Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Is Craft?

What is craft, as in 'craft distillery'?

The dictionary offers a little help. The most nearly relevant dictionary definition is: "denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company."

That certainly supports those who argue that a big producer can't be craft, but distilling is problematic. Whiskey, for the most part, is made in a "traditional" and "non-mechanized way" by everyone. The difference between a big distillery and a small one is mostly just scale. The processes are almost identical.

Does that mean the term 'craft' is meaningless? Lew Bryson thinks so, as he told the Charleston City Paper a few days ago. "I've been trying to tell the brewers to walk away from that term for 15 years now. Just call it beer. It's beer. The only reason you're using craft is because you want to separate yourself from the big brewers. But people know who they are." He feels the same way about applying the term to whiskey and other spirits.

Bryson is a powerful voice in both industries but craft brewers haven't listened to him on this, neither have craft distillers. People will continue to use the term and argue about its meaning, who should use it, and who should not.

Maybe this will help.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan affects some kind of transformation. For something to be 'craft,' an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The 'craft' performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it.

For example, Diageo claims its Orphan Barrel bourbons are craft, but Orphan Barrel is a marketing idea, not a product idea. The product itself consists of nothing more than several large batches of leftovers.

Too harsh? Consider the facts. No one has claimed that United Distillers, the Diageo predecessor company that made the whiskey, intended all those years ago to make these products, nor that it did anything special then or along the way to the specific whiskey that became these products. It was standard production of the Bernheim Distillery, from before and after it closed and was rebuilt. It is simply whiskey they couldn't find any other use for until now. There is nothing wrong with it, it is perfectly good whiskey if you like bourbons that have spent that much time in wood, but there is nothing remotely 'craft' about it.

At the beginning of the craft distilling movement, many new distilleries were quick to claim that their 'craft' whiskey was superior to 'industrial' whiskey because, you know, it was 'craft.' The claim was hubris and all it took was a taste. No craft distillery has improved on the bourbon made by Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, etc. They probably never will. Today, most craft distillers have abandoned that foolishness.

The producers most recognized for craft whiskey -- Balcones, Koval, Stranahan's, Corsair, FEW, Dry Fly, Tom's Foolery -- do it with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven't been done before (belying the 'traditional' requirement) and create products unlike anything you've ever tasted before. That's what consumers want from 'craft,' but does it give us the makings of a legal or 'official' definition?

Probably not. As Lance Winters (St. George Spirits) says, "putting a binding definition on what craft is, would be like putting a binding legal definition on what art is." Consumers have to decide for themselves what 'craft' means to them and they should stay skeptical. Always ask producers who call their products 'craft,' what is craft about it? It is a question we have been asking here since 2008.


Anonymous said...

I pretty much ignore the term "craft", whether beer or spirits. When supporting the "small guys" I am more interested in the quality of what they produce AND whether or not they really produce it. I really like Smooth Ambler in WV. If they source the spirit, they tell you. If they produce it, they tell you. Their barrel aged gin is amazing btw.

Erik Fish said...

Well put as always, Chuck.

The term "craft" as applied to whiskey is indeed marketing. The meme "craft" has a warm fuzzy connotation in our society, and applied to beer, there is some justification; as a microbrewer, to make better beer than Coors Light, all you basically have to do is, well, brew beer. And one can't blame the micro-distillers for trying to suggest it works the same way with whiskey. Seems to make sense.

Of course it doesn't. Due to inherent advantages of a large, experienced distilling operation, such as the deep pockets to finance proper aging, storage, and barrel selection, micro-distillers won't be able to compete quality-wise by imitation.

Most craft distillers I've talked to know that and are very aware of their limitations. Some of their fans are a different story, and love predicting the demise of "industrial whiskey". It's a bit like soccer; the hooligans are usually among the spectators.

Innovation is indeed the name of the game. If you distill something tasty out of a quinoa, rice or triticale mash, I'll be happy to grant you the "craft" label. And you're unlikely to ever compete with Beam or Barton.

snakeman 48 said...

I have always considered the small distillers to be nothing more they what they are:
Micro Distillers. I'll never use the term "craft" to describe them. If I want something Craft, I'll go to Hobby Lobby, or Jo-Ann Fabrics.

Anonymous said...

As a small distiller I can tell you that I have never claimed my products to be "better" than any large distiller. In fact I don't know of one single small distiller that has ever made that claim. It is actually a false claim floated by big ethanol, to try to discredit the concept of small distilleries being capable of "measuring up" to their computerized and mechanized systems. It's one of those " you can't refute a claim that didn't happen" issues.

