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Earlier this fall, the folks at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced that their next edition will include a definition for “craft beer”. This is big news, as one of the most important gatekeepers of the English language is legitimizing use of the term in its tome. Of course, the Oxford English Dictionary (my personal go-to) added it a few years back.
So what do these esteemed scholars define craft beer as? Well, Webster says it is: “a specialty beer produced in limited quantities”. Oxford tosses out this offering: “a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region”.
Well, that is disappointing, isn’t it? Makes me think our respected logophiles are drinking too much pinot noir and not enough porter. In my mind, it does not really capture the essence of what is craft beer – not by a long shot.
There are a couple of clear problems with both definitions. First, their vague, loose descriptors of “distinctive” and “specialty” don’t really tell us much about the beer. I have drunk some crappy discount beer that I might describe as distinctive and special, but not in a good way. Then there is the need to restrict the size and/or distribution of the beer. It is “limited” and in “particular” areas. What does size have to do with it?
To be honest, I can understand their struggle. Defining “craft beer” may be one of the most elusive projects you can embark on. So despite its impossibility, let’s explore what it means to be a craft beer. First, I think we can all agree that if the beer is produced by one of the handful of mega-corporations in the beer industry, it shouldn’t be classified as craft. Even if the beer tastes good, their massive breweries, global distribution network and formidable marketing budgets seem to rule them ineligible, else the term become meaningless.
But that doesn’t really resolve the issue of size. How big can you be and still be craft? Good question. Many in Canada argue Big Rock or Granville Island, for example, are too big to be craft. But both of those breweries are dwarfed by Samuel Adams or Sierra Nevada, two American breweries whose craft credentials are unquestioned. So, that can’t be the measure. It isn’t the mega-brewers size, in itself, that disqualifies them, but the lack of humanity that results.
And then there is distribution. Just because you are successful enough to ship your beer to far corners, does that mean you are no longer craft? Edmonton brewery Alley Kat – a small brewery by anyone’s measure – happens to ship beer to Korea regularly. Should that disqualify them from the moniker craft? I think not. So distribution is not the issue.
Some people want to say that craft beer is made without corn and rice. Most of the corporate beer are made with up to 40% corn or rice syrup to lighten the body and lower the cost. Except that many traditional styles call for corn (such as cream ales and classic American pilsners) and some Japanese brewers are doing interesting things with rice.
Others argue that it is commitment to “traditional brewing methods”. But what are those? Not pitching clean yeast, like we did before Pasteur? Eschewing conical fermenters because they may alter the flavour? The big brewers do “high gravity brewing” (brewing concentrate and watering down), but so do many homebrewers. There is no way to reconcile “tradition” and advancements in brewing science.
Still others say craft brewers make beer reflecting traditional styles. Their intention is to condemn brewers who falsely label their beer, such as making a pale lager and calling it an India Pale Ale (yes, you Mr. Keith). We see lots of this in Canada. But is this really an issue of style? Lots of craft brewers intentionally bend styles and break rules to create something new and creative. Plus styles are constantly evolving (just look at IPA).
All of these false leads may, actually, get us to the core of the concept. The issue is not size, ingredients, or attention to tradition, per se, but the motivation for doing what you are doing, plus how you communicate that to the consumer.
At the centre of craft brewing is integrity. Brewing with integrity, which means using ingredients because they are appropriate or interesting and not just to ‘cheap’ out. It means following a reasonable approach to the brewing process – incorporating new methods when they make sense but not losing touch with the process.
And it is also marketing with integrity, which is about transparency. It means not hiding the ingredients you use, or where you brew your beer. It means making an honest attempt at telling your customers what the beer is supposed to be – whatever that may be. If it is a pale lager, great. If it is an oak-aged, dry-hopped cherry porter with chili peppers and Mexican coffee beans, good luck with that.
I realize I may have brought us no closer to identifying who is craft than the dictionary definitions, but I think my principle helps us work out who ISN’T craft, which is a good step (more on that next month).
And to you craft brewers out there, go ahead and get big if you want. Just don’t lose your soul.