Category Archives: Beer Philosophy

Craft Apprenticeships Are Awesome

From GL Stock Images

There is a push/pull between art and commerce every creative must navigate.  Craft brewing is no different.

Real example: You the brewer want to make an old ale and a rauchbier.  Your investors want you to make 3 new IPAs because they are getting ready to go into distribution and need stuff they know will sell regardless of quality.  How does the business navigate that?

You have to have a well thought out vision.  Not a business plan which you also desperately need, but the vision on which the whole enterprise is based.

Artists often spend years of trial and error and public failings to figure out the vision behind their art.  Brewers may not get that opportunity.  They probably homebrew and have friends and acquaintances tell them how great their beer is.  Then they decide to start a brewery with a vague notion of making Belgian style, German style, English style, or IPA heavy American style beer.

What they need is a clear idea of what they like, what they are good at, and how they want to express that to consumers.  These can’t be vague platitudes about “returning to the roots of beer” or “putting an American take on Belgian style beers.” It has a to be concrete ideas of what you are accomplishing and how you want to do it.  It isn’t your business plan, but it is the place from where your business plan flows.

Most craft brewers get into brewing the same reason that most professional artists get into art.  This thing that they do is what they love, and it is an expression of a part of who they are.  The difference is, as I see it, that artists spend their whole learning curve honing the core ideas of what they want to do.  From their medium to their subject matter, artists spend much of their early career finding their path.

One difference in how and why artists have such clear ideas about who they are and what their art says is the art world has always had apprenticeships both formal and informal.  In this country with Prohibition almost killing the brewing industry, brewing lost its infrastructure and informal craftsman apprenticeships.

Until the last handful of years, the path to becoming a brewer has been much less organized and centered on homebrewing. While homebrewing has fueled the passion of and set the template for craft beer love, it is not necessarily the best training as a professional brewer.  With the rise of craft brewers, that idea of apprenticeship is slowly coming back to the fore, but slowly.  These apprenticeships allow brewers to go through the crucible of rejection and self-examination to come out on the other side not only with a clear vision of who and what they are as brewers but a clear vision of the value of themselves and their craft in a monetary sense and in a creative sense.

As craft beer matures and the idea of being a craft brewer matures, I hope and expect this idea of apprenticeship to take hold to give potential brewers the time and space not only to learn their craft but learn their own way to operate within that craft.  I don’t just want there to be formal schools of brewing, which is awesome and necessary.  I want brewers to come from within. Apprenticeships and more learning may not solve the problem of whether to brew that rauchbier, but it will help the brewers understand the scope of the consequences of that decision.  It is through the combination of book learning and practical application can any craft grow and continue to innovate.

Searching for Better Beer or How To Define Craft Beer

This is a bunch of craft beer

How do I define craft beer?

This question vexes me. I continually try to move past the, “I know it when I see it,” definition most of us use. (ABInbev High End is not craft beer but Oskar Blues CANarchy is).  I create a definition in my mind and then I correct it with 10 different exceptions.

Let’s begin at the beginning and start with, “What do I think of when I think of craft beer?”

The first thing I think, when I think of craft beer, is the mindset.  The very simple yet important thing that separates craft brewing companies from big beer companies is the idea that beer is more than just a commodity to be sold.

During the period in the American beer industry between 1933 (the end of Prohibition) and 1979 (when homebrewing became legal), brewing beer was treated the same as manufacturing tires.  Beer was simply a product to made as cheaply as possible and sold with as big a margin as possible.  Quality, taste, and creativity were barely tertiary thoughts.

Craft beer begins with the idea that the beer is the important thing.  This whole enterprise started because a bunch of guys who spent time abroad for school and in military service came back to the US and wanted to drink better beer.  English pubs and cask ales and German bier halls and fresh lagers created a thirst in these people.  Charlie Papazian’s seminal, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, coined the phrase, “better beer” and the resulting mindset of making beer for beer’s sake instead of treating it as a simple commodity is the is the cornerstone of what craft beer is.  At least it should be.

The second thing I think craft beer has to have is creativity.  Alongside that should be a sense of fun and adventure sparked by the creativity of its brewers.  Sometimes that creativity can vex me when I’m just looking for a nice pale ale and I have options that range from hibiscus goses to BBA chocolate stouts.  However, it is that creativity and need to push boundaries to come up with something new and awesome that makes craft breweries different from big beer companies.

