Kathleen Purvis

Can you craft a meaning for ‘craft’?

We know what “freedom” means. But what about “craft”?
We know what “freedom” means. But what about “craft”? Kathleen Purvis

It’s hard enough to describe a taste. Try it: Imagine you’re talking to someone born without tastebuds and you have to describe “salty” and “sweet.” Restaurant reviewers wrestle with it all the time: “Crunchy,” “unctuous,” “umami” – they all get drubbings on social media.

So how do you define the making of a food? Is it artisanal, a murky word that usually relates to tradition? Is it sustainable, which is related more to agriculture? Does it have emotional qualities, like “integrity” or “character”? Is it made locally or in a factory? What if the factory is local – is that still a bad thing?

Last week, the word on the table was “craft.” At BevCon, a new conference in Charleston on the beverage industry (mostly alcohol, although coffee and sodas were around too), the opening session tackled “The Confusing World of Craft.”

Moderator Lew Bryson, the author of “Tasting Whiskey,” kicked it off by going through an array of possible definitions of craft as it relates to beverages:

Is it based on company size? Does it mean it’s independently owned? Does it use innovative methods and ingredients, or traditional methods and ingredients?

For almost all of those definitions, he offered contradictions: Heineken is family-owned. Does that make Heineken a craft beer? A lot of Kentucky distilleries are huge, but have been associated with the same families for generations. Does that make them craft whiskeys?

The trouble with “craft” started in the beer industry with the collapse of the word “microbrew.” When smaller beer makers started challenging the big mainstream brands in the mid-1990s, they dubbed themselves “micro.” But then some of those brands, like Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams, got national distribution. Suddenly, they were mighty big to be micro.

So the brewing world came up with “craft” to separate themselves from mainstream brands, usually defined as “premium.” By 2006, though, “craft beer” started to show cracks. Premium brands were either buying smaller craft brands or making products they dubbed “craft.”

If everything is craft, is anything craft?

Consumers assume that craft ensures a level of honesty and integrity, and a focus on flavor and quality. But what brand, no matter how big, doesn’t claim exactly the same thing, even if it’s pumping out hundreds of items off assembly lines at manufacturing facilities all over the globe?

Several panel members, all distillers, admitted they wrestle with “craft” as a definition of what they do. Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits in Illinois, is president of the American Craft Spirits Association. He’s even starting to regret that they used “craft” in the name. Craft is up to the consumer and whether they believe in a product, he says.

“Craft is the new black,” joked Lance Winters of St. George Distilling in California. “If you can’t taste a difference, craft doesn’t matter at all.”

The closest thing to a good definition of craft I heard that morning came from Scott Blackwell, the owner of High Wire Distilling in Charleston.

“Craft is about the action,” he said. “Not the words.”

In a time when we argue about what it means when menus claim to be “local,” when farmers would rather call their agricultural methods “sustainable” than wrestle with the byzantine regulations of the word “organic,” it’s getting harder to define what anything means beyond “this is what it means to me.”

“Precise definitions always have problems,” Bryson said. “It becomes emotional: ‘I know it when I see it.’ 

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis