History

Porn and the definition of craft beer

craftIn 1964, the US Supreme Court was hearing the obscenity case of Jacobellis vs Ohio. Nico Jacobellis, a cinema owner, was in trouble for screening the French film Les Amants, which the state of Ohio had already deemed obscene.

He’d been fined $2500 but the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction. It’s a case perhaps best known for comments by Justice Potter Stewart who, when trying to offer a definition of pornography, said ‘‘I know it when I see it’’.

What, exactly, does porn have to do with beer? Well, aside from both being able to inspire an inordinate amount of excitement in some people, I figure that definition could also be effectively used to define craft beer.

I don’t worry too much about what is or isn’t craft beer – I don’t even care much for the phrase. I prefer to call it ‘‘good beer’’ – if I like it, it’s good. But a goodly number of beer geeks seem compelled to come up with a definition of craft beer.

That’s a pointless exercise in my book because, really, ‘‘craft beer’’ can only be defined after the fact – we’re shown a beer and can then make up our minds whether or not it fits the bill.

In other words, ‘‘we know it when we see it’’.

Yet people continue to try and come up with definitions that will allow us to classify a beer as ‘‘craft’’ even before we’ve seen it. Some rely on vague concepts like innovation, spirit, the level to which the brewer is involved in making the beer, whether or not the beer is made with traditional ingredients or even whether the brewer has a beard and is allowed to listen to loud music while they work in the brewery. Okay, so I made that last one up.

As definitions go, they’re immediately going to be useless because they rely on a person’s interpretation rather than incontrovertible fact. Which is why most definitions revolve around issues of production size and ownership. Which, at first glance, makes sense. But at second glance, problems start to appear.

For instance, the US Brewers Association had a definition that said a craft brewer was one that produced no more than two million barrels a year. About two years ago they changed that figure to no more than six million barrels. Why? Presumably, because some of the breweries they’d defined as ‘‘craft’’ under the old definition (Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada) were going close to breaking that two million cap. So, rather than saying ‘‘well, those breweries are no longer craft’’ they fiddled with the definition to ensure they were included.

If you’re going to manipulate the figures to ensure certain breweries are included, doesn’t that point to the reality that volume is a terrible way to define a ‘‘craft brewer’’? Because the definition clearly doesn’t allow for growth.

Then there’s ownership – a classification used to exclude the mega brewers. Essentially, if you’re owned by a megacorp, you can’t be craft. In Australia, that would mean, for example Little Creatures Single Batch beers wouldn’t be considered craft. Is there anyone reading this who think the Single Batches aren’t ‘‘craft beer’’? Of course they are.

Another case is Stone and Wood – one of the big guys had a share of the business, until S&W bought it back. According to the ownership definition, that would mean they weren’t craft beer before but they are now – even though the beer they made had not changed. That means, the day before S&W bought back the farm you could go to a bottle shop, point to a bottle of Pacific Ale and say ‘‘not craft’’ and a day later go to exactly the same bottlo, point to exactly the same bottle and say ‘‘craft’’. I hope we can agree that that is just stupid.

Realistically, getting a working definition of craft beer is like trying to catch smoke – it’s never going to happen. There are simply too many intangibles to create a black and white definition.

Unless you want to opt for ‘‘I know it when I taste it’’.

Advertisements

3 replies »

    • Thanks…I should say that I know why it helps the craft beer industry to have a definition. But, as a consumer, every definition I see has its flaws.
      Which is why I think the “I know it when I see it” definition is what actually ends up getting applied most often.

It's your shout

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s