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How the word craft lost its meaning

In the spirit and beer world, the word craft has been tied to both huge companies and two-man start-ups. Where has this left the craft movement?

A quick glance up at the back bar of most London venues and you’ll quickly notice that many of the gins, bourbons and even vodkas have the same phrase splashed across their labels. Hand-crafted. This same phrase is also used to describe all manner of breweries, from two-man operations to huge corporations’ experimental branches. What defines one distillery as craft and another as not has long been up for debate, and the matter has never truly been settled.

When the word craft first started appearing it was a neat little marketing device that launched a thousand brands and made young drinkers feel better about their choices. It fitted into a new drive for local produce, for going back to bakeries and fishmongers over supermarkets and for giving your money to the small guys. Craft was a movement that went far beyond the drinks world too, it infiltrated the restaurant scene, the food market and all manner of design, from furniture to clothes. It has possibly been the most over-egged word of the 21st century.

Craft’s issue is that it communicates a story in one word, of small businesses and passion and artistry. It was everything big business wasn’t – a sellable narrative. Suddenly we all wanted crafted gin, with its unique botanicals and heart warming back stories, over the mass-produced brands our parents had always had lurking at the back of the booze cabinet.

And yet, as bigger brands started to apply the word to their products, they could justifiably argue what isn’t crafted about my brand. Because of course everything is crafted to a point - so long as you’re not using a diffuser when making tequila there will be some crafted skills involved. This reaches right up to some of the most iconic brands in the world, after all does the master blender of Johnnie Walker not have a craft?

Unsurprisingly the good times of craft equalling sales couldn’t last. 2014 broke the news that many of the ‘small-batch’ distillers in America were actually buying their product from a large factory in Indiana. On this side of the pond the same was true for many ‘craft’ gins which were being initially selected from four samples routinely presented to want-to-be-gin-owners and then mass produced thereafter.

“The factory, once a Seagram distillery, has changed hands over the decades and was most recently acquired by food-ingredient corporation MGP. It is now a one-stop shop for marketers who want to bottle their own brands of spirits without having to distil the product themselves. MGP sells them bulk vodka and gin, as well as a large selection of whiskies, including bourbons of varying recipes, wheat whiskey, corn whiskey, and rye. Their products are well-made, but hardly what one thinks of as artisanal. And yet, much of the whiskey now being sold as the hand-crafted product of micro-distilleries actually comes from this one Indiana factory,” wrote journalist Eric Felten in his ground-breaking story published by The Daily Beast in July 2014.

As these revelations sunk in the word craft was being drained of its meaning. And all the while craft beer was being tarnished with the same brush.

However, while there were plenty of dishonest brands claiming to have crafted their spirit when they were in fact having it mass produced off site, there were also plenty of honest craft distillers making their alcohol and sourcing everything themselves.

So the word craft continued, albeit with a dubious undertone, yet with the entire furore it was in serious need of a neat definition which separated the craft from the un-crafted.

If only it was so simple. Where do you draw the line - is it the amount of employees, the size of production, the style of production?

A Small Distiller Affiliate Membership to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States is capped at distillers who produce 200K gallons (84,120 cases annually), which is a decision very much based on size. The American Craft Spirits Association likewise has a size cap, which is that you produce fewer than 750,001 proof gallons removed from bond as a combined annual production from all sources. However they also specify that you must have more than a 75% equity stake and/or operating control. Which is ownership-based. At the end of the day there still isn’t one answer to define craft and the term is not regulated in marketing or advertising.

The beer industry, meanwhile, faced its own issues, less about concealed mass production and more about large brands launching experimental branches which then produced ‘craft beer’. As craft beer starts gushing, its essence gets watered down was the title NPR went with in May 2014, saying that for decades, craft was the way to differentiate small, independently owned breweries – and the beer they make – from the brewing giants like Coors, Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon. But this was no longer the case.

It wasn’t just that big beer was making small beer either, but what were once craft breweries had found such success they had themselves grown into big beer. Brooklyn is a great US example, Meantime another, from London. These craft brewers who had outgrown their original descriptions were part of the problem blurring the line. In response The Brewers Association, a Colorado industry group that serves as a voice for craft brewers, changed its definition multiple times. Today it says to be a full member you must produce under 6 million barrels. For comparison Budweiser produces 40 million a year. Yet 6 million is still a lot of beer. It’s hardly what we think of as a small company.

Post 2014 the drinks industry has still desperately clung on to the word craft. We’ve spent two whole years trying to redefine it at each turn. And yet it’s getting looser and looser. What was ultimately born out of a desire to get away from ubiquity became the most ubiquitous term on the back bar. Now 2017 has finally dawned - isn’t it time we all stopped buying spirits and beer based on their size and looked at production values, sustainability efforts and, most importantly, taste – whether that means a successful, big company with start-of-the-art equipment or three guys in Colorado with passion, a dream and some hops.