It struck me that we in the UK hadn’t had the navel-gazing debate of what constitutes “craft beer” for a while, so I, while quite literally gazing at my navel in the shower, had a revelation.
Would a definition of a “craft brewery” be one that is allowed to make mistakes and not be lambasted or lampooned for it? Would such a definition allow for the creativity, openness and experimentation inherent in bringing an industry forward, which is what craft beer at its best does?
Hear me out on this.
I’ll break this down into three categories, in which errors and how they are both managed and perceived play a role. These are Openness, Experimentation and Authenticity of Voice.
Let’s treat these in turn.
As per Jonny’s excellent post on social media employed by UK breweries, openness is a huge selling point for the smaller breweries gaining respect and retaining traction. When things don’t go to plan, openly communicating it and taking the financial hit of any recalls or reclamations proactively rather than after being called out on is, for me, a mark of a “craft” brewery.
I am more than aware that breweries exist in a capitalist society as enterprises needing to generate revenue to remain in business. But there’s a social capital aspect to craft brewing that stems from wearing your heart on your sleeve. Coming out and saying your beer is sick and should get better with time is one way of being open. Another one is not hiding behind “trade secrets” but rather sharing knowledge in the knowledge that more good beer is better for the world. What Jonny calls the blurring of a personal and business account blends into the third category of authenticity of voice, but plays a role in this openness category too. If you can feel that a brewery is open and honest, much like a brewer can be when you meet them, you will appreciate their craft all the more.
This is where errors and mistakes and how they’re handled really come to the fore. There isn’t a person who’s “into beer” who doesn’t respect Dany Prignon of Fantome for what he does. Is it always a success? Is it hell. There’s a reason you “spin the wheel of Dany” even with a known variant of his ever-inventive saison. He admits to errors, but couches it in an incredibly candid statement: “pas TROP commercial!“.
Experimentation is at the very heart of craft brewing. Who would have thought a few years ago that the conventional wisdom of “you have to put bittering hops in to your beer at the start of the boil” would be so completely upended by the wave of New England brewers and their worldwide imitators? As such, a craft brewer should be able to try something new and untested, and hold their hands up if it doesn’t work, while providing details on the process they took. Think of it as the scientific method, but for brewing, brought crashing into a market ever hungry for new things. Although, that said, I’m not advocating for a fully open-source approach to recipe development – more a kind of “by the way, adding lactose to a Brett-spiked braggot that was aged on hedgehog nests in grappa barrels doesn’t work, if you don’t believe it, come try Trash Bear before we pour it out”.
If you take the opposite of “craft beer” to be “big beer,” craft beer talks about hop varieties leading to changes in beer, whereas big beer comes at you with polished, refined product that has gone through numerous focus groups and brand massagers, possibly ending up utterly bizarre.
It doesn’t have to be utterly out there and then coming to the buying public with Catholic-levels of apology, but rather a balance of trying new things and shooting for the stars with an admission of failure when things don’t necessarily pan out.
Craft beer is not a mature industry. It has matured a lot, as it would be expected to, but the barrier to entry remains fairly low, especially in Europe. As a conceptual category it’s ripe for open, experimental new entrants, who don’t necessarily have to get everything right every time. But they need to be open and genuine about their efforts in doing it.
Authenticity of Voice
For me, the strength of “craft brewing” is in the stories it tells. This figures into the sense of a voice of the brewery, whether it be playful, deadly-serious about its craft, or anything else. There’s a sense of dialogue, a talking “with” a craft brewer, rather than a one-way advertising communication of large-scale business. That means that honesty plays a role, and might require the admission of mistakes or inherent bias informing a brewer’s decisions.
Being smaller-scale, as many craft breweries are, also brings the day-to-day of production and decision-making closer to public scrutiny. Craft breweries can solicit opinions on branding, recipes, and so on, without appearing hapless or not knowing what they are doing. That said, having a solid branding and an identity is crucial in establishing oneself first of all, and critical in forming that sense of authenticity.
The best craft breweries have a voice that communicates with you, takes you along for a ride and makes you feel part of the excitement of what they’re doing. Going back to the relative immaturity of the industry sector, there is much to be excited about, and lots of people to engage with. Craft beer can – and should – be fun, rather than about absolutely polished image projection. Craft brewers are real people, and craft breweries employ real, honest, imperfect folk. Let those imperfections shine, I say.
And by the same token, when breweries make mistakes then deny it when questioned about it and brazen it out instead of being honest, they are putting themselves in the minority. I’m happy to vote with my wallet in those cases.
Admission of a possible error is not a sign of weakness. Even if you don’t fully accept that something can be seen as erroneous/a mistake by a member of the public, acknowledging the feelings is useful.
Interesting article, but I’m afraid I disagree with some aspects. I think being lambasted and lampooned is needed. It’s a sincere form of feedback – and often carrying more insight that “that’s shite”. By allowing it, it also gives some license for the brewery to get in on the act and push back (think “Nanny State”). Nobody likes a friend who takes the piss out of them, but can’t take it back.
I’m also not sure that what we need isn’t just to evolve new classifications. At the moment, this immature market seems to be trying to keep everything to one end of the spectrum or the other. This to me seems odd. I’ll assume (broadly) that at one end, things are predominantly driven by “Make buckets of cash for our investors” and at the other “Make a product that will open peoples eyes to the range of flavours and possibilities”. Actually, there should be room for someone who sits in the middle of that spectrum (at ether end, they practice each others arts, new products help you make buckets of cash, and well, you gotta make cash to be able to spread the good beer!). If your breweries stated goal is to bring great beer to the masses, or similar, you’re going to have to keep getting bigger to reach more people. We need more categories between craft and macro.
I guess that in the future we will eventually need to categorise macro to (hopefully) have a macro brewery following craft ethos. For me (and others will disagree of course!), craft is about variety, experimentation and flavour. A brewery should still be able to release small batches of stuff that “most people won’t like” because they do like it – this “because we like it, and it might change your mind” attitude is what I think would differentiate a macro and a macro craft. They could still make money from this (you know, limited editions are a good marketing ploy, reduced availability can drive prices). This might be an unreasonable or impossible dream, but I feel that to bring good beer to the masses, you yourself would have to grow big, or perhaps form a federation of smaller brewers.
Perhaps the “federation” would be the future of craft – arguably it’s happening today to a lesser extent, but it would be a harder route. You’d rely on consumer pressure to get your beers places, rather than the bargaining/negotiating power of a larger single entity – As we see at the moment in the scene, lots of people with lots of idea’s what makes craft would likely be a case of too many cooks when it comes to negotiating).
Sorry for the long rambling reply… but I think rather than keeping the existing categories we need a company brave enough to make a new one (it’s a risk, you might have to throw away lots of market goodwill, but it seems to me the only reasonable way to grow beyond the current artificial boundaries, as creating a new category would likely be easier than changing the minds of a population to match your evolving definitions….