There is however one absolute truth about craft: if it isn't so important, why do so many falsely claim to do it.

Big ethanol is in fact very "crafty". Unfortunately it's only in their marketing side. They have co-opted the term from the small distiller movement as an attempt to drive up their prices for their same tired old products.

Big ethanol "craft marketing ? Great. "Craft distilling" ? Not so much.

Chuck Cowdery said...

As the comment above is posted anonymously I can't confirm if the person who wrote it is really a small distiller but I can refute, from my own experience, the assertion that small distillers claiming to be 'better' is a false claim spread by 'big ethanol.' This person may believe that but it is not supported by facts. Many small distillers have made such claims. Furthermore, big producers don't feel threatened by small ones. They like what small producers have done for the industry. An actual 'small distiller' would know that.

Anonymous said...

Give us an example of a few small distillers claiming that they have produced a better product than a Big producer. Let's see it. Otherwise you are just perpetuating this myth.

I'm not saying you are doing it intentionally. You are just being duped by big ethanol, as is their intent.

Yes big ethanol likes to ride the coat tails of the craft distillery movement, as it increases their price points for their same old tired products, but don't confuse that with their never ending drive to get customers to buy their own products in the face of this competition. Craft distillers are both the boon and bane of Big liquor, and Bog Bully will use it to ring out every single dollar they can.

It's happening with beer as well, so you should be aware of it if you really look at it.

Erik Fish said...

See, this is what I was talking about; you'd never hear this "big ethanol" propaganda language from a serious small distiller. And the fact that one can indeed find occasions of traditional distilleries using the craft meme in their marketing, like Beam's "Signature Craft", doesn't exactly put a very big and very robustly growing industry that can barely keep up with demand on the coattails of a still very small and quality-wise very mixed (from excellent to barely potable) micro scene.

Chuck Cowdery said...

This is when the free market system works best, at the beginning of an industry. Everybody is guessing, using their best judgment but also guessing, since there is no road map. The market will pick the winners and losers. The winners will be rewarded with profits and generous buyouts, the losers will have lost some capital but perhaps learned enough to succeed next time. It is the 'invisible hand' at its best.

Anonymous said...

Tell it to Bud.

MF said...

Anonymous says he/she never claimed his products were better, than goes on to describe big whiskey as the same old tired product on two different occasions. That is not a ringing endorsement for his/her brand.

Dave Zanko said...

Describing a growing multi-billion dollar industry as "the same old tired products" is just stupid. If the products were "tired", why is demand skyrocketing? "Old", or proven and popular?

More importantly, it shows this anonymous poster to be a liar and hypocrite. He claims no small distiller says their product is better, and then goes and does just that in the exact same post. You do know we can read, right? What sort of idiots do you take us for?

He's still trotting out the "big ethanol" slur, as though what he produces isn't just ethanol. Can't call the big guys' products whiskey, as that wouldn't fit his narrative. He's trying to create a false equivalence between the beer industry (where the big brewers are self-admittedly producing a mass-produced lowest common denominator product) and the whiskey industry. But that holds no water; whiskey actually benefits from the economies of scale in a way beer never does, because of he time and space requirements needed for aging. That's where small distillers fall short, and they know it. Some have learned to adapt, and still put out good products, while building their brands and capital to shift towards industry standard practices as time goes on. These companies slowly but surely succeed, and rightly so, as they have earned a place in the market.

Others, on the other hand, engage in deceptive marketing, and false narratives. Not just on the label, but in the obvious falsehoods seen here. At least, that's what it seems. That this anon has never actually put his name in his posts means to me that he, for all his bluster about the superior nature of his small distillery product, he clearly doesn't believe a word he writes. He's a coward, a hypocrite and a liar.

MadMex said...

Craft is that locally owned, kick-ass sandwich shop on the other side of town you've never heard of. Subway is not craft.

Distiller said...

I think we all know what "craft" really is. If you buy something that is "hand-crafted" you are getting something unique and not produced en-mass. So if you go to the local wood worker and buy a nice piece of furniture and then find a "made in China" sticker on it you would not be happy. But to Chuck's point the PROCESS used may be the distinction. If we all used similar methods to produce a product is there any craft involved? BUT we use an old distillation method that has been around for centuries and the modern distillation processes were invented in the late 1800's and changed distillation.

