Tag Archives: Distilling

What does “Craft” mean anyway?

Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote

“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to Lerne.”

There has been much publicity recently about the rise of “craft” beverages, mainly beer and spirits as of this point.  There has also been some disagreement as to what “craft” actually means.  Several lawsuits have come up in the recent months targeted towards brewers that are positioning themselves as “craft” brewers however are in actuality much larger than the consumer may believe based on their marketing. Such is the case with this lawsuit, recently posted on Lehrman Beverage Law.  This got me thinking about what craft is supposed to mean and why are only small producers considered craft.  The Brewers Association has even gone out of their way to post a definition of what they consider a “craft” brewer.  The main three guidelines of their definition is that the brewer must be small, independent, and traditional.  In combing through the TTB’s website, I don’t think that there is a legal definition of craft and so far it seems to be up to the industry itself to regulate this term, much like the term “Reserve” in wine.

Let’s look at the literal definitions from Webster’s Dictionary.

There are three ways the word “craft” can be used.

Two are nouns.

1) An activity involving skill in making things by hand

2) a boat or ship.

Obviously it is the first one that we are interested here.

The third is a verb as in “to craft”.

3) Exercise skill in making something.

I have made wine for 12 years now.  I’ve made wine in sizes from 2 cases all the way up to 1.7 million cases. It takes great skill to make wine in any size.  You do have less room for error in the smaller case counts however you have less time to perfect your wine at the larger case counts.  It takes a long time to master winemaking regardless of the size you are working with.  What does this have to do with craft beer?  The interesting thing that struck me while reading the above lawsuit was that it seemed the main argument is that the beer can not be “crafted” due to the large number of cases that are produced under the label.  It made me think about the brew master who I’m sure is working diligently every day to make sure each and every case of Blue Moon is crafted in the same high quality way and likely doesn’t get the credit that I’ve seen smaller brewers get.  Maybe I’m comparing brewing to the wine industry too much however, I’ve seen the same thing happen in wine as well.  Well made wines at the entry level in the marketplace do not get the same respect that wines at the top of the market do.

The “craft” is the profession as a whole; either brewmaster, winemaker, or master distiller.  One cannot say that because one label is a larger production than another that it does not fall under the craft of brewing, winemaking, or distilling.  Our industries are fortunate because they still require a human to produce the product. Unlike other crafts such as woodworking or metal smithing, which have largely been taken over by machines of mass production, the production of beer, wine, and spirits still needs someone to oversee the process.  Of course, there have been improvements in technology, monitoring and efficiency but the key remains that in all three of these beverage industries, regardless of price point, you need someone to craft the beer, wine, or spirit.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am very excited by the craft movement and the drink local philosophy that comes with it.  With the three tier set up in this country it is REALLY hard for small producers to make a name for themselves but now it seems the consumer is searching these small, independent producers out.  This is FANTASTIC for the industry particularly in a country where the majority of the population still doesn’t drink at all!  I just wanted to put my two cents out to not take the brewer’s association definition of craft too seriously and to remember that even behind that bottle of medium or large production beverage, there is a craftsman (or woman) working hard to perfect their craft.