Wine Critics Keep Semantic Arguments at Bay—Not So for Beer and Spirits

craftThe most consequential battles and issues for small, quality-oriented alcohol beverage producers are those having to do with the distribution and sales of their products. Whether the issue is self distribution for craft distillers, franchise laws for craft beer producers or direct shipping for smaller wineries, these are the consequential and important issues that will directly impact sales success.

However, the most fascinating battles to watch are the “Word Wars”. The battle over word use and semantics that are primarily playing out in the beer and distilling industries over the term “Craft”.

Recently, small independent spirit producers in the United States took exception to the announcement by Diageo, the largest drinks company in the world, that it would own the “craft” distilling space. At a recent investors conference, Diageo North America president Larry Schwartz said, “We’re going to be the number one craft distiller in North American whiskey in the US. Why? Because we have the whiskeys.”

To many distillers unconnected to the biggest brands and who tend to produce small amounts and distribute regionally, this claim by Diageo sounds a lot like a marketer appropriating a valuable marketing term given meaning by others. And of course it is.

Unfortunately, there is exists no legally binding definition of the term “Craft” so anyone can use it and nearly everyone does.

Then there is the beer industry. “Craft Beer” is a much more established idea and most people think they know what it means: the unique product brewed by smaller, independent breweries that tend to distribute regionally and are focused first on quality.

However, just as with distilled spirits, those who consider themselves craft brewers and the association that represents these folks felt so threatened by the big brewers’ appropriation of the word “craft” that they released their own definition of “craft”. Though it was a controversial move, it highlighted 1) the fact that there is no legal definition of “craft beer”, the animosity that many feel for the big brewers trying to use the “craft” adjective, and the value that the term holds for consumers.

It’s interesting to note that almost no one uses the term “Craft Wine”. Instead, the wine industry uses terms like “Artisan winery” or “Boutique Winery” to attempt to communicate the idea that the winery is made is small amounts, produced with high quality in mind and produced with intensive involvement by he owner/winemaker.

What makes this battled over the word craft so interesting is what is says about how degrees of quality are determined in the beer and spirits industries. Although non of the official definitions of “craft” offered up by the players speak to quality, we all know that by using the term “craft”, these folks want to imply they are selling or making a higher quality product.

Furthermore, the way the term “craft” is discussed by those who want to product its meaning as something to be used by smaller producers also indicates a bias against large producers of beer Craft-Beeror spirits.

But here’s the really interesting thing. For the most part, there is no bias against large producers in the wine industry. There seems to be common ground on the question of whether a large wine company producing many hundreds of thousands of cases of wine can produce a great wine…an artisan wine.

How many cases of wine does Joseph Phelps, producer of “Insignia”, make? How many cases are produced by Treasury Wine Estates, the owner of Chateau St. Jean—maker of the coveted Cinq Cepage? How many millions of cases are produced by Kendall Jackson, owner of numerous brands such as Cardinale and Verite—two brands that are consider producers of extremely high quality wine?

The wine industry has avoided battles over quality-oriented words largely because it has an established method of determining high quality: established critics. If we trust that the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator and Stephen Tanzer and Charlie Olken and Doug Wilder and The Wine Enthusiast really are looking for and identifying high quality wines with their reviews and ratings, then is there any reason to believe that their high ratings and excellent reviews for wines made from large producers are any less authentic and reliable than the high ratings and excellent reviews they give to wines produced by small, independent wineries? Of course not.

It’s not that there does not exist any group of critics for beer and spirits. Rather, these industries have no coalesced around a group of critics and reviews that they believe possess authority and reliability to the point of being an excellent barometer of quality like the wine industry has done.

craftspiritIf there were a Robert Parker of Beer or a Wine Spectator of Beer, the meaning of “craft” would be far less important.

There is no question that beers and spirits identified in some way, either by producers, media on consumers, as “craft” have seen significant sales growth. Clearly lots of people are looking for higher quality in these sectors of the alcohol beverage industry. This is of course why the fight over the term “craft” seems so important to man in these industries.

But there is something else at play. Those who believe the term “craft” is being abused by large distillers and breweries and the large brewers and distillers that want to use the word craft clearly believe that consumers will gravitate to produces that carry this label…whether or not there are any particular characteristics that define what “craft” means. There is something about this that is denigrating to consumers. Consumers won’t figure out on their own which beers and which spirits are of uncommon origin, that are of higher quality? That are more rare? That are worth seeking out…without first knowing if the word “craft” is assigned in some way to them.

2 Responses

  1. Scott - October 31, 2014

    I think as the term “craft” is increasingly appropriated by huge beer and spirits producers, the word will eventually be recognized to have lost any real meaning. A couple of terms from the wine world come to mind that have suffered the same loss of meaning – “reserve” and (for California wines) “old vines”.

  2. The end continues, and the return of more fan favorites | Community Beer Works - November 13, 2014

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