The Eight Years Reign of “Craft” Beer Ends

As with many of the words and ideas hovering around good beer for the last decade, we all knew for a while that “craft” beer has been a bit of a loser. Yesterday on social media, two of the biggest voices in good beer publishing affirmed its relegation. Here is an article John Holl of All About Beer on the status of the word:

As a media company, we rely on using words properly. One year ago this magazine took the first step in limiting the word craft in our coverage. Our feature articles no longer differentiate between craft brewers and not because we don’t have a solid definition. As we’ve always done, we report the news of breweries around the world. All breweries. Of course we know this will not be universally recognized, so you can expect to see the word pop up from time to time in quotes, or when certain groups, like the BA, talk about membership, or in our business coverage, where craft is considered a specific sales segment. It’s our duty to cover that as represented, and we will.

On Facebook, Todd Alstrom of BeerAdvocated commented in this way in Facebook:

I remember this conversation. 😉 BeerAdvocate magazine has also stopped gratuitously using the term. And Jason and I have been saying this for ages: Just because it’s “craft” (or “local”) doesn’t mean it’s good, nor should we blindly support it; especially given the level of mediocrity (at best) coming from far too many brewers these days.

It’s not a new idea. “Craft” as a label on good beer had been dubious for at least half a decade given its twisting for interested purposes including ensuring certain very rich people get very large tax breaks rightfully granted to other small business folk. And think about its actual lineage. It is not really appropriate to consider when the word was first used as that is the “tree falling in the forest” moment. It is only when a word gains both broad acceptance and ascendancy over its competition that it becomes definitive. A far more useful measure is the sort of thing we see when we compare the use of “craft beer” with “microbrewery” in the pages of The New York Times. “Craft beer” takes off only around 2007-08. Less than a decade ago.

If we truly care about meaning, we may want to ask why this happened. It is interesting to note that the popular acceptance of “craft” closely followed the merger of The Association of Brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America to form the Brewers Association. One of the key PR goals of the Brewer’s Association has been control of the discourse. They are obsessed with definitions and now hire many professionals including an economist to prop up their PR bulwarks. There was good reason to try to get more professional about these this given the countervailing “whack job approach” to making a case that was prevalent. The trouble is there is a whole pesky bigger separate discussion going on with consumers. Despite the efforts of the breweries, the consumer had an open mind and an independent eye.

And the PR spin was more than a bit of a botch. In 2012, the BA rolled out the failed “craft v crafty” campaign which fairly immediately fell flat on its face. It invited consumers to consider closely two things which had not yet been at the forefront of the discourse: (i) holy frig, those big “crafty” brewers can make pretty good beer and (ii) holy frig, those small “craft” brewers aren’t small. Notice what Holl and Alstrom mention up there. They dropped using “craft” a year pervasively or more ago. So, the arc of popular acceptance can, at best, be dated from 2007 to 2015. Eight short years.

This is good. Words come and go. And one reason they come and go is that the general pool of people in any given discourse know how to smell a rat. People recognize that the control of language is one of the first goals of anyone trying to not only promote but affix their interests a few rungs higher up the ladder than they deserve to stand. It is also good because we now live in the world of big craft billionaires and international big craft branch plants. “Craft” will slowly recede from the vocabulary as it should. Time for a new word. Or, better, words. What will they be? Stay tuned. The public will let you know.

Addendum: Have a look at Oliver’s take, an etymological view. And, if one is Swiftian, not a modest proposal at all as there is no hint of acerbic parody.

One thought on “The Eight Years Reign of “Craft” Beer Ends”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Martyn Cornell – January 24, 2015 10:10 AM
    Hmmm. I am reminded of King Canute and the story about the tide. Just because Todd Alstrom and John Holl tell the word “craft” to go away …

    Alan – January 24, 2015 10:30 AM

    Yes, but I tried to pick words around ascendancy, supremacy and relegation. It will never be as firmly accepted again. Think of how in the UK, craft beer and real ale stand in opposition when they in North America all one. And now more and more good smaller brewers in North American are both not all that small and becoming either national or being bought up. “Craft” relates to a construct that no longer exists if it ever did.

