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Friday, 5 August 2016

Stop the presses: the definition of craft beer

Yet again, I'm in the middle of writing a piece that addresses the idea that craft beer is 'a meaningless term,' that 'craft beer' doesn't exist because it had no precise, technical definition.

To argue the point I'm making, I hauled out my massive copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to look at the definition of the word 'craft.' And lo and behold, just below the three different definitions of 'craft', the next entry is 'craft beer'!

So according to the OED:

'craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region.'

I kinda like that. You may not. I think it gets to the point of what it's all about. You may disagree with it, you may think it's incomplete, you may think it misses the point. I really don't care. Because craft beer has a strict tight, pithy definition, created by the people whose job it is to define what words mean. This is the definition of craft beer whether you like it or not. If you disagree, you might as well argue with the definitions of the words 'cramp,' 'cranial,' 'crannog' or 'crap hat.'

This may not solve many of the issues in craft beer, but it does hopefully mean an end to the fatuous argument that the problem with craft beer is its lack of a strict definition. If you have a problem with craft beer, it's probably not about the definition of the word, but about what you feeling being done to the concept.

By the way, my personal big-ass copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 2003, so (a) apologies to anyone for whom this is old news and (b) that means craft beer has had a definition all this time we've been arguing over whether it does to not. Tchoh!


Lars Marius Garshol said...

If we take the definiition literally, there seem to be two requirements.

(1) It must have a distinctive flavour. That's not terribly precise, but I guess that means pretty much anything other than bland pale lager. (So Czech pale lager could still be considered distinctive, for example.) Maybe.

(2) It must be produced and distributed in a single region. So if it's brewed one place and distributed to another, then that's not craft beer. Or, if it's brewed in multiple places, then that's not craft beer.

Personally I think this is rather like defining humans as "bipedal animals". It's not totally off, but it's not very useful, either.

Phil said...

People who write dictionaries aren't saying what the meaning of a word is, they're trying to summarise & encapsulate how it's used in practice. So what you've got there is an early-2000s snapshot of how the phrase 'craft beer' was being used, in the US, in publications that came to the attention of the OED compilers.

After writing that comment I checked the current edition of the OED, which you can find at (accessible using your local library card). It doesn't include the definition you quote, but does have an update dated June 2016:

craft beer n. orig. N. Amer. a beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small brewery.

So there you go: that's the definition. Until enough people use the phrase in different enough ways that it has to change, again.

Pete Brown said...

Really interesting, and even better. Thanks Phil!

The Beer Nut said...

You'll also find "Real Ale" in the OED, with a definition that doesn't match CAMRA's, IIRC.

Bradshaw's Ghost said...

So BrewDog isn't craft beer because it's distributed outside its home region of the North-East of Scotland?

Not to mention anything imported from the US...

Ron Pattinson said...

"Non-mechanised"? I've been around enough new breweries to know that's rubbish in most cases. Most breweries I've been to that weren't mechanised aren't considered craft.

liam said...

And what does non-mechanised mean? I've yet to see a brewery with no machines.