When it comes to craft beer, perhaps no word is tossed around as casually and as often as ‘handcrafted.’ From the earliest days of better beer to the present, craft breweries big and small have loved to up the romance of their brands with allusions to the by hand nature of the brewing process. The reference conjures up images of a keen eyed, lone brewer stirring a heavy mash rake over a smoldering copper cauldron of boiling brew. At just the right moment, the master craftsman brewer carefully and delicately adds a pinch of hops. The brewer in these fairy tales is part artisan, part custodian who gently ushers his product through the brewing process.
The colorful fable lasts for many consumers until they take their first brewery tour. The lands of hop pixies and malt elves are quickly replaced with snaking hoses, puddles of water, gurgling buckets of foamy particulates, and the occasional stench of caustic in the air. The notion of handcrafting is also quickly challenged. While American brewers in the earliest days of the craft brewing renaissance may have fit the cheerful description above romantic, today the brewing process is more akin to an industrial factory or sometimes even a computer programming suite.
It’s time that brewers and consumers let go of their dated, fanciful notions of the brewing process. When applied to model ship building, pottery making, or log cabin construction, the phrase handcrafted seems apt. When referencing the modern production of beer, handcrafted seems an overly romanticized and even misleading descriptor, even when applied to America’s smaller breweries. In the classic European sense, a handcrafted brewery was one where every part of the brewing process was indeed managed by hand. Brewers lugged heavy, dusty bags of malted barley to their mash tuns and dumped them in, only to shovel out by hand the spent grain after a few hot hours stirring the mash. Without the benefits of fork lifts and other systems, brewers then filled and rolled wooden barrels, which they sometimes made themselves, around the brewery and to horse-drawn carts for delivery to local pubs.
Let’s keep one thing straight, those romantic good old days sucked for the brewer. Brewing under those conditions was backbreaking and dangerous work and it did few favors for the beer. As craft breweries grow from mini-micros to small regional players to large national operations, their systems should match their improved business practices. Automation is a friend to both consumers and brewers. While part of the romance may be lost when breweries transition to all stainless steel breweries run by computers, you can rest assured that stable temperature controls and accurate brewing and fermentation conditions will improve the quality of the pint in front of you. That a brewer lugging fifty pound bags of grain has been replaced by a computer nerd watching the sparge represented in animation on a glowing screen is a positive thing for everyone involved.
At its best, brewing is part art and part science. Where the calculus lies between the two is the true beauty of beer and it’s where the magic lies for consumers and brewers alike. But make no mistake; brewing is both science and industry. Without these two components, art simply cannot produce consistent, clean, and consumable pints.
And for those consumers who refuse to let go of the romanticized notions of handcrafted brewing, there will always be a seat at your local brewpub. And when you see your local brewer hauling heavy grain bags and toiling in tough, challenging conditions, feel free to offer a hand. Then you’ll know what handcrafted really feels like.
–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.