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Friday, September 23, 2011

Entering the Post-Craft World

Yesterday I offered you reviews of four beers and asked if they were "craft" or not. Many of you instantly smelled a rat--and rightly so. That was the point. I hadn't exactly worked out the wording of this post to explain it, but no matter. Vasili Gletsos, the peripatetic brewer now manning the kettle at Laurelwood, did my work for me:
To me, the term is most useful as a historical movement to describe the revolution (resurgence?) of smaller breweries in a post-prohibition environment. We are now in a post-craft environment in which there is a wide variety of business models and ownerships in addition to a great depth of beer styles and experimentation.
In the middle part of the last century, technology and business conspired to rob the United States not only of nearly every beer style, but most of its local breweries. They were replaced by faceless behemoths that churned out beer in quantities inconceivable to the human mind. This had the virtue of dropping prices to almost nothing as efficiencies of scale and advertising budgets equal to the GDP of Paraguay doomed regional breweries. I could go on for a few more sentences here, but you know this story well already.

The corrective came in the form of a band of pirates who were interested in wrecking the machine of industrial brewing and creating space for the return of small-batch, artisanal brewing. To the extent there was a revolutionary impulse, it was that these businesses would compete on the bases of quality and flavor, not price. So began a correction that has, three decades on, radically altered the beer industry.

Unfortunately, there was a conceptual fault to this development, one located in the phrase "craft brewing." It led innocently to an idea that there was something called "craft beer." But beer is beer. It's either made with the highest quality ingredients and processes or it's not. It's either a brilliant interpretation of style or it's not. The matter of who owns the brewery is a strange abstraction.

The beers I reviewed yesterday came from Goose Island, a brewery wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch, which is itself owned by an international brewing conglomerate--one that makes those quaint American macros of the 70s look like pikers. The beers were, in order, (1) Mae (unreleased), (2) Juliet, (3) an unreleased stout, and (4) Madame Rose. As I was thinking about the review, I groaned with the expectation that someone would slag the brewery for selling out or dumbing down or whatever. (Even before the A-B purchase, certain craft nazis avid beer geeks held the brewery in great suspicion because it had the indecency to sell a huge amount of light wheat ale.) So I thought: why not head them off at the pass?

Vasili's right: we've entered a post craft world where even the meaning of craft brewery is fraying--never mind the idea of "craft beer." We're sort of stuck with the nomenclature of "craft" because it helps differentiate segments of the market--even while, admittedly, it introduces its own confusion. My recent posts about the craft brewing segment are a case in point. Still, as educated beer drinkers, we can avoid being fooled ourselves. We can admire and wish to support small, local breweries (and I do, hugely, on both counts); we can criticize breweries that make dumbed-down beer filled with cost-saving adjuncts to appeal to a mass audience. But at the end of the day, beer is beer, and we're going to have to get comfortable judging what's in the glass separately from who made it.


Also: Alan has thoughts on the subject.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I have come to the conclusion that the word "craft" in terms of beer, can be as much of a hindrance, as it is useful.

    Perhaps we just go back to discussing, by style, and ingredients?

    Post-craft, while a plausible academic descriptor is an awkward and pretentious sounding term for use in common venacular. I would rather not walk into a bar and overhear someone saying "This is the best post-craft lager I have ever tasted". Please God, no!

  3. Assuming most of us are not diamond experts, to the casual eye, a diamond is a diamond is a diamond.

    We don't know it's origin or manufacture or if it is synthetic.

    Terms like conflict diamond, diamond simulant, synthetic diamond, industrial diamond and diamond cartel are useful to me as I see it as a shiny stone.

  4. Enjoy reading about all the beers and beer stories this blog reports on. We are in the planning stages for a new brewery in Northeastern USA called Nor'easter Brewing Company LLC and our business plan is to grow to over 25,000BBL within 5 years.
    The breweries and stories you report on, allow for much encouragement.
    About to take the craft beer industry by storm!

  5. hmmm.

    So we get a less than hand crafted post up in this thread.'

  6. Since that link failed. Google shows that Nor'easter just spammed 21 blogs with the same post.

  7. Yes, 'craft beer' is bollocks. Big breweries are perfectly capable of making good beer, and small breweries can easily make rubbish.

  8. I love this thread of posts. As a craft specialist in a relatively untapped market, i talk about this exact concept all the time. Craft beer bars around my area are like secret societies compared to the abundance of Northwest. Yet still a majority of that small community holds breweries like Sam Adams and Goose Island to a status of "macro-craft" where every beer from them is taken with extreme skepticism.

    Why? Boston Beer owner Jim Koch not only literally started by selling the best selling craft beer in the us (boston lager) door to door, he also still literally has his nose in every batch, and continues to innovate and come up with new concepts and new brews. In fact, the quality of the brewery seems to only get better. Not only that, but by sales, they represent less than 1/10 of 1% of what bud sells in a year. And they have upwards of 100 different recipes at least, of which at least 30 are available to every state in the US.

    If that is not representative of craft brewing, then what the hell is?

  9. At only 15% of the market share, I don't think we can do away with that distinction just yet. We have a long way to go still. Once we get to over 50%, it'll be different. But especially with the rest of the country at a measly 5%, as faulty of a term as it may be, well, I still think we need it.