Cultural trends evolve the same way as genes, mutating to survive, adopting those traits that give them the most benefit against the hostility of their current environment. Language mimics an ecosystem; some words that stand out for their offensiveness or callousness die of exposure, or unceremoniously at the hands of predators, while other words spring to life almost randomly as young people explore the fertile lands of linguistics, dropping seeds of pop culture as they go. Some words slowly dwindle into obscurity from years of poaching and misappropriation or abuse and overuse. Others, like forgotten floppy discs in the back corner of your closet, disappear through no fault of their own, victims of the inevitable obsolescence associated with an ever-changing lexiconic landscape.
The word “craft” (as related to beer) has picked at my brain like a crow on a corpse, mainly because it always feels sort of tacked-on, overly explanatory, even defensive. On a recent trip out to Annapolis, I heard a waiter declare proudly that his restaurant had “several craft beers available,” really emphasizing the F and T, as if he wasn’t exactly sure what the phrase meant, but it was important that he said it, and that his customers understood that this beer was special by virtue of a single adjective.
Etymologically, all Germanic, Dutch, and Old English roots of the word (kraft, kracht, and cræft, respectively) mean “skill” and “strength” which is certainly appropriate given American beer drinker’s constant flirtation with high ABV. But the contemporary application of the word feels somehow wrong, far too nebulous, relating to something emotional, psychological, that cannot be easily quantified. It took fellow local beer writer Tom Cizauskas commenting on one of my posts for me to finally realize why it always gave me pause when I typed it, like he reached into my brain and solved the long-jumbled Rubik’s Cube for me:
“What is ‘craft’? Homemade? Then the use of stainless-steel and machines would seem un-craft. Size? Then ‘craft’ punishes craft’s success. Taste? Then size doesn’t matter. Quality? Then many small breweries quite often are not ‘craft.’ At their worst, craft’s apostles can sound shrilly solipsistic. The term ‘craft’ has become as meaningless as the term ‘IPA,’ and as irrelevant as mud for the enjoyment of beer.”
“Craft” – as an identifier for beer – has become a suit jacket that no longer fits the swollen mass of our brewing industry. When viewed from an outsider’s perspective, it looks silly and ill-fitting, like an adult trying to hold onto the vestiges of their childhood because they’re not quite ready to grow up. Worse, “craft” – as an identifier for the enthusiast – has been maligned, or at least realigned, to mean “snob,” “elitist,” “trendy,” and “exclusive.” Even if that isn’t personally true for you, it’s a real thing that while great for satire, hurts the entire industry, and keeps potential new fans of less hardy conviction at a cultural sword’s length.
Not, by any stretch, to suggest the word is useless. From a marketing perspective, marrying another word to “beer” proved a brilliant move; it gave enthusiasts a unified banner to rally behind, decorated the heraldry of many a beard-clad revolutionary, and instilled an entire subculture with a sense of identity. “Craft” differentiated the methodologies and approaches of smaller brewers from those of the giants of Budweiser, Miller, and Coors, just enough to give them traction in the market, and stand a chance against the titanic footprint of pale American lager. It is possible these five little letters are to be hugged and kissed and loved for their influence, always looked upon with starry-eyed reverence.
But it’s time to take the training wheels off. “Craft” has served its purpose, and helped the smaller breweries bring their products to the forefront of tap lineups and store shelves, given them a chance to compete for taste-bud real estate. It’s time to compare the apples to the apples, or more aptly, the pints to the pints.
To risk putting forward an ineffective call to action, I propose that beer enthusiasts stop using the word “craft.” I don’t propose they replace it with something else, but simply let it vanish into the fog of human history, to be remarked upon by the historians of some distant generation. I don’t propose we make a big deal about not using it any more, and instead let it slip out of our vernacular like so many other phrases du jour. I don’t propose we do anything except only refer to beer as what it actually is: beer.
Instead of relying on the dubious definitions associated with a made-up prefix, let’s instead judge every beer on how it tastes; every brewery individually for the merits and faults of their recipes and execution; every brewpub on its freshness, atmosphere, and service. If our beer is as good as we all claim it is, we shouldn’t be worried, right? Many in the community are concerned about quality, and unfortunately, the current phrasing gives less consistent breweries a shield to hide behind, a scapegoat for an “off” beer under the guise of the ever-accepting umbrella of “craft.” By not using the word anymore, every brewery – from White Plains to Escondido – can be treated as equals. People can experience any and every beer they want, 12ozs at a time, without fear of being put into any one group, deciding for themselves what beer is good, regardless of what oddly specific definition it falls under.
When beer is just beer, we can look at it more objectively. The cheerleading and cultural gerrymandering will drop off to a minimum, easily picked out instead of easily blending in. The “craft” beer community has done an admirable job of pulling the industry out of the shadow of big brewing, but it’s time to drop the nicknames, let beer be beer, and watch it fly on its own.
(If you liked this piece, go check out John Holl’s much more in-depth and researched version over at All About Beer Magazine!)