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Lurching Toward a Definition of Craft Beer

The first thing we have to recognize is that there is no such thing as “beer.”

That is not to say that the Deschutes Chain Breaker  you’re thinking of opening up after work is imaginary—some Buddhist illusion you created to find temporary joy in a world of suffering. It is a thing—a thing you can experience, and it is a thing that you—and probably everybody you know—can call “a beer” and reasonably be expected to be understood. But “beer” is a group noun, a class of things. Agreement over which things should and should not be included in this discussion has changed over time and even right now is in flux. Even a fairly precise definition such as “a liquid, primarily made for human consumption, by fermenting sugars extracted from cereal grains” would still include beverages like sake and kvass which some people would argue are not “beers” and others (like me) hold are; or, take the debate over whether the superbeers like Sink the Bismark qualify or not. In Bavaria, for a while, “beers” could only use hops, barley, and water (and yeast, but it could not be listed because of scientific ignorance). So what would a wheat beer have been, if not “a beer”? So if something as simple and well-understood as “beer” is not a real thing, but a hard-to-agree-upon concept, what chance do we have to agree upon a definition of “craft beer”?

The second thing we have to realize is that taxonomies, because they are simple creations use to group together complex realities, they are naturally deficient.

That’s fine; I don’t think most people have trouble with that…except when the discrepancy between the received taxonomy conflicts with the real world in an immediate way. That is, the taxonomy is always problematic, but we only care when we are face-to-face with an object defined one way, but being experienced in another way. Take for example a simple breakdown of animal types: Wild Animals, Domesticated Barnyard Animals, and Pets. This seems to capture all animals in a way that is appealing and useful. But what happens the first time we realize that certain cultures eat dogs or hunt guinea pigs? How do we react the first time we hear about rabbit or weasel farms? These crossover animals evoke reactions precisely because they reveal the uncertain character of unquestioned “truths.” The same thing happens when Blue Moon gets included as a craft beer. This is inevitable of course. The question is not whether we can create a perfect definition without these inconsistencies but whether we can reduce them to an acceptable level.

The third and most important thing we should consider as we try to create or define a taxonomic category is its use.

What is the purpose of grouping some things together and excluding others? To what extent should we accept exceptions to exist before we realize that our category is more confusing than helpful? The inspiration for this post was this post from economist Patrick Emerson where he says:

For me, as an economist what is interesting is the “craft beer market.”  This is what I think brewers really want to know – who are their competitors?  In fact trying to subjectively define craft beer is a waste of time.  Trying to be sure we exclude Blue Moon from the definition of craft beer is stupid when consumers are considering it at the same time they are considering an Allagash wit.  It is, by revealed preference, a craft beer to consumers that are making that choice.  Artificially excluding it from the definition does not help the brewer that is competing against it.

That said, defining markets in economics is not easy either.  Is a land line phone in the same market as a smartphone, for example?  We generally collect information from cross-price elasticity estimates – what happens to the sales of smartphones when land-line phone prices change?  If nothing, then we can comfortably say that they are not in the same market.  If they change a lot, then that is good evidence that they occupy some of the same demand space of consumers. [my emphasis-Jim]

My first instinct—which I would later correct—was to say, “This would be a really stupid way to classify ‘craft beer.’” My mind, because of my job, leaped immediately to a recent article I read by economists at the University of Colorado-Denver and the University of Montana [PDF], where they looked at the most recent literature on alcohol and marijuana use and concluded that there was some evidence of a substitution effect—in other words, they conclude that if marijuana were legalized, many people who currently drink would start smoking marijuana instead. In other, other words, beer and marijuana “occupy some of the same demand space” as Emerson says above. But this does not compel us to accept that beer and marijuana are the same substance or even concept. Similarly, we know (as I’ve repeatedly said) that cultures tend to shift from being beer-dominant to being wine-dominant as they get richer. So beer and wine are competing for the same dollars too, but, again, beer and wine aren’t the same substance. They are the same on some level. So I think Emerson is wrong to say that any product (his example is Blue Moon) is a “craft beer” simply because it is competing for craft beer dollars. There is some category levels under which they are the same (“beer”…and above that “alcohol”…and above that “intoxicant.”)

