Lew Bryson's sarcastic laugh reverberates through my iPhone. In the course of our 20 minute conversation, the former 20-year managing editor of Whisky Advocate and author of Tasting Whisky has called out millennial drinkers, lambasted naive brewers, and said small batch distilling is going through an Emperor's New Clothes era. Suffice it to say, Bryson, who speaks at BevCon, Charleston's first beverage-focused conference this weekend, isn't looking to make beverage professionals comfortable. He's here to shake them up.
"One participant suggested we call it Craft is Crap," he says of the name of the panel he's on at BevCon. "I've been trying to tell the brewers to walk away from that term for 15 years now. Just call it beer. It's beer. The only reason you're using craft is because you want to separate yourself from the big brewers. But people know who they are. I'm holding a smart phone in my hand. If I want to know, I just thumb it in. 'Dear Mr. Google, who makes Mr. Willy's IPA?' If you care, you can find out."
It's more than just that though, says Bryson. He believes the danger in using the word craft is that it's a misnomer. "Every time you define it, you kick someone out. I have yet to see a definition that I couldn't drive a beer truck through," says Bryson. "Some people say that craft has to be traditional. Whose traditions? English? Belgian? Whose? Others say craft means that a brewery can't be owned by more than 30 percent by a non-craft brewer — even though it's the same people brewing in the same way? Then it's no longer craft beer? It's the same with craft liquor. There's definitely a craftier than thou attitude."
And we're beginning to see it on the price tags for these products too, Bryson says. For instance, you can, arguably, buy a relatively good table wine for $12. "But if you compare that to $12 and up for a craft beer six pack, beer is not such a great deal anymore. When I look at a $40 bottle of craft whiskey, not only would I rather drink Evan Williams, I can get three of them," he says. And yet the craft distilling sector is booming.
According to the American Distilling Institute, the market share for small distillers — those who produce 100,000 or less nine-liter cases a year — has doubled in the past two years. While that only makes up 2 percent of spirit sales, Food & Wine reports that these smaller distilleries could make up as much as 8 percent of the market by 2020. So if Bryson is right in that a lot of craft distilled spirits aren't up to par with their big distilling competitors, and that craft beer is pricing its product as if it were liquid gold, why do we keep buying it?
If you ask Bryson, he'll tell you shoppers are letting their naivete get the better of them. "The novelty is sustaining it," he says.
So what does a small distiller have to say on the matter? Few Spirits owner Paul Hletko, who will be joining Bryson on the BevCon "The confusing world of 'Craft'" panel, says he agrees that the term craft is being abused. "I've never particularly enjoyed the word craft as it applies to spirits," says Hletko. "I don't know if I'd go with Emperor's New Clothes, but I don't disagree with Lew's fundamental points."
Hletko likens the trend to Monty Python's Life of Brian. "Craft ends up being like when Pontius Pilate gives mercy to Brian and all the crucified men start shouting, 'I'm Brian,' 'No, I'm Brian,' 'No, I'm Brian.' No, not everybody is Brian," says Hletko.
Instead, Hletko wants to encourage distillers and brewers to simply represent themselves honestly. "To me, craft is the intention of the producer. At the end of the day, the definition of the word depends on the eye of the consumer," he says. "Everybody wants what they do to be craft, but the consumer is entitled to an accurate understanding of what they're buying."
Bryson's advice? "Just make good whiskey, good gin, make a good spirit," he says. "Price it so you make money and if your wholesaler is screwing you, find a new wholesaler. Do business so you can make money and sleep at night. You can't charge $40 for a bottle of gin when you just started making gin a year ago. I'm sorry, that's intrinsically dishonest, especially when Sapphire sells for $20."
And as for customers, well we're not off the hook either.
"Drink whatever you want, but think about why you're drinking it," Bryson begs. "Ask yourself, 'Are you drinking it because you want to be someone? Are you drinking it because it tastes good? Or, because that's what Bill brought to the party?' Every one of those reasons is valid."