by Laura Ness
Going into the Craft Beverage Expo held last week at the Santa Clara Convention Center, my curiosity was piqued by the very use of the term, “craft”. How can it be applied to companies that have reached the size and scope of Firestone, and in the same breath be used on a tiny brand like Bootstrap Brewing in Niwot, CO? It seems this is a rather universally held curiosity: it was a lively topic during the opening remarks at the Expo during Thursday morning’s presentation featuring Paul Evers, President and Chief Creative Director of tbd agency (sic), and it resonated with everyone interviewed for this story. Controversy
Even lawyers who don’t like to weigh in on controversial topics were happy to give their personal impressions of what this term actually means, or, perhaps more importantly, what they would like it to mean.
Various definitions of the term “craft” are floating around out there, and it depends on who is doing the defining, and who wants to be included under the umbrella. For example, many craft breweries believe the cutoff for barrels of beer brewed is 60,000 or less per year, while the Brewers Association website claims, “An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional,” where “Small” means an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). “Independent” means less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer, and “traditional” means that the brewer has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.
Sounds like a recipe for a rather inclusive tent that clearly waters down the meaning of the word. Fortunately, for most attendees of the Craft Beverage Expo, they had no trouble defining what “craft” meant to them. Brewers, distillers, and wineries, take heed. This is what people want you to mean when you use the word “craft” in packaging or advertising.
The primary term people associate with the word craft is “passion.” They believe the motivation of the producer is more a matter of personal pride than monetary return. While most respondents agreed financial viability is important, it is not the primary driver of a craft producer. Instead, it is the desire to create something with one’s own hand, using one’s own creativity. Many people use the term “made by hand”, or “handcrafted”, often with blood, sweat and tears.
Suzanne Frontz of UrbanCM, and former GM of Cinnabar Winery in Saratoga, CA, said her definition of a craft brewer is “not Anheuser Busch.” Many responded in a similar fashion.
Steven Rickman of The Hoppy Brewer in Sunnyvale, CA, said he thought it meant a company of people that put an emphasis on creating products that cater to the tastes of the individual as well as the crowd. He explained that the brewer puts his heart and soul into everything they brew, and that all the products are hand bottled and hand labeled, and the brewer oversees every run. “Craft is not mass production,” he said.
His companion, Pete Leach, pointed out that the secret ingredient in a craft product is often the individual him or herself, and if that person leaves, the recipe often lacks repeatability. In the world of craft, it is the individual who reigns, and it is that personal connection that attracts consumers to handcrafted products.
Dan Nechemias, National Sales Manager for Active Club Solutions, commented that he thought “craft” was akin to “reserve” as applied to wine, and had lost its meaning. He, like many others, would like to see full disclosure of ingredients and processes.
Laura Lodge, a distribution expert who works with suppliers, echoed the passion theme, commenting that craft products can be too easily watered down in the effort to scale up. It’s harder for creativity to shine through when the audience becomes too diverse.
Travis Ward of Silk Road Soda in Roseville, CA, commented that he thinks of craft as artisan, something you can’t find every day, something that takes hard work. He noted that his company, which is going from 86k bottles to 240k, is constantly tweaking their formulas, always seeking to better them. “Even when it’s the best, we always feel we can improve.”
Tom Vargas of Heritage Paper, a specialty printer of packaging, labels and displays in Livermore, CA, remarked that he thinks of craft paper when he thinks of craft: in a good way. For him, craft producers take the time and make products for the love of the wine, beer or spirit.
Alex Johnson of Craft Beer & Brewing magazine says craft means someone who puts their own touch and philosophy into everything they make. “They add a personal touch to make their product unique.”
Vanessa Topper, whose business, TopNest Designs, provides logoed items for producers of all sizes, says she thinks of family and art, when she hears the word craft. To her, it’s in the same category as “garagiste.” She would welcome a meaningful set of guidelines for the use of “craft,” much as they exist for “Kosher.”
Gary Martin of Ramondin says craft means smaller production, limited, not readily available: products that have unique formulas and flavors. “They have to have human involvement: not machines!”
Ken Wickman of All American Label, based in Dublin, CA and Memphis, TN, deals with many small wineries, breweries and distillers. He likens craft to the word “boutique” when referring to a winery, which for him means under 5k cases. “A lot of care goes into a craft product.”
Since labels are their company’s forte, they pointed out many examples of labels that said “craft” without using the word explicitly. Their message was that small producers go for the “outside the mainstream” look of the big guys to get their special message across.
Andrew Berg of Brewer’s Vault says craft means “Boutique, small batch. It should be high quality.”
Attorneys Aerin Murphy and Suzanne Nicholson of Murphy Campbell in Sacramento, said they thought craft was all about telling a personal story. “It’s about selling a story and communicating a passion. It’s not about the numbers.”
Founder and CEO of Women Enjoying Beer, the feisty Ginger Johnson, says, “I don’t like the word ‘craft. I have a public education background and labels can be negative. Size does matter, but small is not always best.”
“I don’t like the word ‘craft’ either, at least not the way it’s being overworked these days,” said George Christie, CEO of Wine Industry Network and the US Beverage Industry Expo, a new national business conference and trade show for alcohol beverage industry leaders scheduled for February 16-18, 2016 in Washington, DC.
“For me, ‘Craft’ or ‘Craftsman’ means a commitment to quality and attention to detail. It implies small, but just because you’re small shouldn’t automatically qualify you as ‘craft’ and at the same time, just because you produce a lot of something, shouldn’t automatically disqualify from ‘craft’ either. There are more than enough great current examples of larger producers of wine, beer, spirits, etc. that maintained the highest levels of quality and attention to detail as they grew beyond the traditional definitions of ‘small’.”
“My concern is that the word will continue to lose its significance because it’s impossible for everyone to agree on exactly what qualifies as ‘craft’ and there’s no way to really enforce it. As a result, just about everyone is using it for just about everything and at some point, it becomes as meaningless as the word ‘reserve’. It’s become a marketing term with an expiration date that I think is quickly approaching and sadly, I believe we’re one new word or phrase away from that happening.”
Perhaps craft is a bit like the famous Supreme Court definition of pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The best advice for craft producers may well be to ensure that your name and label reflect your unique story, ignore the definitions, embrace the passion for what you produce, and let the quality of your product dictate whether or not you qualify as “craft”.