Craft brewers brought us interesting new things to try and not the typical watered down beer. But if you were in Europe you could find similar things from bigger brewers. The challenge with Whiskey is the law. There are limits that prohibit what can be done with whiskey. And for bourbon the rules are specific. So as a small distiller I could make a "Bourbon-a-rita" or some such thing but then it is not bourbon really.

So let me say that craft is not about size really. It is about process and how things are done. It is about people making decisions and using their knowledge to make something personal. But it is not that the craftsman invents a method every time. They use past experience to make something better. A true craftsman improves their craft as time goes on.

On the smaller scale we are able to try new things and take chances. At the distillery I bought (the former Old Crow distillery) a fermentation was 33,000 gallons! So using our mash bill that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 lbs of corn per batch. Not a small investment so not something to take lightly. (We use 200 lbs of corn per batch) And it was two batches per day or so so 120,000 lbs of corn per day! Imaging going to the boss and asking to try something new! The financial risk of trying new things is too great. So the reason for consistent product is financial. The whole operation is designed for efficiency of one thing. That is mass production.

Not to say that the product is good or bad or better or worse. It is different. Depending on the entire process it may be better or worse, but really the large bourbon manufacturers have well designed processes and turn out a pretty good product. Much better in fact that some of the craft bourbon I have tried.

If you hire a person to do work for you on your house you hope you are hiring a craftsman because you can count on the quality of their work. The are "experts" at what they do. But today it is just as likely that you could do as good or better work yourself because people just try to do the work quickly and get paid. A craftsman cares about what they do and the quality of what they do. They do it to make a living but also because they care about what they do.

Thanks Chuck for keeping this conversation alive!

David Meier said...

I did not realize that my name was not showing in my comments. The comments under "Distiller" are mine. I am the owner and Head distiller at Glenns Creek Distilling which is on the site of the historic former Old Crow distillery in Frankfort, KY. If you are a bourbon fan or history buff stop in and visit us. We love talking to bourbon geeks and will show you how a true hand-crafted bourbon is made!

David Meier said...

Hi again Chuck,
I wanted to comment again because I agree and disagree with something you said about the quality of alcohol, or more specifically bourbon. To be perfectly clear ethanol as a molecule is the same no matter what and is created during fermentation as you pointed out in another post. Do the method of distillation (craft or otherwise) does not change ethanol. What does change is the inclusion or removal of other chemicals during distillation. If this regard the craft distiller CAN have an advantage but may not know how to use it.

"Industrial" alcohol by the way is used to describe ethanol that has been denatured with methanol typically to prevent drinking. It is used for industrial purposes. For drinking alcohol there are basically two ways to produce it. One is the use of a continuous column still which was patented in the late 1800's. The other is the use of a "pot" still of which there are many designs but they all do essentially the same thing. The trouble with a continuous still is that it only separates the alcohol and other chemicals from water (partially). It is referred to as a stripping still because the goal is to get the ethanol from the water. The mash starts at around 8 or 9% ethanol and after stripping would be at 60% or so depending on the still. BUT the so called "low wines" have all the undesirable chemicals in them (with perhaps the exception of methanol which can be removed). The low wines are then sent to a "doubler" which is like a pot still and distilled to a much higher proof (under 160 for bourbon). Now here is the catch. If the output is 160 and it must be 125 proof or less to enter a barrel how does that happen? Water! So the flavors have been reduced through distillation at high proof and then watered down more! Then after it comes out of a barrel and bottled at 80 proof or more.....yes again water! So what you end up with flavor wise is watered down.
I agree 100% that some craft bourbons are not that good! BUT they do basically the same thing as the large manufacturers. They distill to a high proof and then water it down! The advantage of a pot still is that through design our stills put out an AVERAGE proof of 120. The means that at no time other than cooking grain do we add water! We barrel at 120 proof for the best maturation and we bottle at full barrel strength. Because we never use water in the process our flavor is fuller AND it does not take as long to mature in a barrel to taste great! Many people have told us that our white dog tastes better than any they have ever had. Even industry insiders. So the distillation method does affect the outcome very much. If it didn't every bourbon would taste exactly the same.
I am not saying ours is BETTER than the large producers. There is some great stuff out there. Ours is different and not to everyone's taste preference. But to people who want a full flavor experience ours is great! I welcome anyone to come taste for themselves!

Glenns Creek Distilling, Frankfort, KY