A Few Words on Craft, Artisans, and Raison d’etre

Spring, 2019

I’d like to take a few minutes and share a couple of thoughts on the language and phraseology I often employ when talking about beer, gastronomy, and the finer elements of culture. I was contacted several days ago by a few notable German breweries who had taken offense at my suggestion that they were going about their business “ohne Liebe”. Their remarks were understandable, I believe, because of several misunderstandings, this confusion grounded both in culture and language. As I won’t be writing in German anytime soon (though I certainly wish I could), I thought I’d take a moment to clarify my language and diction of choice.

When I say that something is brewed, cooked, baked, or otherwise created with love I’m talking about passion and dedication, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s bigger. Passion and dedication are givens, but these are starting points, not necessarily the finish line. A true artisan, or artisanal operation, will be driven by passion and encouraged by dedication, naturally, but ultimately measured by the places they do and do not go. An artisan has a cultured knowledge of self, a unique skillset, and a roadmap for bringing his vision to the world. He is driven above all by philosophy, and plays the game with profit in mind, but not necessarily with it as paramount. His raison d’etre is the belief that through his craft he makes the world a richer and better place. This is his purpose, why he gets out of bed in the morning.

So how do these lofty word relate to brewing? Why bother talking about artisans at all?

Because the underlying foundation uniting all artisans is a love of—and for—their craft, in all of its facets. To perhaps overstate the obvious, there is a discernible difference between something made well, and something made with love. The difference is both subtle and paradoxically profound, the line at times blurry or in glaring relief. I find the easiest way to measure this difference is by a simple, instinctual reaction, and you need look no further than your own sensibilities.

Everyone has experienced, hopefully, a meal prepared with love, either in a restaurant, or at someone’s home. The food itself might be sophisticated, simple, or even spartan, but the attention, care, and passion behind it set it apart. It is simply something special, exceptional. Its design or execution might be flawless or could even fall a little flat, depending on proficiencies, but the effort shines through, is visible, almost tangible. Eating such a meal you’re overwhelmed with the feeling that it’s been made especially for you, and in a way of course, it has. But at the same time, you also feel that the Chef is personally invested in the lot of it, that this is the same meal he’d have made for his mother, or himself if he’d a quiet night in. The meal matters. It matters for you, for him-above all for its own sake. Were the world to disappear, were the restaurant empty, the meal would still matter, would be paramount. This is love.

Breweries built on this foundation are easily identifiable. They’re in it for the beer, period. This is their Alpha and Omega. They are by default creative, passionate, and committed, firm in the conviction that what they’re doing, and making, matters. Dynamism is a constant. They are craftsmen, connected physically, mentally, and philosophically with their discipline, its environs, and its enthusiasts. They know who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it; their sense of identity sacrosanct. They are mindful in everything they do. They evolve, but in accordance with their values and principles. They strive to be, and remain, relevant. They are constantly learning and improving. They never cut corners, and are ill inclined to compromise standards or character. They live integrity. They cultivate their community, foster relationships, and share the love of what they do with all comers. They are committed to excellence, in all things. They brew beers of quality and distinction, and they do so consistently. Beer matters, and so they exist.

Beer matters.

So what does this look like in real life? Who’s brewing with love? Who’s in it for all the right reasons? Fortunately, living as we are in an unparalleled age for beer, examples are both plentiful and global. There are far too many to list, but some of my favorites, in loose geographical order, are:

pFriem Brewing – Washington, United States
Ft George Brewing – Oregon, United States
Alvarado St Brewing – California, United States
Fieldwork Brewing – California, United States
Firestone Walker – California, United States
Russian River Brewing – California, United States
Two Brothers Brewing – Illinois, United States
Jester King Brewing – Texas, United States
Burial Brewing – North Carolina, United States
Hudson Valley Brewing – New York, United States
Allagash Brewing – Maine, United States
The Kernel Brewing – United Kingdom
Partizan Brewing – United Kingdom
Brew By Numbers – United Kingdom
Moor Brewing – United Kingdom
Cloudwater Brewing – United Kingdom
Gueuzerie Tilquin – Belgium
Brasserie Cantillon – Belgium
Brasserie de Rochefort – Belgium
Freigeist – Germany
Orca Brau – Germany
Brauerei Fluegge – Germany
To Ol Brewing – Denmark
Basqueland Brewing Project – Spain
Dois Corvos Cervejeira – Portugal
Birrificio Italiano – Italy
Hitachino Brewing – Japan

These are breweries that I believe exemplify the craft ethos and embody artisan ideals. This is by no means a comprehensive list, rather the brewers I’d mention instinctively if pressed for examples. Were I to expand, I’d note a lot more brewers in the US, Canada, the UK, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Iberia, and of course Belgium. But when it comes to Germany, famed brewing nation though it is, my list, unfortunately, just isn’t that long.

Three years in Germany have shown me that “brewed with love” is an anomaly here, something you rarely find. Brewed with intent, sure. Brewed with precision-absolutely. Brewed with passion-more often than not. But brewed with love, the aforementioned one, within that breadth and depth, that all-encompassing purpose? This is a rarity, its dearth profound. And any beer enthusiast who’s been here long enough will know what I’m talking about.

My conversations with Germans on this invariably result in misunderstandings for a multitude of reasons stemming from a multitude of places, a lot being definitions. I struggle to convey the larger picture I’m concerned with, while they endear to assure me that German brewers are passionate, maintain an impeccable work ethic, are the embodiment of proficiency, and like or love their jobs, usually in that order. When I attempt to go deeper, to expand my definition and talk about artisanship; about creativity, inspiration, or raison d’etre, I’m often treated to a history lesson. Tradition, of course, is preeminent and conclusive; history viewed as the ultimate validation. Germany is rich in historic breweries and beer styles and customs-how is this not proof positive? How is this not love? Often at this point statistics are bandied about, along with a litany of comparatives and superlatives. The Reinheitsgebot is inevitably mentioned, along with examples of scientific discoveries, inventions, and brewing advancements borne out here. Names are dropped, perhaps dates; awards occasionally noted. What is this, if not love, they ask. This is Germany, where beer (along with bread, potatoes, and sausage) is life, where lager was invented. This country is synonymous with beer, is a brewing icon. What do you, an American, know about beer anyway? Who are you to even comment?

These are all valid points and valid questions, and my initial response usually starts with, “How much time do you have?”. I would say that Germany is an undeniable paragon of brewing, and its worldwide contributions undeniable and immeasurable. I would say yes, German beer is good, and yes, German brewing culture is rich, and yes, global brewing is very much in Deutschland’s debt. And then I would say that this is not at all what I’m talking about, so we’re obviously back at the beginning. I’m talking about now, about breweries who are bringing it now, not just collecting historic dividends. I’m not talking about the passion and love that got you to today; I’m talking about the reason you think you should exist tomorrow. And “because history” is not good enough. History is dead, and beer something very much alive. If it’s brewed with love, you’ll know it, just like that meal. There will be something about it, something that sets it apart, some kind of je ne sais quoi. It will give you pause; pause to consider, to appreciate, to experience something that simply had to be made, that needed to exist. You’ll just know, and be all the richer for it.

Or if it’s absent tending to chagrin while pondering the point.