What “Cræft” Can Teach Us About Beer

Images from the book.

Earlier this year, British archaeologist and medieval historian Alexander Langlands published a fascinating book: Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. The purpose of the book is to reclaim the meaning of "craft" as it existed before it became a marketing slogan or an expensive item available at boutiques. Langlands takes his scholar's eye into the past to excavate the original sense of the word and see how it might enrich our current approach to making things in a world where there's a machine or app to do it for us.

I don’t want to start any arguments but it’s true: craft has become so ubiquitous that it’s increasingly difficult to state with any exactitude a definition precise enough to satisfy everyone. Certainly it has something to do with making--and making with a perceived authenticity: by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard. It doesn’t necessarily to result in an object, though. A recent craze for craft beers means that we can consume craft and essentially come away with nothing. In the world of art it can be a methodological process as much as a conceptual tool. In the world of luxury, a reassurance that you are acquiring the very best product money can buy... But even in today’s versatile use of the word craft there is only the faintest overlap with the definition cræft had when it first appeared in written English over a thousand years ago. 

Langlands makes his exploration philologically, experientially, and philosophically, turning the subject over, considering its history and connection to language, the physical steps, and speaking to masters. He also participates in the crafting process. Much of the book is devoted to different types of traditional crafts--thatching a roof, for example. Langlands uses all three of his investigative modes to consider thatching (he informs us that the word comes from the Old English þæc, a roof, but concludes there's not much wisdom in that), and delivers readers a deeper sense of a simple object than they ever imagined.

The book starts out with Langlands' first, accidental foray into cræft, when he picked up an old scythe for the first time in his mid-twenties. A passing driver had to tell him how to use it properly and, intrigued, he continued to use it throughout a summer. When the scythe was no longer conceptual, he learned something valuable: "The shape of the garden changed, too; straight lines gave way to sweeping curves and corners became rounded." This nonconceptual insight led him to a deeper appreciation of the ancient meaning of cræft, and what the moderns might take from it.

What Cræft Means

Cræft is an Anglo-Saxon word, and Langlands studied the way it had been used. "In the greatest number of cases the meaning is of power of skill in the context of knowledge, ability, and a kind of learning. Furthermore, a sense of mental skill--merit, talent, or excellence--occurs as many times as the sense of physical skill." Later, he summarizes his sense of the word as:

A hand-eye-head-heart-body coordination that furnishes us with a meaningful understanding of the materiality of our world.

The concept wasn't described or defined in the middle ages--and why would it be? In the pre-industrial world, everything was the product of handcrafting. The term exists almost as negative space that only had meaning once we were able to mass produce things on machines. Then it became valuable to understand how humans made things by hand and what was lost when we gave them over to machines.

For Langlands, cræft is the knowledge that resides in the body. As we do a thing repeatedly, we begin to develop mastery; our bodies, after a thousand repetitions, know how to do a thing. This is the central point of Cræft: the wisdom and skill come from the body and mind of the craftsperson, not a machine. He has to do some unpacking here. Humans are incredibly clever, and we have been making machines for millennia. Some of these make a craft easier but don't occlude the body's wisdom (like machines that move around heavy objects); others do. He explains where that line matters, using a most British example:

The craft of trimming hedges can be broken down into three physical functions. Number one is the application of power. Number two is the kinaesthetic sensibility that enables us to shape our body, arms, and hands into a position that allows us to achieve number three, the act of cutting....  I would not consider a topiarist who uses an electric hedge trimmer a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes the level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.

The distinction between a tool, which allows the craftsperson to wield power and "kinaesthetic sensibility," and a machine, which removes them, isn't incidental--it's the essence of cræft.

Cræft Beer

Of course, I read the book with a particular agenda: I wondered how Langlands perspective could help me understand the distinction between an industrial beer and a craft beer--if there is one at all. (Except for the mention I quoted above, he doesn't consider beer in the book.) It once seemed so obvious, but the closer we study it, the more we become confused by extraneous considerations.

Beer isn't the easiest craft to consider because it has harnessed machines almost from the start. It is a compound craft, proceeding from the field to the mug through many operations, not a simple one, like cutting hay with a scythe. Along the way, various tools and machines are employed to move heavy ingredients around, to manipulate and combine them. A prescriptive definition of cræft only gets us into the morass of defining allowed practices. It's not possible to make beer at a commercial scale without using machines. The question is: when do those machines remove the craft from brewing?

