The Case for Craft

*Or just random, stream-of-consciousness musings really, from what started out as an attempt to define what Craft Beer is in the Philippines (edit/realization upon reaching the end of the article and not really having a central point)

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The craft beer scene in the Philippines has definitely grown by leaps and bounds over the past year, and unfortunately, I have mostly failed to chronicle most of the dynamic changes, new players, movers and shakers who have begun making waves. A question that often arises, though, is what makes a beer “craft”?

I won’t bore you with standard definitions (or maybe I will, just a little), because in such an industry as this, they are bound to change anyway, as indeed they have over the years. The (Craft) Brewers Association of America definition primarily uses production values, i.e. the number of barrels produced in a year, as this is probably the only reasonable objective measurement available. The key words – small, independent, and traditional – are defined thusly, to wit:

Small
Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent
Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional
A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

(Source: the Brewers Association)

Of course, the above is a definition specific only to American craft brewers and breweries. There is a fledgling group of craft beer enthusiasts in the Philippines, which is not even in its infancy yet – probably somewhere in the gestation period. The aim of said group is to come up with standards for craft brewing in the Philippines as well as to promote the craft revolution in itself. As such, strictly speaking, there is still no definition of what a craft beer is in the Philippines.

That said, allow me to offer my personal take on what a “craft” beer is. Thus, I’m only giving my opinion on the so-called “philosophy” behind craft beer (I know my college professors will kill me).

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Craft is a paradigm, a state of mind. It is a make-no-compromises, take-no-prisoners approach to one of man’s favorite beverages. It is — as with many of the “traditional”, “artisan”, “organic”, and “hand-made” products nowadays — a reaction to the large-scale industrialization of the 20th century that has given us such products as sliced bread, processed canned meat, and so on. It is based on a return to the roots of the thing itself, in a way (a very loose and liberal way at that), a phenomenological approach to what beer (or any other product) is.

The Great Depression and Prohibition closed down what used to be thousands of small-scale brewers in the United States. After Prohibition was lifted, and with the industrial boom post-World War II, only a handful of breweries remained. American state policy was geared towards increasing the efficiency and volume of factory production, minimizing costs and standardizing flavors in order to provide the same item across all fifty states. Such is the case with Wonderbread, for instance. Pushing corn as a national superproduct through genetic modification, subsidies et cetera also played a large role as the crop was eventually introduced into a recipe that only traditionally used to contain four or five ingredients (water, hops, malted barley and yeast or even wheat). There was also the need to heighten standards in order to avoid contamination and disease given all this mass production – hence, the need to filter, pasteurize, and add chemical preservatives to not only beer but practically every product. Because of all these factors, it became necessary (or so they thought) to limit the beer styles from dozens to just one – what would become the American adjunct lager. Marketing and advertising would push these industrial juggernauts to the forefront, and most people outside of the great beer traditions of Belgium, England and Germany probably thought that the adjunct lager was really the only kind of beer. In today’s globalized world, it is so much easier to discover how such a closed definition of beer is a mistake. Thus, we go back to what beer is – a brewed beverage traditionally made out of malt, hops, yeast and water (and the occasional added ingredient or adjunct)- and see how limited our world view used to be.

The craft movement started out in the late seventies and early eighties in the United States, with a group of people discovering that there was more to this wonderful beverage than the dull American adjunct lager and brewing for themselves and their friends at home. Over the next few years, they started opening their own small-scale breweries, selling only within their localities. Today, some of the larger craft breweries such as Sierra Nevada, Stone and Samuel Adams are pushing the limitations and definition of a craft brewery because of the volume they produce.

As America is the land of excess, or extremes, American craft brewers started not only experimenting with traditional recipes, but also experimenting with ingredients and intensifying flavors – hence the introduction of “imperial” versions of nearly every beer style with more alcohol, more hoppy bitterness, or more malt sweetness. Hence, this is why the “traditional” aspect of craft brewing cited above, in an apparent contradiction, is defined as using either traditional or innovative brewing approaches.

The rub lies in that the craft beer movement is a distinctly American phenomenon. As mentioned earlier, the great beer nations of Belgium, Germany and England (add in the Czech Republic, of which the Pilsener lager style has been corrupted by Anheuser-Busch and the other American giants) all have their own brewing traditions and culture, each with their own distinct regional styles, which have all weathered the storm of industrialization. For example, monastic breweries such as the Trappists in Belgium (and now, the Netherlands as well) had been brewing in-house for centuries, and had started selling their products in the 1900’s after World War II as well. Some of the great German breweries have also been making beer for centuries — the foremost example being Weihenstephaner, the oldest active brewery in the world — and strictly adhered to the German Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot (which stated, as amended, that only water, malted barley, hops, and later on yeast and wheat as the only ingredients in a beer). If anything, there has been a lack of innovation with regard to ales and lagers in these countries, but at the same time, the history and tradition were kept alive. There was no need for a craft revolution in those parts of Europe, because their beer culture never died. Interestingly, other European countries – Denmark, Scotland, and even France and Italy – now have some craft breweries as well, following the American craft tradition and styles — Mikkeller and Brewdog being the prime examples.  Nevertheless, my personal view is that even the traditional European greats are still considered “craft”. After all, these are the artisans that perfected the very craft years and years ago.

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Here in the Philippines, the craft industry is starting out just like it did in the United States, with home brewers beginning to brew for themselves and their friends. While we may have been late to the party by a few decades, there are advantages. One such advantage is that importation of real beer and its ingredients is much easier (third world Customs brouhaha aside, of course). The fact that distributors were able to bring in both American (and now European and Australian) craft and traditional European beers allowed the beer revolution here in the Philippines to take off, as it helped educate the market and give aspiring craft brewers inspiration. The internet age has also allowed for heightened awareness and social media marketing. Thus, by my quick count, there are now more than a dozen craft brewers in the country from Benguet to Iligan, most of which were established or began rolling out their products just this year (making my prolonged lack of content on this blog unforgivable. Still, I apologize).

The next step now for the Philippine craft industry is to create standards. I mentioned earlier that the local version of the Brewers Association in the US is in the works. Right now, it will be a craft beer-centric group that will be comprised not only of brewers, but also importers, distributors, retailers and even your otherwise layperson hophead/fanatic who just wants to get this movement off the ground (like me). Eventually, a brewers organization will, and should, be organized. One problem I see with the craft beer movement in the Philippines is that there are some producers who come out with subpar products before they are ready to sell. Too many times have there been a bacterial or yeast or carbonation problem in the beers I tried. If these are from work-in-progress brews or samples that are accompanied by the appropriate disclaimer, then it is not only forgivable, but encouraged, so that the brewer can gain experience and learn from their errors. However, I will not pay a craft beer price for a beer with a diacetyl or bacterial problem (or a soy sauce stout) if these were not the aim of the brewer (who should know better). There are “happy accidents”, and there are disasters. A brewer ought to know the difference and not take advantage of a fledgling, eager to learn market and claim that “it was supposed to be like that”. Hopefully, the proposed Craft Beer Association of the Philippines will address this problem, and indeed, from what I have gathered from the first preparatory meeting, this is one of the first orders of business of said group.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s an exciting time to be a craft beer aficionado. 2014 was a monster year, and it isn’t over yet. 2015 will be even bigger. Big things are in store! Books Bites Brews will be there every step of the way. Cheers!

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