    Sean Inman – January 24, 2015 12:04 PM
    “Craft” is a big bucket of a word to differentiate one group (ABInBev, MillerCoors) from the rest. Craft may imply a better quality but a beer can be poorly crafted as well.

    It may be far too general and like the use of local, too often mis-used but until our vocal minority becomes a larger market share and mind share, some sort of differentiation is needed. Because most people still think and buy light lager when just “beer” is mentioned.

    I will gladly use whatever new name is agreed upon by Alstroms, Holl or yourself. Until then, I will use craft.

    Alan – January 24, 2015 12:10 PM

    I think you were heading in the right direction acknowledging the neat and tidy construct of “the poorly crafted” – but we are all victims here. Big industrial propositions like Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada have placed us in an impossible position. If “craft” remains your lifeboat of choice for the moment who am I to point you in the reality of the deep cruel sea that churns below?

    Jeff Alworth – January 24, 2015 12:48 PM
    I’m not sure the craft v crafty campaign was a botch. The word “crafty” seems to have entered regular use. I don’t disagree with anything here except that I expect the durability of the term will prove stronger than we’d like.

    Alan – January 24, 2015 1:04 PM

    I agree. I see a long decline rather than a cliffs edge. But as for “crafty” I see nothing but botch. Outside the BA bubble, it’s well used as much in mockery as anything. Even the BA has dropped it as a key talking point, likely from the subsequent financial news about Koch and Grossman.

    Adam – January 24, 2015 10:44 PM

    So some industry experts want to drop “craft” from their usable verbage bravo for them. Here in tne Pacific NW; Elyssian brewery sold out to Anhausef Busch. Has that stopped me from brewing my own solid Farmouse style brown ale, and most recent foray into the dark world of stouts. We who brew for ourselves, family and friends will continue to use and honor our Craft, regardless of industrial notions.

    Alan – January 25, 2015 10:50 AM

    Well, on the one hand that is great because you are likely of a scale and practice that the word makes sense – though I don’t know who you are. Stouts are good. Stouts were an endangered species a few years ago due to many chasing the tale of craft and not pursuing traditional brewing.

    But billionaire Brewers with multiple branch plants and trucking fleets? Craft? What’s that got to do with you? Maybe “craft” just means you are not selling your beer out of state in grocery stores. Anyway , the really weird thing is this post has been read 1560 times since I posted it 24 hours ago. Someone’s interested in the idea.

    Oliver Gray – January 25, 2015 7:35 PM
    When I originally titled the post, I meant for there to be parody, but it changed so much as I wrote it and I was too lazy to change the title. My apologies to Swift and all his contemporaries 🙂

    Alan – January 25, 2015 10:42 PM

    I wrote a horribly mean thing in my undergrad scandal sheet under a similar title without any real cleverness. You were far too sensible and thoughtful for that sort of association!

    Joe Stange – January 26, 2015 6:55 AM
    Rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated, but I am on board with using it less.

    I’ve never hated the word, and at best it was always shorthand for “not so corporate.” When Germans are spelling it in English on marketing materials then I can agree that it has jumped the shark.

    I like “beers of character.” Not that fussy about who makes them.

    Alan – January 26, 2015 10:53 AM

    Maybe it will find its place. Right now it is an umbrella term but there are too many crowding underneath it. I would like a better term for “big craft” for the very corporate billionaires’ breweries and those aspiring ones, where owners active in the PR look back years or decades to recall when they were actually doing the brewing… if they ever did. Until more useful terminology comes forward to replace this one, we are stuck with the unuseful

    Thomas Cizauskas – January 28, 2015 9:12 AM
    In 2013, when he addressed the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C., Charlie Papazian, the president of the BA, pointedly avoided all use of the phrase ‘craft’ brewery, saying instead “small, independent brewer” (except, ironically, when mentioning the very name of the conference).

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