Sunday, November 10, 2013

What is CRAFT?

What is CRAFT? In the all-cap format, it refers to yesterday's CRAFT Spirits & Beer event in Miami, two kick-off dinners the night before, and a wrap-up one this afternoon. In lower case, it's a question we discussed on two different panels at yesterday's event. Both uses merit some reflection.

First, the event. It is the brainchild of Jennifer Massolo, who took the chance that Miami bars and restaurants, and their customers, would attend and enjoy a showcase of craft spirits and beer, complemented by creative food and drink. They seemed to, even though there wasn't a mojito in sight.

One hates to say 'first annual,' but you have to put events like this on regularly for them to catch fire and become something the community looks forward to attending. Craft spirits and beer are connected to other trends, such as creative cocktail mixology, creative cuisine, and the locavore movement.

Being as they're all forms of personal expression, CRAFT was held in an exhibition space in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, an up-and-coming arts district, not in the usual hotel ballroom or convention center.

Second, the question. Yesterday's event consisted of a tasting hall and several seminars, including two sessions about "What Is Craft?" I moderated both but the panelists were different for each round. Jennifer had the great idea of including not just craft producers but also distributors, beverage managers, and mixologists.

No one offered a pithy definition of 'craft.' It was more along the lines of "I know it when I see it." The panelists disagreed about whether or not craft has to involve originality or creativity, about the role of size ("Can a big distillery be craft?"), and about the best ways to educate consumers.

"Disagreed" might be too strong but both discussions were lively, all of the participants were engaged, and it's probably good that we had a time limit or we'd still be talking about it.

People like Kent Fleischmann (Dry Fly), Chip Tate (Balcones), Ralph Erenzo (Tuthilltown), Nicolas Palazzi (PM Spirits), and John Glazer (Compass Box) attend this sort of thing all the time all over the country, but I rarely do outside of Chicago and Kentucky. Miami has such a unique and exciting cultural mix and that played into it too.

One thing about which everyone agreed is that this movement is happening very fast, people (that is, consumers) seem to love it, and no one can predict what will happen next.


Anonymous said...

"Craft" is about process, not product. It means the product required the sweat (not figuratively) and attention of the makers, without the aid of large-scale commercial processes. This is intended to yield products which are more unique. That said, there's nothing wrong with producing something like the big boys.

With beer it was easy because the big breweries were producing such a limited product aimed at making money alone, but it gets more difficult with the distilleries who have continued to produce unique products even before the micro-distillers came on-line (and who exercise serious control over the nature of their product).

Either way -- Craft means variety and that's something to be celebrated.

Reece said...

Anonymous, that's a bunch of nonsense. Name one of the actual big distillers that makes whiskey without requiring work. Honestly. Go visit any of the big distillers and tell me that isn't work and it doesn't require attention. Really, what are you talking about?

ezweave said...

Using the Truman anti-trust act "I know it when I see it" rubric is probably appropriate withe regards to "craft". That said, it's also a bit of bullshit.

If I were selling/marketing a product, I'd shy away from using the term "craft" even if the product, from mash to wash, to barreling was all performed by myself. It just seems to get in the way of what you actually care about.

To that end, in the whiskey business it would be a slippery slope. A small distiller that might use pot stills and, for the terribly small, even one still for both stripping and spirit runs certainly involves more "watch the still" work than a large, commercial reflux column still where more of the process is automated. But then the smallest of distillers who have human hands involved in cooking the mash and distillation is by nature "craft" in perhaps an inarguable way. But then, you get into wrinkles: did they by their yeast from someone else?

It's too much of a slippery slope, and really, too much of a gimmick. Even if big distilleries automate much of the actual production of the spirit, they still have human hands checking barrels for leaks, tasting, and selection. Is that craft?

"Craft" as a term seems like a buzzword employed by folks like Templeton or Breckenridge who don't even make their whiskey.

Why even bother? I've been to some of the smallest distilleries (like Peach Street) and you can see people doing the work. But you won't find them bragging about all those shitty, circle jerk "spirit" awards. Save that for the new "Michter's". Aside: a bartender tried to convince me that some of the new Hirsch stuff was good and it may be the fog of a long night of "sampling", but I swear I could taste some of that Beam wild yeast... anyone else had this stuff?

SteveBM said...

Meant to post a comment awhile back but it's busy time at the office. Great meeting you at CRAFT. BMW capacity was tested! The buzz after the event was great. I had a lot of people tell me they really enjoyed the opportunity to try so many new craft spirits and also learn about them at the booths and seminars. Jen did a great job and I think next year will be even better. Hope to see you at the next one!