Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why even bother with Craft?

So the buzz has died down a bit on this particular topic so maybe it’s time to look back at what the fuss was or is about and who’s asking. There are a lot of people asking the question: What is craft, who is making craft stuff, and why should I care?

There is a huge spectrum of production styles and the fun begins when the dust flies from everyone who thinks that what they do is the only way to be craft. These are my arbitrary categories but I think there are some guidelines here that can help people to understand what it is that the spectrum of production methodologies includes and how little or how much some people are doing.

1. The Earth to Glasser
This category is the purest and in many ways the most difficult. It’s certainly the most expensive way to make distilled spirits (really anything) and it’s what you pay a premium for. This production includes at the very least processing the fermentation substrate (grain, fruit, potatoes), cooking it, fermenting it, distilling it at least once if not multiple times processing the alcohol into a spirits category (whiskey, brandy, eau de vie, vodka, liqueur) barreling it if necessary, bottling it and off it goes to shelves. Some people in this category actually grow the fruit or grain as well. These people work hard to make that product and there is a lot of sweat that goes into a bottle of spirit produced this way. These are the people that are most hurt by products that go on the market with dishonest labeling because like shadows on a dark scary night, once you've found one great story to be bullshit it's easy to see bullshit everywhere, baby with the bathwater style. The thing is that many of the big producers like Scotch and bourbon distillers have been doing this for decades. The hardest part about becoming a producer at this level is that you have to spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to build the facility to make this stuff. The big guys have been around long enough that their facilities are built and paid for. Getting into this market is hard work and takes time and small craft whiskies are at a higher price point for similar production methodologies but are working on paying for their dream right now which sometimes includes waiting years for spirits to come out of barrels.

2. The Distiller and Blender
These folks often make some of their products as above, whiskeys for instance, but may have some bulk alcohol that they buy for one or more of their products. An example would be bringing GNS/NGS (Grain Neutral Spirit) into their plant and perhaps distilling it with botanicals to make gin or adding flavors to make liqueur. Another example is carrying a blended whiskey purchased already aged and selling that while waiting for your own to age, or blending the two. This is done for one of a variety of reasons:

  • The producer can’t afford the equipment to make a neutral spirit and so they source that part of production out, buying it on the bulk market.  
  • They are selling a sourced whiskey while waiting for their own and/or are proud of their sourced product that they sell as such.
  • The marketing and business side of the company sees how much cheaper it is to source rather than produce. 
With an honest company you’ll know that they buy the alcohol for their gin and are really proud of the botanical mix they use or the fruit that goes into their liqueurs. The ones to look out for are the ones that don't tell the whole story. Some of these folks buy NGS or whiskey and blend it with their own, or just bottle bulk whiskey but don't talk about it. They'll spend a lot of time walking you past their grain bags but never really get around to telling you the whole truth.

3. The Blender
This is the distillery that has no fermentors and possibly no still. They bring in all bulk spirit (whiskey from other producers, NGS, bulk rum), bottle it with their branding and tell a story. Hopefully this story is: “We source the best stuff we could possibly find, blend it proudly and sell it to you as something we love”. At its worst this story is: “We made this from scratch from a super secret recipe!”.

4. The Total Bullshitster
Basically anyone who throws a flavor in a bulk spirit and then starts up the bullshit factory, or buys bulk whiskey and tells a story about America while buying from Canada, buys NGS from an ethanol factory in the midwest and talks about how their pot still is the key to craft while pretending their still is doing something other than allowing them to use the words “distilled by" legally. I don’t have any problem with methods of production (I don’t care what’s in a capri sun) but I want to know that the story is true…unequivocally true. If the ingredient list for capri sun called high fructose corn syrup: " Natural heritage maize extract from small family farms, hand picked by Juan Valdez"...I'd have a problem. That's Bullshitster talk and there are so many products like this in the world.

Trouble and controversy for the Bullshitsters exists because they're taking the first 3 categories, which are totally legitimate, and using them rather than being them. There are brands that have flagrantly abused the lack of information out there about sourcing to pretend they are something they're not. There are spirits out there with really compelling stories that are talking about grain and farmers and community when what they’re doing is buying bulk spirits, tossing it into a still for a quick redistill and using it for vodka and gin or bottling someone else's whiskey as their own with a pretty lie attached. The companies that haven't been caught yet are still hanging on to their stories hoping you won't notice.

I sit on the ethics committee for the ACSA (American Craft Spirits Association) and I was pretty proud of the statement released a few weeks ago that the ACSA isn't as concerned with defining craft but that the primary concern of the organization is truth. I’ve seen flavored vodkas with chemical flavors talk about antioxidants from berries in their marketing materials because one flavor is called acai, whiskies that are completely sourced that have such elaborate stories that it’s amazing to me it took years for the untruth to leak out, I’ve heard the line: “It’s just marketing spin” and the person speaking was unable to tell the difference between the truth and his complete fabrications, had bulk suppliers tell me I should dump NGS into my whiskey fermentor to increase my yield because nobody cares anyway. My least favorite line from this side of the industry was: “No one really wants to know how their sausage is made”. Anyone who takes the time to read the story is buying that story and they care very much about where their sausage is made or they wouldn't spend the money. You have to be a true cynic to sell a story that people love while completely defiling it in private.

On the other end of this spectrum I have spent time with people whose integrity is simple and honest and whose attention to detail is breathtaking, who build their businesses for decades, people who build their communities with their businesses and who don’t differentiate between the two, people who have always been up front about what they do and are incredibly proud of their sourced products and should be, people who make everything from scratch and have grown quickly and gotten all the best attention for not making the easy choice to compromise.

Each one of those statements is a link to a company that represents what to me is the meaning of craft for this industry. These are hard working, innovative, honest people whose word you can trust, whose integrity is obvious and about whom there will never be some stupid scandal regarding what is in their products. Some of them I’m lucky enough to count among my friends so I have a bit of a bias, but they’re my friends because of the above. These are people that inspire others because they believe that truth is important and simple, not nuanced with “marketing spin” in order to sell product. They tell the truth. That is craft. One rule I have for life is: don't do anything you wouldn’t brag about don’t work with people you wouldn’t want with you in the trench. This is a great rule for craft as well. If they can't brag about what they do they shouldn't be doing it.

You should bother with craft products. You should do it because there are people behind the products that work incredibly hard to adhere to an ethical ideal. They believe in things and stand by them. They sacrifice rapid growth and low overhead for honesty and idealism. Support that. We need idealism at this time in our culture. It’s why the last couple of decades has seen such huge growth in story driven products. We want to believe that you can make something you love and it will support you and your family. Make this true. Buy things from people who believe it. There are huge pressures as a company grows to compromise ideals and many brands fold. Let them...fuck them. Support the ones that don’t, drop the ones that do. Make it important for companies to retain their ideals and the world will change because the engine for change is the dollar you’re going to spend and the organizations you support with that dollar. Even as companies fake up cool stories to try to capitalize on this wave, don't let them make you cynical. Just go find a real one. Find someone you admire and buy what they make. That's craft!