Sunday, May 11, 2014

Craft Beer Defies Definitions

Is it that Craft Beer as an industry has changed and thus changed the meaning of craft beer itself? Or, was what craft beer meant hard to define in the first place?  Does it need a definition? What effect does a definition have on the industry anyway? (*cough*  taxes  *cough*)

America loves to categorize things, including beer styles.  Take IPAs: American, east coast, west coast, no coast, English, double, imperial, triple, even IPA & 1/2.  It is one thing to label a beer so as to convey what it might taste like, but too much definition (or use of vague terms) serves only  to confuse matters. It seems we want the label on the bottle to tell us what to taste, instead of us taking chances and finding out for ourselves. Perhaps this is American as well…but that's another topic.

The Brewers Association has changed, or altered, its definition of Craft Beer several times. The reasons they have done so have been mentioned elsewhere and speculated just about everywhere. What defines craft beer? Ingredients, volume, ownership, origin?  One plausible reason that has not really been touched upon, as far as I can tell, is that defining craft beer may just go against craft beer's essence. Well, perhaps to a point.  But craft beer existed before its definition. How it started is where the essence lays: motivation for brewing beer.

The pioneers of the craft beer scene started brewing beer because they were not satisfied with the beer selections at the time. They thought beer could be better and decided to make their own. While making a profit was (probably) part of the equation, it wasn't the prime motivation. These brewers wanted to make and drink great tasting beer. This desire, and the beer they produced, defined craft beer.

Of course, motivation is difficult to quantify in the first place, but additionally arduous these days in that craft beer is selling quite well, which brings in profits, which in turn muddies the motivational waters.   Is a certain brewery making beer for sheer profit or great taste? Again, hard to determine at most levels. It seems fair to say, though, that acquisition of breweries feeds the desire to obtain profits and less about improving (or ensuring) quality.

To make matters even more unclear is the expense needed to open a brewery. And add to that the inspections, zoning, legal and social red tape a prospective brewery must navigate prior to first lighting of the kettle.  Brewing is a business after all, and money finds itself in the middle of it all. How it affects the craft of brewing differs among breweries.

This is a delicate balance in the craft beer world today; craft against business. Breweries face difficult decision making processes further complicated with multiple voices in the room. Do they sell an under-par beer with off flavors to make up for the cost of brewing it? Or do they dump it to maintain quality?  Either way it is an easy decision on one hand, and the wrong decision on the other.  But that decision could reinforce the craft essence or cast some doubt.

What would those craft beer pioneers have done?