According to Martyn Cornell, one of the reasons CAMRA gives for rejecting ‘craft beer’ and not permitting keg beer from microbreweries at its festivals is that the definition of craft beer is unclear. It’s not that there aren’t definitions out there, it’s that they define something but what they define doesn’t clearly suit the connotations of the label ‘craft’.
1. The problem with the official definition of craft beer.
For example, according to the American Brewers Association, a craft brewery is a small independent brewery producing beer by traditional methods, where ‘small’ means the produce fewer than 6 million American barrels of beer per annum (7,040,400
million hectolitres), ‘independent’ means they are not more than 25% owned by a brewing industry body that is not itself a craft brewery, and ‘traditional methods’ means having a flagship beer that is either all malt or only has adjuncts that enhance rather than lighten the flavour of the beer. It’s an impredicative definition, but not, I think, circular enough to make it entirely useless. But I do wonder why they get to call that ‘craft’. The definition may in fact be close to being what philosophers would call “extensionally accurate”, meaning that it gets the extension of ‘craft beer’ right, in that it traces out a group of brewers and for the most part almost all and almost only the brewers we intuitively think of as craft brewers belong to that group.
But we want to do better than a merely extensionally accurate definition because an merely extensionally accurate definition can say the wrong thing about possible cases. Take the old philosophical example: It is true that the set of creatures with a heart is exactly the same as the set of creatures with a kidney, but we don’t want to define being a creature with a heart (‘being cordate’) as being a creature with a kidney (‘being renate’) because it seems possible that the course of events could (or could have) change(d) and some creatures might e.g. clean their blood in their kidneys but pump the blood through their arteries and veins using peristaltic contractions of the walls of the arteries and veins themselves (moving blood through the arteries the way food is moved through the intestines). These would be creatures with kidneys but not hearts. That shouldn’t be a scenario ruled out by definition. The same possibility arises for the Brewers’ Association definition. Circumstances could change that would rule craft breweries out by definition. This is most likely to happen, by the present definition, the day a brewery goes over 6 million barrels. It is difficult to justify treating a brewery that annually produces 6000000 barrels of beer one way and one that brews 6000001 barrels another. If the latter is not a craft brewery, surely the former cannot have really been one either. The threshold also already seems very high and one wonders if the Brewers Association definition doesn’t already let breweries that intuitively aren’t really ‘craft breweries’ slip in (The Irish beer enthusiasts organisation, Beoir, limits Irish microbreweries to up to 20,000 hectolitres). Or, if it doesn’t let big breweries slip in, this is only because at present nothing happens to occupy that particular annual capacity because the gap between the big guys and the small guys is so massive. There’s something funny about the restriction on traditional ingredients ad methods too. Brewhouse automation very quickly becomes necessary simply due to the logistics of dealing with large volumes of grain, wort and beer. It is quickly impossible to manually fill a mash tun, for example, because you’re adding more than a tonne of grain per batch. And liquids need to be transferred between vessels using pumps not buckets or siphons. In other words, microbreweries have to automate as much as industrial breweries do. The use of adjuncts, ingredients other than malt can’t be ruled out, but why permit them only to enhance and not lighten flavour? Maybe for certain beers lightening the flavour is enhancing the flavour? It must be remembered that light lager is an extremely successful and popular style. And why should an all rice or all maize beer be ruled ‘noncraft’? Malted barley is the traditional favourite, but who are we to put limits on brewer’s creativity by ruling out beers based on millet, rice, sorghum, rye, maize, quinoa or other grain? Legislating over ingredients doesn’t seem a promising way to delineate the class of craft breweries. The independence criterion only works if the other two criteria do, because it makes reference to craft breweries in its statement. If we can’t use the traditional methods and small size clause to set limits on class membership, there’s no way to say that ABInbev is not a craft brewer for the purposes of clause two.
2. The ‘family resemblance’ definition of craft beer.
So the Brewers’ Association definition is not satisfactory, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as craft beer. Their definition is probably nearly extensionally accurate. There is a group of breweries out there deserving special esteem and regard. “The Good Guys” , if you like. Some writers say it’s in the way they make it and some writers adopt an ‘I know it when I see it‘ approach. There’s an interesting approach taken by Boak and Bailey. They offer ten signs of craft beer such that if something has sufficiently many of the hallmarks, it counts as craft beer. As you’d expect, it has been parodied mercilessly, but it’s actually a sophisticated way of delineating the class in question. It’s not supposed to be complete as it stands. Taken charitably, we can suppose that it could be fleshed out to capture virtually all the breweries we consider to be craft breweries. Now, it could be that Boak and Bailey simply want to move on. They don’t want to get bogged down in the question of what exactly constitutes craft beer anymore. Or they could be taking the position that craft beer is a family resemblance concept, meaning that there is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for being craft beer, but rather there are a bunch of traits which are shared by the members of the class. None of the traits is had by all of them and every member of the class has some of the traits, so that the class members all resemble each other more than they resemble things outside the class. Just like the relatedness of a family may be visible in the eyes, of in the nose, the shape of the face, the texture/thickness of the hair and so on. Boak and Bailey may be claiming, that is, that there is no essence or nature to craft beer, just a collection of linkages.