Neither is the discussion underway whether “craft beer” is wholly distinct from “beer.” The question is whether there is some way to define a special category of beer that is called “craft beer” that includes most of the beers that most of us already consider “craft beer” while meaningfully excluding those beers that most of us already do not consider “craft”? Is there a definition which, objectively applied, usefully does this without making so many exceptions as to render its use more confusing? [I would also argue that there is concern that once a definition is established will the definers have the cojones to objectively apply it without performing semantic backflips to accommodate their friends in Boston, but I mean-spiritedly digress].

But it was in thinking about it this way—with a focus on the different possible uses for a definition—that made me realize that Emerson’s definition is not a stupid one. I don’t think it meaningfully defines “craft beer” (to me as a craft beer drinker) but I don’t think that Papazian’s definition does either, or the one from Canadean that corresponded with Jeff Alworth last week. Papazian thinks we need a definition because “craft beer” as a concept is in danger of being “hijacked” by the big brewers—this seems to be related to the “craft vs crafty” rhetoric out of BA lately. His example is how mass manufactured pies and ice cream are now labeled as “homemade.” Of course, this is patently ridiculous. There is no one in the world, even, I would wager, children that think a store-bought “homemade” pie is in fact homemade. I think any craft beer aficionado knows what a craft beer is. The danger, of course, is that unlike a “homemade pie” vs a homemade pie, the availability of it in a store is not a sufficient prerequisite for distinction. Many actual craft beers are available in grocery stores and in several states. When Papazian was first spearheading the homebrewer/craftbrewer movement in its early days, the distinction was clear: if you were buying it in a store, it wasn’t craft. If it was available but not in a store, it was. As breweries have grown in size (organically or through mergers), as they have worked out distribution deals, and signed on with specialty marketing agencies—even had TV shows based on their operations, the distinction has blurred. Papazian seems to blame this new confusion on megabreweries’ deliberate and purposeful co-option of the craft image. But I see that craft brewers, through their own natural evolution as businesses have helped blur the lines.

The target of such a definition has to be the uninformed consumer-and Papazian, Candadean and the rest have to believe that the uninformed consumer is somehow being negatively impacted by their ignorance. The power of a definition is to simplify a message, a culture, a set of norms and values to quickly and succinctly inform the uninformed. The definer shapes the mind of the uninformed, just as an agenda-setter controls the debate. The problem is that what an interest group like BA wants, or what a business group like Samuel Adams wants, or what “an economist” wants is naturally going to differ from what an individual craft beer consumer wants from that definition. And I think Emerson nails what the “craft beer consumer” wants:

All else equal, I like to support small independent breweries because it is part of my utility function, but that is not the same thing as craft beer and I can do so regardless (and yes, I consider Widmer a small and local brewery)…. [The megabrewers] are not flexible and agile, they are not local and they are not personality driven – all of which are things I think of as keys to the local beer scene.

But if a personal relationship with a local brewery is what you want from “craft beer,” then you don’t need an accepted definition for it, because you are the only one that can measure the depth of your relationship with the folks behind the taps. Even if we expand the definition to be “beer made from those breweries with which it is possible to develop a personal relationship…” we don’t get much closer to a real definition that can be objectively applied.

That is not to say that I think the pursuit of a definition is evil, wrongheaded or impossible. I think it is worthy to constantly be having this conversation and demanding cohesion, correspondence, and pragmatism from whatever definitions are proposed. But the conversation needs to keep in mind that definitions are semiotic realities, not real ones—they are about defining social structures and group norms and values—not about identifying physical differences. And the definer must announce the reason he has chosen the definition he has–and the definition has to solve whatever problem is identified. Just like a beer is judged on the basis of whether or not the brewer met the goals of their intended style, a good definition must be assessed on whether it achieves the goal it set out to achieve. So what harm does Papazian et al. think is being delivered to the drinker when he buys Blue Moon instead of Allagash Wit?

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Posted in The Drinking Class.