The Brewers Association has a definition of what a craft brewery is as part of its membership requirements.  I don’t necessarily follow that definition because it is a definition that fluctuates as needed.  That isn’t a shot at the BA, but it is a simple acknowledgment of how running an organization like the Brewers Association can be a fluid adventure.  The BAs charge is to speak for the small independent brewers in this country.  Sometimes that means you make exceptions to keep some brewers (Boston Beer and Yuengling) and sometimes that means you create rules that exclude others (ABInbev High End brands).

My definition doesn’t rely on numbers or ownership.  The first two parts of my definition focus on the liquid in the glass and how that is the focus and how I get a sense of creativity and adventure with every sip.  The final part of my definition touches on the business side.  A craft brewery is a brewery whose business practices are not malicious and predatory.  Craft breweries do not see the beer business as a zero-sum game.  For a craft brewery, this isn’t a simple dialectic of win or death as it is for big beer companies.

While all breweries, at least the ones with an actual business plan, want to be successful and want to make money, they also have a sense of collaboration with other craft brewers where they try to promote not only their beer but all beer.  They try to work together and promote craft beer and make sure consumers get better beer.

We know the big beer companies don’t look at it the same way.  We have the Department of Justice and various state attorneys general investigations and fines to prove it.

In sum, my definition of craft beer is, a beer crafted with the idea that the beer, the liquid in the glass, is the most important thing.  It is a beer that embodies a sense of creativity and adventure.  Finally, it is a beer from a brewery that cares more about the beer community as a whole and making sure drinkers get better beer then they do about crushing the competition and making a quick dollar.

What Is Craft Beer, Part 1

One of my favorite classes, when I was at UNC, was on the history of the Constitution since the Civil War.  We studied all the major Supreme Court decisions that led to the Civil War and all the major decisions after the war as well as all the Constitutional Amendments from the end of the war through the 20th century.  It was interesting mostly because it was a good way to survey how the modern US government was formed and took shape for the last 150 years of the country’s history.

The concept that has stayed with me the most from that class is “annotative law vs. connotative law.”  In other words, what the law says in the statutes vs. how the law is enforced and interpreted.  Those are often two very different things.

The Brewers Association has defined craft breweries as:

Small

Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional

A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

That means, generally speaking, any beer made by those brewers is a craft beer.

That is the annotated definition of what craft beer is.  The connotative definition, the one people define themselves in a way that they understand is where things get murky and where arguments and hyperbole ensue.

This all started while I was on my sabbatical from writing about beer after the Cicerone test punched me in the face.  I read two or three tiresome Twitter threads that were arguments between craft beer people. What I noticed in all these arguments were the two sides the arguments were having two different arguments. Mostly, arguing past each other.  I wondered why was this and the only conclusion I came up with is that while they agreed on the general definition of what craft was, there were differences in details and their approach to craft.

Let’s step back and think about the definition of craft again.  We have the Brewer’s Association’s definition.  The question then becomes how is the concept of craft beer interpreted and expressed by different people involved in the industry.

One of the things I find interesting about ideas and concepts like craft, alternative, independence, and freedom is how in a modern capitalistic society they can be co-opted by businesses and advertising agencies to sell stuff.  When you buy a pair of jeans you are not only buying those jeans, you are buying whatever concept and narrative the manufacturer and their advertising company have built up around those jeans.

For many people, buying and drinking craft beer has become the same as listening to a certain band, watching a certain television show, or buying certain clothes. They represent a narrative you want to express about yourself without talking.

This week, I want to use this space to theorize how each constituency, brewers, distributors/wholesalers, retailers, bloggers, and drinkers, defines craft beer.  Why do I include bloggers as a separate constituency from drinkers?  Usually, bloggers aren’t a part of the constituencies that directly financially benefit from craft beer, but they are a great deal more informed than the average drinker.  They also help drive the conversation surrounding craft beer in a way sometimes disproportionate to their actual reach.

Then to wrap up, I will delve into the idea that even within each of those groups is another dialectic between what I term the Realists on one side and the Romantics on the other.  That is where the real fireworks take place.

I hope to have fun doing this and you I hope you come back to read at least part of it even if you don’t agree with it.