Cræft resides in the body and wisdom of the craftsperson, not the machine. Some equipment actually invests more power in the brewer--whirlpools, for example, give a brewer the ability to infuse a beer with a dose of hops. But every time a brewery automates a part of the process, it takes the wisdom out of the brewer's hand and places it in a machine. Machines do things precisely and consistently, but each time we use them in lieu of a physical act, we move further away from the process. An accretion of these small concessions moves the act of brewing from one being primarily brewer-defined to brewery-defined. The wisdom is transferred from person to machine.

I have interviewed hundreds of brewers, many while touring their breweries. A good many of them have been honing their craft for years or decades. They have made thousands of batches of beer. The more senior brewers--the John Keelings (Fuller's) and Hans-Peter Drexlers (Schneider) and Jean Van Roys (Cantillon)--communicate something beyond just deep experience. They hint at a knowledge of the beer they can't always express; it's something that lives in their bones. When you talk to very experienced brewers who have worked in breweries that are not highly automated, you hear them hint at cræft.

They often resort to analogy, metaphor, or poetic language, and this is the stuff of the best beer writing. There's always something just out of reach, though. One of my most vivid memories is touring the Budvar brewery with brewmaster Adam Brož. Budvar is an unusual beer, even for the Czech Republic. Time and again, we would be discussing one of the brewery's idiosyncracies, and Brož would turn to science. The brewery had done lots of research, and he used studies to confirm their approach. If I gently pointed to studies that had found different results, he smiled; he knew them all. But the practices Budvar has used for decades, which Brož learned and now practices, made an intuitive sense to him. The processes and the beer are inseparable; in each act along the way Brož takes, he senses the effect on the beer. Had we had this language in common, I think he might have just said the beer was the result of the cræft.

I'm going to finish this very long post with one more passage from Langlands and a comment about how it applies to beer. He observes:

In the world of art, free beauty can be tainted by reliance on the functional: form and appearance should always be appreciated as part of a pure aesthetic. But I would judge the forging of a good billhook, not on how pleasing aesthetically it is to the eye but on how close its form is to that of other billhooks I’ve used. It’s attraction--and therefore its beauty--is dependent on its ability to function as a billhook.  We increasingly struggle with dependent beauty because we don’t know how to place or use functioning crafted goods. We don’t know what to measure that beauty against. What is it dependent on? We struggle with the true value of a warm blanket because our central heating never allow allows us to get cold enough.

Beer is not a functional good, like a billhook or a blanket. And yet in every type of beer there resides an enormous wealth of humanity--our agricultural resources, our preferences, the way we drink, our history, the scars left by wars and famines, the residue of laws, and all the ways brewers for generations have adapted their craft to these realities. When a master craftsperson--a brewer--makes a beer for the thousandth or ten thousandth time on a brewery she has come to know intimately, that wisdom is passed along. When that same brewer decides to invest that wisdom--not just in the brewing process, but the knowledge of how people consume and enjoy her work--into a new beer, that wisdom, that cræft is carried forward.

On the other extreme, a highly industrial process looks like the inverse of this. The inspiration for a new beer comes not from the brewer but the marketing team. Its contours are defined by abstract ideas removed from the act of brewing (some flavor or marketplace niche). The beer is designed to be made on a machine that can make beers in only a limited range of ways--the new beer must follow the limitations of the machine. The parameters of the beer are entered into the computer and the new flavor of beer emerges from the other end, without reference to that long list of human inputs. This is clearly not cræft.

Most breweries exist somewhere in between these two points on the continuum. It is easy to imagine, using the logic of cræft, that a large brewery owned by a corporation is closer to true craft than a small brewery operated by an inexperienced homebrewer. But in each case, it gives us a different way to think about the brewery than size, ownership structure, or other common metrics. I am always interested to see the newest invention or trend, but the beers I truly love aren't the product of mere cleverness. But the product of a master brewer, imbued with the deeper wisdom of cræft, is generally more satisfying. Perhaps I can write a post about how we might use the concept more concretely in thinking about beer, but this is enough for now.