Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

What Does it Mean to be Craft?

What does it mean to be a Craft brewery or a Craft Distillery?  Terms like “hand crafted,” “small-batch,” “artisan,” and “traditional” can be found on all sorts of beer and spirit labels.  They are meant to evoke visions of individual, hard working craftsmen who dedicate themselves to creating something unique and interesting. Yet these terms are often little more than corporate newspeak (a term coined in George Orwell's 1984). Newcastle Beer recently released an ad that pokes fun at the idea of big breweries calling their products handmade.  The ad cuts between black and white photos while the narrator tells how Newcastle was handcrafted beer, but handcrafted beer was hard work.  The ad then cuts to color photos of a mechanized bottling line while the narrator quips about how they now handcraft their beer with big machines.  I like the ad for its humor, honesty and its confidence that their product is good enough not to hide behind pretense. 

Yet the term craft has become a valuable commodity as large breweries and distilleries have lost market share to these upstarts.  The latest figures show that craft beer has grown to 6.5% of the US market, at the expense of the larger companies.  In response to this growth MillersCoors have released Blue Moon, Anheuser-Busch produces Shocktop, and Jim Beam has been bottling a number of “small batch” bottlings that can be found in Costco, which makes me wonder how “small” their batches are.  While there is nothing bad about these products in general, would any layman who knows something about how they are made call these products craft?  I think not.

However, two trade associations, the Brewers Association and the American Distilling Institute have developed well accepted standards for what it means to be Craft in their respective industries.  The Brewers Association defines an American Craft Brewery as: Small, with annual production less than 6 million barrels of beer; Independent, no more than 25% of the brewery can be owned by an alcohol beverage company that is not itself a craft brewery; and Traditional, in that at least 50% of the brewery's beers are all malt beer or they only use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.  By this definition Boston Brewing, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium Brewing were the three largest craft breweries in 2012. Boston produced 2.1 million barrels of Samuel Adams while Sierra Nevada and New Belgium produced 966,000 barrels and 765,000 barrels respectively. In comparison, Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewery in the country, produced almost 100 million barrels of beer in 2012. 

On July 15th the American Distilling Institute announced its brand new certifications for craft distilled and craft blended spirits. Similar to the Brewers Association's definition of a craft brewery, ADI created two definitions that revolves around size, independence and on-site, hands on production. To be a Certified Craft Distilled Spirit the product must be: Distilled by the licensed Distilled Spirit Producer and clearly labeled, Distilled by; Independent, no more than 25% of the distillery can be owned by an alcohol beverage company that is not also a craft distillery; Small scale, annual sales must be less than 100,000 proof gallons (a proof gallon is one gallon of 50% abv spirit); and Hands-on production, reflects the vision of the principle distiller of the spirit using a variety of production techniques. Again for comparison, Beam Global sold about 90 million proof gallons of spirits in 2012.

These definitions  provide a simple litmus test by which any beer or spirit can be tested.  These definitions are by no means a guarantee that consumers will like all the products covered by them. Yet they provide consumers with simple tools to determine which companies and products are actually craft and which are using the term only as a marketing gimmick.  For those who are interested, the Brewers Association and ADI have directories that list the companies that comply with their definitions of what it means to be craft.

Sources Cited.

Thumbnail image borrowed from Alehead Nation