" is pretty hard to define. That being said, I know it when I drink it.

Shawn said...

Jeff, I must have missed your definition of 'craft beer.' I'm not trying to be argumentative, but all I've seen it generalities thrown about: it's 'good' and the people who make it, care about it and use 'good' ingredients. Is that basically it?

In addition, none of my other questions have been answered. I posed a number of them, not just 'what is craft beer?'. I'm still in the dark, so any enlightenment would be greatly appreciated.

As for *MY* definition, I've said previously that I do not know what the definition is, which is why I'm asking. There has to be a line drawn somewhere. 'Good' is completely relative. Who's good? How much does someone have to care about the beer that they are brewing?

It seems a little like 'craft beer' is beer that is not Bud, Coors, Miller, PBR, etc. Is Bridgeport craft? Is Shiner Bock? MacTarnahan's? Pyramid?

Here's a nice chart of Ownership of Beer Brands: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/beer.html

Jeff Alworth said...

Shawn, I guess you're in Timdogg's camp: you know it when you see it. For me, craft beer is made with attention to processes, recipes, and quality control. That means no forced aging or other process cheats, no recipes that rely on additives, and no beer released infected, marred by off-flavors, or poorly packaged. My definition relies on the product, not the owner or plant size.

Since you were the one to declare SN and Sam Adams (another brewery I admire) 'aren't craft beer,' I was hoping you'd clarify that statement.

The Graduate said...

just stumled upon this today...great blog... I feel very strongly about national/regional/local craft segments...they cannot be defined as anything smaller

a non-mouse said...

Shawn, I'd say that the drive to experiment, innovate and produce a wide range of styles is part of what defines craft brewing. If Sierra Nevada had decided to narrow their line and focus soley on mass production of Pale Ale, I'd be inclined to feel that they were drifting away from my idea of what craft brewing is. The fact that they produce a plethora of styles, seasonals, collaborations and one-offs, both bottled and draft-only, places them firmly in the craft brewing camp, at least in my mind.

Shawn said...

So, I guess there is a difference between craft brew and a craft brewery? Is that right? Fat Tire might not be a craft beer, but Lips of Faith is. Or am I off base? So does that make New Belgium a craft brewery? I guess it would, since they produce craft beer.

Again, my apologies if I'm beating a dead horse.

Mr. Murphy said...

Two things:
1. craft=small
2. there is absolutely no correlation between the word craft and the word quality.

Craft:
1.an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill: the craft of a mason.
2.
skill; dexterity: The silversmith worked with great craft.

It says right there “manual skill”. To me craft is something you are crafting with your hands. A small scale hand crafted type of thing. I think realistically only home brewers could be considered craft brewers.
The term “craft brewing” has been co-opted as a term by commercial breweries (in the beginning small ones) to market their product as something of higher quality. Craft brewing is completely a marketing term and should not realistically be applied to any automated commercial operation.
There is NO correlation between “craft” and “quality”. A hand crafted necklace or bracelet could be a complete piece of junk that falls apart on you. In many cases “craft” product is the higher quality product but NOT by definition. That crafter just did a better job crafting something then another crafter.
“Craft beer” is a term that was originally and incorrectly used as a way to differentiate new micro start-ups from the existing macros. That is why there is so much confusion now…the term was never used correctly in the first place.
I prefer to drink “good” beer (ingredients, quality of brew equipment, quality of brewer) and there is no business model or size that has sole ownership of that.

Pete Dunlop said...

What is craft beer? If a beer is brewed in a gigantic, computer-run brewery, is it still a craft beer? If Anheuser-Busch buys out Amnesia and starts brewing Copacetic IPA in its big breweries, is Copacetic still a craft beer? I say NO to both of these questions. If the answer is YES, then craft has ceased to have really any meaning...beyond the fact that it isn't macro-brewed lager.

Newhouse said...

Pete, I completely disagree. The designation "craft" is intended to be independent of the size of a brewery, or the technology at its disposal. It's about quality. I find it frustrating that so many beer enthusiasts disparage breweries simply because they have the audacity to grow their business. What harm is there in allowing a quality craft beer to be distributed to more and more people? It's good for the long-term health of the industry, so we should be applauding it.

Barroomhero said...

For every brewery that has an automated system that may or may not be "craft", there is a basis behind their brews where they were in fact crafted by hand. These brews begin as test batches in small quantities done by hand. In that regard, if that is the recipe that is used, then isn't the beer crafted no matter how large of a quantity it is made in?

Jack R. said...

I'm with Newhouse.

Further, I disagree with disparaging NB-Fat Tire, WidBros-Hef, Shiner-Bock. These 'bridge' / 'gateway' beers serve an invaluable function. They are accessible to not-yet-converted-to-craft beer drinkers. They are the first tentative step of many BMC drinker away from fizzy-yellow-watery industrial beer.

Thus, they merit respect.

NB-Lips of Faith-Eric's Ale stands on the shoulders of NB-Fat Tire.

a non-mouse said...

Barroomhero beat me to the punch. Beer recipes are not *crafted* by automated systems. And if your beef is with enabling technologies, where do you draw the line? If you take it too far you'll find that craft beer hasn't actually been brewed since the industrial revolution.

Shawn said...

Budweiser started as a small batch beer, too. But I think we all agree that Bud is not a craft beer. This implies that a beer can start as a craft beer and turn into a non-craft beer. So where is the line? I'm sure Fat Tire started as a small batch and that the recipe was carefully crafted early on. Just because someone WAS a craft beer doesn't necessarily mean that it STILL IS a craft beer.

Pete Dunlop said...

I love the knack Jeff has for posting stuff that creates discussion.

If we agree that great beer can be produced by large and small breweries, then I submit the term "craft" is meaningless and needs to be replaced.

Webster's definition of craft mentions special skills and artistry. People who work in large breweries are likely to be skilled technicians, no doubt. But these are production jobs and most of these folks are not artisans in any real sense. What they produce is not craft beer.

The question is, what should it be called?

Jeff Alworth said...

"I love the knack Jeff has for posting stuff that creates discussion."

They key is to make a bald statement of opinion that looks like fact and slightly overstate it. People instantly want to take you down -- and you're off!

a non-mouse said...

Pete, Webster's definition is of the word 'craft', not the term 'craft beer'. :-) And do you really mean to imply that the brewers at Sierra Nevada that created beers such as the new Ovila abbey ale line didn't employ special skills and artistry during the process?

Pete Dunlop said...

Webster's offers no definition of "craft beer." The term "craft" in my mind does not apply to beers produced in factories. I will not change my mind about this. Sierra Nevada is huge. They produce good beers. But their beers are not craft beers. Not to me. We need another name...I need another name. -)

a non-mouse said...

Pete, if you can coin a more appropriate name and make it stick, then more power to you. In the meantime, I'm off to enjoy a pint or two of craft beer. :-)

Mike said...

What is the point of this long discussion about what to call beers or breweries? Isn't it similar to discussions about which style this or that beer is?

What is the need for creating groups that individual "things" need to fit into?

"Craft beer" is a bullshit phrase. Full stop. Since beer, like food, music, art, film, books, politics, et al, are all subject to personal taste why on earth try to squeeze them into boxes when the guy next door will tell you they obviously don't fit in box A, but in box B.

Find beer you like, drink it. Repeat.

The end.

Jeff Alworth said...

I actually tend to agree with you on this point, Mike. But it will take a decade or more for everyone to catch up to you.

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