Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Art of Craft Beer

We've had this discussion a number of times in various contexts, but maybe we should just address the 500 pound gorilla in the room. Namely, at what point does brewing craft beer stop being a craft and start being a widget manufacturer? And are the two, really, inherently, at odds. I'm not talking barrel limits, because barrel limits are arbitrary. More to the point, it is entirely possible, in my theory, that a brewery that produces 3 million barrels per year is more in line with the "craft" of brewing, than a brewery than "churns out" 10,000 barrels of the same old stuff day in and day out.

I wrote an article way back in February of 2008 that I think outlines a good working definition of "craft beer".

craft beer: a trade involving the skilled art of brewing beer.

It is the art of beer that is the primary difference between Budweiser and O'So. Side-by-side you (and I) would be hard pressed to differentiate between Genessee Cream Ale and Spotted Cow. Yet we consider the latter a craft, and the former a widget. To the extent that brewing beer is a lesson in replication, anyone can turn on a photocopier and press start. But what distinguishes "craft" from "beer" is the art. It is the art that we love, is it not?

Anyone can make an India Pale Ale, but one particular brewer's vision that stimulates the drinker's senses is, like the perfect golf shot, what keeps us coming back for more. The brewer as artist. How many people have painted their mother? But we remember Whistler's Mother because it strikes a chord, it stimulates our senses and causes us to evaluate ourselves and humanity. Much the same way, how many brewers have made an IPA? But we remember Pliny the Elder because it stimulates our senses and causes us to evaluate ourselves and what it means to be human.*

Thus, a craft brewery is not a collection of beer, but rather a collection of artistic statements. Just like the difference between Claude Monet and Thomas Kinkade, there is a difference between Mikkel Bjergsø and Leinenkugel's.

So, why is it then, that so many craft breweries are so quick to abandon their art for the sake of producing more widgets?

Take, for example, Lagunitas. One of my favorite breweries from the West Coast, and their recent Press Release regarding their new seasonal "Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale":
This sad holiday season we didn’t have the brewing capacity to make our favorite seasonal brew, the widely feared BrownShugga’ Ale. You see, we had a couple of good years (thank you very much) and so heading into this season while we are awaiting a January delivery of a new brewhouse we are jammin’ along brewing 80 barrels of IPA and PILS and such every 3 hours.
Lagunitas the widget-maker.

Then consider Founders' problem with its recent release of its Canadian Breakfast Stout:
We make this beer because we are extremely passionate about creating the best liquid we know how to produce. We started this business as home brewers and still look at ourselves as such. We know that some of you might never get your chance at a CBS bottle, but we feel it would be a greater disappointment to have never shared this product at all.
I understand production constraints; in fact, I probably understand them better than the breweries themselves do. I understand that if Woodman's doesn't get its allotment of 80 cases of Hopalicious the world will come to a screeching halt. That if Avenue Bar doesn't get its 3 kegs of South Shore Nut Brown, the brewery may never see the tap line again. But is it worth sacrificing artistic integrity to placate a vendor? 

The most common justification for widget-ification is "But the consumers!" Yes, they blame you, dear reader/consumer. You have put a gun to their head and demand that they continually produce PILS and Knot Stock and Mudpuppy Porter in such vast quantities that they can't possibly make room in the production schedule for something new.

Picasso could have sat back and sold all the Blue paintings he could ever hope to sell, but then the world would never have his Cubist or Surrealist periods. On the other hand, To Kill A Mockingbird is no less an artistic statement simply because Harper Lee never wrote another book. I'm as happy as the next guy to sit back and listen to ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears" for the rest of my life, but Radiohead was just getting started with "Creep". 


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* I use Pliny the Elder as an example, obviously. We've all had that beer that makes us sit back, look at the bottle, and completely change our frame of reference. Whether it's that perfect beer sitting by the fire with buddies that suddenly tastes like the best beer you've ever had, or whether it's a purely academic analysis of a highly regarded, highly rated, beer.

11 comments:

  1. The Avenue Bar goes through 3 halfs of South Shore a week? Really? The last time I was there I met the Budweiser Clydesdales. It was Bud, Miller, Cow and Cap Amber on tap.

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  2. A) Did I say per week? No.
    B) It's an example. All of the references to specific beers or places in this article are examples, not specific accusations.

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  3. This rant against "widget-ification" is flawed. If a brewer wants to divorce him or herself from the market entirely and chase the muse for the sake of art the answer is simple: homebrewing. If you want to run a business then you act like a business and in part that means satisfying demand. What you're deriding as widget-making sounds to me as good business. Thousands want to purchase an IPA and only hundreds want a winter seasonal.

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  4. Lagunitas is accused of being a widget maker, then you complain about making room in production schedules.

    Lagunitas is installing a 250 bbl brewhouse to allow these "widgets" to be brewed more effectively for the masses and will still run their 80 bbl brewhouse for experimental beers. How many breweries in the United States have 80 bbl experimental brewhouses?

    The sacrifice of Brown Shugga is unfortunate but Lagunitas is still bringing a beer that otherwise wouldn't have left draft accounts in Northern CA to the Lagunitas distribution footprint. Lagunitas Sucks is a variation of one of their limited release Fusion beers.

    So much for widgets.

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  5. New Glarus makes it's Spotted Cow as a widget so that Dan can brew many many other styles of beer. To bad he doesn't brew much Belgian style beers.

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  6. Also it's funny that production quantity is the determining factor in the "art" of brewing here. If a brewery were to pump out 80 barrels of bourbon barrel-aged double oatmeal stout a day but run an experimental version of a traditional pils, which one is the artful brew?

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  7. "I understand production constraints; in fact, I probably understand them better than the breweries themselves do." Sounds like you should turn this website over to other people so that you may open a brewery of your own.

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  8. If I wanted to drink like a snobbish oenophile I'd switch to wine.

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  9. Seems like if you want to stay craft it is a choice between staying the same size and make a lot of money, increase production capacity or making something other then your money making beer.

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  10. Where is the Coloniale fest going to be held at? I saw something in the paper about it written by a Beer Barron.

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