Now if that is what they are claiming, then here’s an argument against that. A family resemblance concept is very tolerant of change in the traits defining group membership. Having a certain shape of nose might be characteristic of family members in one generation but not the next, for example. Other traits may come in at later stages and be taken to be characteristic. So, if ‘craft beer’ were a family resemblance concept, the features that define it now might cease to be important and others could take their place. We could imagine a series of such changes happening that might change the list of features being definitive of what people 100 or 150 years from now call ‘craft beer’. They might be changes in commodity prices, consumer preferences, technological developments, commercial mergers and acquisitions, acquisition of intellectual property rights or something else entirely. In a 100 years from now, it might be only breweries in the ABInbev stable had the legal right to use the term ‘craft beer’. If ‘craft beer’ as we use it were a family resemblance concept, beer in this new scenario might still be craft beer as such. But clearly it wouldn’t be craft beer as we use it; we can only make sense of such a scenario if we assume a change of meaning. It would be ‘craft beer’ in name only. It wouldn’t really be craft beer as we use it, which suggests that ‘craft beer’ is not a family resemblance concept at all. (Another reason for being suspicious of the ‘family resemblance’ approach to delineating a class of things is that one suspects that the members of a class all resemble each other because of some underlying common cause. The members of a family have common features because they are genetically related. Similarly, it could be that craft beer has the hallmarks Boak and Bailey cite because there really is something common underlying all those features.)
3. The ‘craft brewers as authors’ definition of craft beer
So, What is Craft Beer? I want to offer an analogy. I think we should understand the relationship between craft brewers and the beer they produce on the model of the relationship between authors and their works. That is, we should see craft brewers as authors. The relevant characteristic of authors for the purposes of this comparison is that authors have a large degree of control over and responsibility for the ultimate form of their work. But there’s more to it. Because the ultimate form of the work is very much their decision, they have a lot personally invested in it. An author wants to write popular books, but they want that to happen because people like the books they write rather than because they research what people already want and write something like that. I’m talking about a kind of priority of ‘direction of fit‘ in the correspondence between the tastes of the public and the work of the author. An author wants the taste of the public to conform to the character of the book, not the book to conform to the tastes of the public.
I think this contrasts with the diffuse distribution of responsibility in industrial organisations, be they megabreweries or hollywood movie studios or something else. There the final form of a product is the result of a sort of collective decision making process involving people in different parts of the organisation and a strict organisational hierarchy. The leaders of the organisation decide whether to even offer a product of a certain kind. For example, it might be a Christmas themed romantic comedy or, if my analogy holds, a lager or wheat beer or Irish red ale. Then certain specialised members of the organisation put together a prototype of the product, perhaps several. For example, the studio has writers and directors and actors etc put a film together perhaps with several alternative endings. A bunch of brewers produce several test beers. These products are then run past focus groups chosen to reflect the tastes of the general public. The results of the tests are run through the computer and the leaders in the organisation decide whether to give the go ahead on the project. The creative work by the writers and brewers may involve a lot of personal commitment on their parts individually, but this emotional engagement doesn’t have any relevance to the ultimate decision. The final say so is almost a formal matter, being very greatly a matter of how the product fared in the focus group tests. The organisation leaders could perhaps go out on a limb and take a gamble and expect the public to come to them, but they don’t have to. In the industrial production model, the direction of fit is conformity of the product to the tastes of the public. The brewers or screen writers can be asked to tweak the product in various ways to suit public tastes. Brewers and screen writers and other specialist employees are not authors in these conditions. They have creative input but not authority.
In other words, what matters for craft beer is the organisational structure of the brewery. This is not a question of absolute number of employees. There can be two or more authors (‘joint authors’ like Gilbert and Sullivan, Frutero and Lucentini or Sjöwall and Wahlöö), but the more people there are, the less likely it is that anyone will stand in a properly authorial relationship to the work produced. This is why craft breweries tend to be small, because as breweries get bigger they lose that relationship. Size is a matter of organisational structure.
I think the brewers as authors conception explains why people might want to support craft beer. We might support them because authors create diversity and as beer consumers we value diversity. We might support them because authors are dedicated to excellence as they conceive it and that might be conducive to good beer as we individual consumers conceive it.
So I put it to you that that is the essence of craft beer. A craft brewer is someone who stands to their beer as an author stands to their books. A craft brewery is a brewery with a craft brewer and craft beer is beer brewed by a craft brewer.