Saturday, November 30, 2013

Craft Beer: We don't drink definitions. We drink good beer.

I've debated writing a post about craft beer and it's need for a definition for quite some time now. It's a topic that has been discussed so often I didn't feel like there was anything left to say that hadn't already been said a thousand times over. However, more recently the guys at Brew Dog, in their effort to get Europe and the UK to agree to an all encompassing definition, seem to have garnered up new interest as to what craft beer is and isn't. And after sitting with everything for a year or so and reading various view points on the topic lately I think I finally have something I want to say.

Does Craft Beer need a definition (both here and abroad)? Yes. But you know what James and Martin and everyone behind the Brewers Association in America? I don't need any of you guys to define it for me. It's not up to you. I could not care less what the producer of beer thinks about their own product. It goes without saying that every producer of beer has an agenda. The bottom line is that they want to sell beer and therefore any definition they put together is going to be done so with the idea that you should drink the beer that falls under the category they've defined versus the beer over there that doesn't meet the requirements set out by the definition that, oh yeah, they were nice enough to define for us. They're drawing the lines for the customer and that's wrong. The customer, each individual, should draw the line for themselves free from the restraints of any self serving and arbitrary definition.

People that want to find good beer are going to find it regardless of these ham-fisted definitions. When the wort is all boiled down beer should taste good and it should be made with care. The end. Yes, it can go a bit beyond that. Personally, I'm a big fan of taking in the history of beer when I'm drinking, but at the end of the day people just want their taste buds to be happy and enjoy the dopamine kick that goes along with that. The taste of beer should be its distinguishing character and yet look at the very first part of the Brewers Association's definition.
Annual Production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purpose of this definition. 
Oh. Okay. So, tell me the last time you reached for a new beer, took a sip, and then thought to yourself, "Geez, this beer is truly amazing. You can really tell the brewery makes less than 6 million barrels per year. It's so small batchy!" How does that definition help the consumer find good beer? It doesn't. All it does is help draw a line between us and them and allows the former to use that line as a marketing tool. Well, I don't want to be marketed to. I just want to drink good beer.

Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and a fairly staunch supporter of drinking beer that falls on the correct side of a definition, said "Craft beer is more than just awesomely delicious beer. It's also a revolution against the insult of the industrialized notion of beer that has been preying on the populace for decades." True, as I mentioned above craft beer can be about more than just good tasting beer, but it doesn't have to be. Not everyone is looking to taste the sweet nectar of revolution when they're making a decision about which 6-pack to bring home. Some of us, most of us I'd venture, are simply looking for something that tastes great. I'm not trying to change the world when I order an Arrogant Bastard. I just want some lupulin love in my life.

Koch goes on to say that "We need to allow the consumers the ability to decide for themselves who they want to support, but in order to do that, they must be able to understand clear definitions." No, we just need a curiosity and desire to taste something different. And personally, I'd appreciate it if you didn't look at us like a bunch of idiots who can't make up our own minds without your help. You say you want us to be able to decide for ourselves who we want to support, but every time I read these quotes I feel like you're more interested in setting up a verbal fishing weir and less interested in freedom of choice. I've been doing a pretty good job of figuring out which pizza tastes better without defining certain pizza as "craft pizza". I don't need your help with beer either.  Mr. Koch, you found "craft beer" without involving the people at Oxford and their love for definitions. Others did as well. And for those that haven't yet, give them their own time and leave them to their own devices. They'll find you if they really want to.

It's true that I found my way to good beer (craft beer if you must) in a very roundabout way, but in the end I found it without ever using someone else's definition as my guide. And I found good beer because I was interested and willing to do my own research. For those of you that don't know my story, please sit back and relax as I tell you the tale of the day good beer and I became Best Friends Forever.

I didn't like beer at all when I first came of age. I was a Rum & Coke guy until one day I decided I was tired of people bumping into me at the bar and making me spill my drink. So, the next time I needed a drink, I ordered a beer. What kind of beer did I order? Miller Lite? But Lite? Maybe a Michelob Light because that's what my Pap drank. The details are foggy, but I drank the cheap stuff everyone drinks at that age. And I drank those beers for the next year or two without much care or thought as to why I was choosing the beers I did. One day, though, the dumbed down taste of these beers wasn't holding my interest anymore. So, what was a young boy to do? I looked up the definition of craft beer and finally --- Just kidding. I knew from experience that all of the beers typically seen during commercials of NFL games tended to taste the same so it only made sense that I go in the complete opposite direction. I walked into a beer distributor and picked out a beer I had never heard of. That beer --- see, that beer unlike the first beer I ever had I remember because it changed my beer drinking life forever. It was Heavy Seas Great'er Pumpkin. Holy crap, the flavor. There was pumpkin pie spice, malt, BIG bourbon notes and the happiest beer drinking Doug that there has ever been. It was a truly transformative experience, and one I'm glad I came to without anyone else leading the way. I felt like it was my discovery and I wanted to let everyone know about it. I had no idea what craft beer was when I tasted that beer. Even funnier, I had no idea that the beer I was drinking was produced within 30 minutes of my house. But I didn't need to. All I needed was an interest to find something new --- something better. And I did.

That was the start of my days as a guy who only wanted to drink good beer. From then on I started drinking everything I could get my hands on and only over time did I become familiar with the phrase "craft beer". It might surprise some of you who are staunch supporters of drinking definitions, but the beers I was drinking didn't taste any better once I had a category to file them in.

Brewers, if you believe in your beer, if you believe in your company, if you believe in the way you as a company go about your business then let it be. Stop trying to file stuff into categories for us. Stop with the arbitrary definitions that can be changed when it suits you (anyone remember when 2 million barrels was the limit). Believe in good beer and trust that people out there want to drink good beer. Because people do want tasty beer. They want to purchase a product that tastes great and is created with a conscience. And when they're ready, just as I did (but hopefully in a bit more straight forward manner), they'll find your beer and they'll never leave. Put together a recipe that is going to blow people's minds and leave the definitions to Websters. We don't drink definitions. We drink good beer.


  1. Nice post, Doug. I think the consumer DOES have the final say, regardless of definitions, and they'll voice that choice with their wallet.

    It's all business at the end of the day, and the businessmen brewers will do what they have to, to sell more product. If that means forming consumer armies based on arbitrary lines, so be it.

    If we really wanted a definition that actually focused on the best experience for the drinker, it would be something like, "Craft beer is beer brewed with natural unprocessed hops, malt, water, and yeast. No adjuncts are used in its production, and all other ingredients come from natural sources (aka, nothing synthetic)." That way, a drinker knows what he's drinking and has some idea as to the integrity of the brewing process.

  2. Does Craft Beer need a definition (both here and abroad)? Yes.

    Why do we need to define 'craft beer'? The rest of your post seems to be saying that the "craft" label is an irrelevance, and we should just let people get on with discovering good beer.

    Oliver - alternatively, we could push for brewers to list their ingredients & let the customer decide. Apart from anything else, I'm not sure how you'd define 'adjunct' to do the work you want it to.

    1. I think that as an individual we need to define what is good beer and what is not for ourselves. What we don't need is people defining things for us and trying to tell us what's good and what's bad.