Entering the Post-Craft World

Yesterday I offered you reviews of four beers and asked if they were "craft" or not. Many of you instantly smelled a rat--and rightly so. That was the point. I hadn't exactly worked out the wording of this post to explain it, but no matter. Vasili Gletsos, the peripatetic brewer now manning the kettle at Laurelwood, did my work for me:
To me, the term is most useful as a historical movement to describe the revolution (resurgence?) of smaller breweries in a post-prohibition environment. We are now in a post-craft environment in which there is a wide variety of business models and ownerships in addition to a great depth of beer styles and experimentation.
In the middle part of the last century, technology and business conspired to rob the United States not only of nearly every beer style, but most of its local breweries. They were replaced by faceless behemoths that churned out beer in quantities inconceivable to the human mind. This had the virtue of dropping prices to almost nothing as efficiencies of scale and advertising budgets equal to the GDP of Paraguay doomed regional breweries. I could go on for a few more sentences here, but you know this story well already.

The corrective came in the form of a band of pirates who were interested in wrecking the machine of industrial brewing and creating space for the return of small-batch, artisanal brewing. To the extent there was a revolutionary impulse, it was that these businesses would compete on the bases of quality and flavor, not price. So began a correction that has, three decades on, radically altered the beer industry.

Unfortunately, there was a conceptual fault to this development, one located in the phrase "craft brewing." It led innocently to an idea that there was something called "craft beer." But beer is beer. It's either made with the highest quality ingredients and processes or it's not. It's either a brilliant interpretation of style or it's not. The matter of who owns the brewery is a strange abstraction.

The beers I reviewed yesterday came from Goose Island, a brewery wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch, which is itself owned by an international brewing conglomerate--one that makes those quaint American macros of the 70s look like pikers. The beers were, in order, (1) Mae (unreleased), (2) Juliet, (3) an unreleased stout, and (4) Madame Rose. As I was thinking about the review, I groaned with the expectation that someone would slag the brewery for selling out or dumbing down or whatever. (Even before the A-B purchase, certain craft nazis avid beer geeks held the brewery in great suspicion because it had the indecency to sell a huge amount of light wheat ale.) So I thought: why not head them off at the pass?

Vasili's right: we've entered a post craft world where even the meaning of craft brewery is fraying--never mind the idea of "craft beer." We're sort of stuck with the nomenclature of "craft" because it helps differentiate segments of the market--even while, admittedly, it introduces its own confusion. My recent posts about the craft brewing segment are a case in point. Still, as educated beer drinkers, we can avoid being fooled ourselves. We can admire and wish to support small, local breweries (and I do, hugely, on both counts); we can criticize breweries that make dumbed-down beer filled with cost-saving adjuncts to appeal to a mass audience. But at the end of the day, beer is beer, and we're going to have to get comfortable judging what's in the glass separately from who made it.


Also: Alan has thoughts on the subject.