If you want to have an exhausting and irritating conversation with a bunch of beer nerds, bring up the subject of the definition of the word “craft.”
Opinions will quickly vary on whether or not it relates to production methods, some notion of “quality,” size, or ownership, and some folks think the word ought to be abandoned altogether. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the Brewers Association’s definition, while not perfect, provides a good place to start in order to create some working definition here in Canada–and I actually attempted to define the term in an August 2016 blog post.
My own efforts notwithstanding, the definition of “craft” seems to be something that we still struggle with here in Ontario. Even, it seems, at the LCBO.
First, let it be said that I do think the LCBO is making commendable efforts to support craft beer. Virtually every small brewer in Ontario that I’ve spoken to on the subject notes that the people working within the LCBO are very helpful and supportive when it comes to the local breweries who vie to hawk their wares on their store shelves. Aside from being overly bureaucratic and occasionally making some head-scratching decisions about beers that are and are not approved (NO LASER SHOW?!), I think the LCBO is a pretty darn decent place for craft beer.
That said, given that the government-run booze emporium is one of the few places we can legally buy beer to take home, too much of its advertising and merchandising seems to me to have a complicated relationship with the word craft.
I’ve seen and shared a few examples where, for instance, the signs denoting the “craft beer” section of the LCBO are confusing, misleading, or sometimes just downright bad. I’ve literally seen 40s of Olde English placed in the “Craft Beer” section.
Of course, these instances of “non craft beer” being placed in the craft beer section, while fun to tweet about, can often be chalked up to stocking issues. Sometimes beer surely just overflows into an adjacent section, or an LCBO employee opts to simply put a beer where there is available shelf space and you end up with Shock Top, for example, in a section supposedly designated for Ontario craft beer.
But then there are those instances, like within the “craft beer” features in the pages of the glossy Food & Drink magazine or on the LCBO’s generally excellent website, where it’s clear at least some thought has gone into the categorization of the beverages. These too are fun to bring up on twitter to rankle craft beer loyalists, but one recent instance; this Salute to Craft; got me to thinking. Does the LCBO have a working definition of “craft?” Here is an example where Mill Street, once a Toronto craft beer pioneer and now a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, has been listed among “craft beers.” Ones personal definition of craft may vary, but surely everyone can agree that, once a global conglomerate that controls a third of the world’s beer is signing the cheques, all bets are off on being included in the “craft” category.
And so I had to ask.
It’s all well and good for we stout sniffing cognoscenti to debate the term from our collective mom’s basements, but shouldn’t the state-run liquor behemoth entrusted to dispense beers both craft and macro have a written definition of “craft beer” to guide their marketing and merchandising efforts?
Apparently not so much.
I spoke with Christine Bujold, Media Relations Coordinator, Corporate Communications for the LCBO, who agreed with me that the term craft beer is difficult to define.
“There are many different views and perspectives out there,” she says, via email. “For some it’s mainly about the product – with an emphasis on quality, brewing method, style and innovation, although all this can be somewhat subjective as well depending upon your personal preference. Others put more value on the size of brewery and ownership structure.”
So what is the LCBO’s definition?
“We do not have a specific definition from a marketing and merchandising perspective and tend to operate with general guidelines – in terms of how consumers shop for beer,” Bujold says. “In other words, we let our consumers lead the way by how they shop the category. This has lead us to group all local beers together separate from their imported counterparts as we know how important it is for customers looking to identify what is made here in Ontario.”
I told Bujold that I can appreciate that the average consumer might consider certain beers “craft” as they seem to fit in that category distinction as most consumers define it–e.g. they know where the brewery is and can visit it, the company is making beer with more interesting flavours than most “macro lagers”, etc–but, I asked, isn’t it somewhat misleading to lump these pseudo craft beers in with the real deal?
“As a retailer, we also consider how different customers like to shop craft beer, and have found through shopping basket analysis that there is an affinity for some shoppers who enjoy both local craft and other beers that emphasize quality and innovation. This is why on occasion it makes sense to talk about different beers based on the style and taste of the beer across a variety of craft categories. It is also why we shelve regional brands, like Mill Street or Creemore, separately but adjacent to the independent local producers.”
Now this seems like a very reasonable response, and I’m aware that, as always happens when I write on this subject, some will be quick to say “Who gives a shit? It’s all just beer, drink what you like.” To those folks, I’ll say “Why do you keep reading my blog?” but also “I give a shit,” because I think it matters. I find this flaky relationship with the definition of the category problematic at best. Given the LCBO’s efforts to educate consumers with a good website and an expensive print publication, plus in-store tastings and even small tasting seminars, the failure to draw distinction between big corporate-owned breweries and smaller independent ones is troubling. At best, it seems inconsistent with the educational efforts and a little lazy and, at worst, it seems like another deliberate blurring of the “craft” line in order to help bigger brewers masquerade as craft beer.
Given that the LCBO has a stated mandate to help local producers, it seems to me that only loosely defining “craft beer,” or letting largely uneducated consumers lead that definition with their shopping habits, is helping the big guys erode local brewers’ market share and is thus actually in opposition to that mandate.