Friend: What do you think of Alaskan?
A.E.: They’re a solid, venerable brewery. Worth visiting if you can, and worth drinking when you can.
Friend: Ah, I didn’t know if…well…not that I care all that much…but is it craft?
Well, is it? As I had this discussion with a friend, I assured him that Alaskan was craft, even while I wondered why he expected me to…if he didn’t care all that much. Again, we struggle with the necessity of this definition, and is it any wonder? We really are a bunch of hipsters, aren’t we? We look askance at what others have in their glasses if what they are drinking is not truly “craft.” But what, again, is the definition of craft?
I was on a Facebook group not all that long ago when someone naively asked “What is craft beer?” I held off answering, as I was curious about what others would answer. This happened to be a religious Facebook group, comprised of many people who were bucking the trends of many of their religious brothers, after all. Certainly, someone would have something profound and opinionated to say, and they would obviously back it up with the holy writings of…well…some beer prophet or another. I was not disappointed, as one of the early responses was a link to the Official trinitarian definition of craft brewer by the Brewer’s Assocation. (This organization, for those who don’t know, is the Magisterium of the First Hipster Church of Beer.)
So then, is Alaskan Brewing “craft beer”? By the dogma of the Brewer’s Association, Alaskan is most certainly “craft beer”. They are small (if by small you mean a tiny facility that produced over 5 MILLION gallons of liquid wonderfulness in 2014. Yes…That’s 263.7 average swimming pools full of beer. Small, indeed.) And they’re independent. And they’re traditional. But wait, I thought we didn’t care all that much?
But that’s the rub. We’re conditioned to care. We can only enjoy a beer if it was brewed by a Small, Independent, and Traditional company, right? We’ve talked a lot about the first two legs of the definition, but what about the third? How traditional does one need to be? Well, when you tour a brewery, what do you see?
Stainless Steel – Obviously, every brewer worth his salt brews in stainless, right? How much more traditional can you get? Turns out, a LOT more traditional. See, stainless steel was invented in 1913. But as a race, humans have been brewing beer, well, since counting years ran the other direction. So how traditional do we need to go? Copper? Stone? Should we boil with hot rocks tossed into a stone bowl of primitive wort in order to be considered “craft”? (I wouldn’t recommend it, even if it is how Libertine Pub brewed for awhile. Maybe they still do…)
Pitching Yeast cultures – Every brewer who wants to produce a consistent, clean product either carefully herds their own yeast cultures, or only pitches pure, fresh pitches of clean, healthy yeast. Thing is, our modern understanding of yeast only began around 1858, thanks to Louis Pasteur. Before that, we knew something of what was required to get fermentation started, but we certainly didn’t have much concrete information about the why’s and wherefore’s of yeast harvesting. It’s very likely that much of the beer people drank turned sour fairly quickly. Talk about traditional…
An actual conversation in the above tavern, hundreds of years ago:
Traditional Barfly: Ye, publican! Indeed, how many dayes passeth since that cask of fyne beer was tapped, prithee?
Sam the Bartender: Aye, it passeth right 5 dayes since tappeth I this cask, good sir. It tasteth only lightly of the swamp of a gentleman’s nether regions!
Closed fermentation – These days, if we want to produce relatively clean beers, we ferment in closed systems. They’re not open to the air, are rigorously sanitized, and are a happy, healthy environment for the nurtured baby that is our fermenting beer. Again, we are stymied by history. It was very traditional for centuries, even for “clean” beers, to have fermentation vessels open to the air. (Some breweries, including Anchor in San Francisco, still do.) Of course, in Belgium, many breweries still use open air fermentation, to get the region’s particular microflora to spontaneously ferment those sour concoctions that seem to be all the rage now. Which is more traditional?
But all of this is a waste of time, because it’s not like we really care all that much, right? Nah. Hand me a beer, will you? But, uh…(Psst…can you please make sure it’s craft?)