The meaning of the word ‘craft’ in ‘craft beer’ is a never-ending discussion among beer folk. That’s partly due to the fact it’s most often discussed when people are drinking. No one knows when to shut up. It’s also because it’s something people are willing to believe is real without the parallel need to know exactly why one beer is “craft” and another isn’t. “I know it when I see it” is as much as anyone can really argue. Yes, there’s the Brewers Association (BA) definition, but that’s the outcome of a political process, not a statement of objective reality. And that’s not a criticism of BA. I don’t think they claim otherwise. If you’re going to form a club where you don’t want some folks joining, you’re going to have to have criteria. Otherwise, why have a group?
I had occasion to think about this during the 2015 Beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference in Asheville, NC last month1. One of our activities was to go to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s brewery just south of town in Mills River. It’s gorgeous; there’s no other word to describe it. It’s difficult to avoid a comparison to an attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida as you drive in. Don’t believe me? Check this out:
It’s not a theme park attraction, of course, it’s a working factory. And yes, breweries are factories. It’s not the way we like to think of them, but it’s what they are. It’s a place where raw materials are processed using semi- or fully-mechanized means that result in a packaged product suitable for mass distribution. Any beer that’s sold is the outcome of an industrial process that’s been refined and perfected over generations. There’s not much romance in that, but there it is.
It’s pretty clear that Sierra Nevada made the decision to build a brewery that could also be a showcase. Everything is labeled. All the production areas are visible behind glass or accessible by large groups of people (or both). It’s a working brewery, but it’s also meant to be seen. I had the opportunity to have an informal conversation with an employee who was involved in the process of bringing the facility to life. The conversation was interesting, but it really was informal and I don’t feel right quoting her directly because we weren’t explicitly on the record. Two things stand out in my mind, though. First, the company was very excited to be able to build a new facility from scratch. The original brewery in Chico, CA grew in bits and pieces as demand required. You can always plan for the future, but it’s always harder to expand an existing facility than build one from the ground up. The second thing is that a tremendous amount of work went into the planning. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have a feeling that somewhere there are storyboards that mapped out how the building and grounds were to tell the story Sierra Nevada wants to tell. That story includes beer, the company itself and its commitment to minimizing the environmental impact of a large industrial operation. It tells that story well.
Carla and I spend a lot of time giving money to the Walt Disney Corporation, so when I say there’s a Disney quality to the Mills River brewery, I mean that as a compliment. When a Disney property is really clicking for me, you experience the outcome of an excessive obsession to detail in both facilities and customer service. That’s what I saw at Sierra Nevada. I know, however, that calling something “Disney-like” can be considered a pejorative for some people. “It’s fake,” goes the thinking, “it’s the imitation of a thing and not the thing itself. Shock Top or Blue Moon or any of the other ‘crafty’ beers are the real beer Disneys.” That’s a discussion that goes beyond what I’m trying to write about here, but sufficed to say I know the mansion isn’t really haunted and it’s all fake, but I love the Haunted Mansion anyway. That’s how I can use Disney-like as a compliment.
So we’re on the busses heading down to Mills River from Oskar Blues in Brevard and I happen to be in the front seat of the lead bus. We arrive in front of the brewery and I get off the bus. There are a dozen or so folks on either side of the door inside and they’re clearly a welcoming line. A guy in blue jeans walks up to me and sticks out his hand and says, ‘Hi, I’m Ken Grossman. Welcome to Sierra Nevada”
I never really understood what it meant to “nearly plotz” until that moment. The founder of Sierra Nevada. Brewing legend. KEN frickin’ GROSSMAN is introducing himself to me! So of course my only response was to gurgle incoherently. I have a way with words. A really, really bad way. After everyone else on our bus had a similar opportunity to be star-struck, he proceeded to take us on a tour of the brewery. Then we went down to the river for a pig roast and a little oompah music. Sierra Nevada collaborated with Germany’s Brauhaus Riegele to produce a memorable Oktoberfest beer and the brewing team from Germany was there. A camera crew was also there. Here’s one of the things they put together from the footage. A disturbing number of the people in this spot are beer bloggers. 15-seconds of fame, baby:
I recommend the Oktoberfest, by the way. Marzens aren’t my absolute favorite style, but I enjoy them when the season rolls around. Brauhaus Rieglele’s recipe relies heavily on Steffi Malt which gives the beer a slightly lighter, sweeter character while still having good body and mouth feel. Steffi has been used in German brewing for decades, but it’s not as popular as it once was. Grossman said that they bought as much as they could get their hands on in order to make the beer for the US market, and that meant buying some of the malt from Riegele’s stock.
I like the video in that it shows Grossman’s easy-going demeanor. The quip about taking off the coat is a good example. They don’t explain it in the piece, but the day we were there was warm for Asheville, reaching the the mid to upper 80’s. The jacket is a German jacket that he’d admired when visiting the brewers in Germany when the collaboration was in the planning stages. It turns out that the Riegele brewmaster’s wife makes them, so Grossman and his son both ordered one. They were wearing them when we showed up to the brewery, but these are definitely cold-weather jackets. I’m surprised they lasted in them as long as they did. For the record, the Riegele brewmaster didn’t stay in his the whole time either.
So the Friday trip was great, but that’s not where my meditation on what puts the craft in craft brewing started. That had to wait until Sunday. We decided to go back to the brewery before coming back to Cincinnati. We wanted to try out the taproom and it’s less than five hours from Asheville to home, so it was a no-brainer. We get there, park and get in line to get a table. Our name is put in, and I’m sitting on a bench in the waiting area. I’m messing with my phone and suddenly I realize there’s someone standing in front of me. “Hey,” says Ken Grossman, “Did you have a good conference?” I think I was a little more coherent this time, but I still think of it as “Meeting Ken Grossman II: The Re-Plotzing.” Luckily, Carla came over and saved me socially, as she tends to do pretty much all the time. We make small-talk for a minute, then he heads to the front door to do what I’m pretty sure he walked that way to do in the first place. The front door was sticking and he noticed that people were having trouble getting in and out. So he went over to work on it. That’s him leaning over and holding the door as they try to figure out what’s binding things up.
And that’s when the light bulb went on. I have no idea how much money Ken Grossman is worth. Lots. Probably more than lots. But he owns a brewery and when he saw something wrong, his first thought was to go over and fix it. Because the brewery is something that matters to him. I’m not saying that it’s the complete and total definition of what makes a beer a craft beer, but a good part of it is that at the top there’s someone there for whom the brewery is the thing. Throw a rock at any of the breweries in Cincinnati — and I’m definitely including Sam Adams in this — and you’ll find a focus on making great beer that starts at the very top. I vaguely know who the AB-Inbev CEO is. I’m sure he knows something about beer and I’m sure he’s nice to his family and pets. I have no idea how long it’s been since he’s been in a brew house on two consecutive days from more than an hour each. In my mind, cluttered as it is, that’s what makes craft beer to me. Do I know something about who is responsible for it being here? Is there an actual person behind it all? That’s important to me. That’s the craft.
And when we left the brewery that Sunday, the door worked perfectly.
1DISCLAIMER: To receive a discounted rate to the 2015 Beer Blogger and Writer’s Conference in Asheville, NC, we agreed to write two posts about the conference. This is one of them.