Be silly with beer

There’s a famous essay by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt called “On Bullshit”. To cut a long argument short, what Frankfurt refers to as “bullshit” is a wholly instrumental use of language – talking entirely for effect, without any regard for the truth of what’s being said. Bullshit isn’t lying, Frankfurt argues; it’s worse than that. Someone telling the truth will be able to back up what they’re saying, explaining why they think it’s true and how it relates to other true statements. (“I’m late because my train was delayed; they were fixing something before it set off, and it must have broken down again because we stopped for half an hour in the middle of nowhere. It’s never happened before, I hope it doesn’t become a regular thing.”) Telling a lie is the opposite of telling the truth, but the two things are also very closely related: somebody telling a lie is always conscious of what the truth is, and what they say will be guided by reference to the truth they’re not telling. (“I’m late because my train was delayed; I went straight from work to the station, and the thought of stopping for a drink never even crossed my mind. If you can smell beer it’s because somebody spilled a can on me on the train. Which was delayed, as I was saying.”)

Bullshit is worse than lying: the person bullshitting doesn’t care whether they’re telling the truth or not – or even whether they’re telling a consistent story. All they care about is getting the right effect. (“I’m late because my train was late again – it’s always late, it’s unbelievable. Well, not always always, but it’s always been late recently. I had to run, as well. I didn’t make it in the end, I was stuck in the station bar for ages. Of course I was on time getting there, it must have been running early, I don’t know. It’s just so unreliable, that train.”)

In other words, bullshit is using language purely to produce the right kind of impression. Bullshit pollutes debate and devalues language, according to Frankfurt’s argument. It’s not a new phenomenon: advertising is full of bullshit; political debate is an odd combination of reasonably truthful debate interspersed with steaming piles of bullshit. (In this country, at least; the bullshit-to-truth ratio seems to be higher in the US and some other countries, e.g. Italy.)

Changing the subject for a moment, I had a half of Acorn Gorlovka Imperial Stout last night which was superb – easily a match for the Red Willow Ageless DIPA I’d had just before it. Acorn is a brewery I hadn’t paid much attention to until recently, but they’re producing some terrific stuff just at the moment – the (very) dark bitter Legend and the self-explanatory milds Darkness and Lightness have all been excellent. Acorn, Red Willow, Dunham Massey, Marble – I love those guys. Really love them.

But I’ll chew my own hand off at the wrist before I call them “craft brewers”.

I’ve read Dave’s latest. I like Dave, I like his beer a lot, and the Fuller’s collaboration sounds great. But what is this actually saying?

Craft beers have a real story behind them. Real personalities. Real people. People who care about touching base with the drinker who buys the beer. People whose inspiration shines through not only in the beer itself but also the fact that they take time to communicate what the beer is about. People who are not just influenced by accountants, and shareholders who care only about their dividend, but are also influenced by wanting to inspire the drinker.

There are only two interpretations I can come up with.

  1. It’s a roundabout way of saying “Craft brewers are people who (a) make beer (b) talk about how great their beer is and (c) do it on Twitter.”
  2. It’s bullshit.

At the moment I’m leaning towards 2. All this stuff about passion and authenticity seems so subjective and unverifiable as to be beyond challenging – and if something can’t be challenged it can’t really be talked about. All you’re saying when you call somebody a craft brewer is that you want to hang the label of “craft brewer” on them, because they’re great and craft brewers are great. It doesn’t seem to add anything to discussion of beer and brewers, and I think ultimately it actually detracts from it. This vacuous, unchallengeable label is being bestowed as a badge of merit – and that means it can be used to justify poor performance (of course every bottle isn’t the same!”) and sharp practice (of course you have to pay a bit more!”).

“Craft beer”, in short, is bullshit. But I’m not using that as the title of the post – once is enough.

PS The actual title of the post is what you get if you start with “Craft beer is bullshit” and then play with Google Translate for half an hour. I think it’s a great improvement.

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16 Comments

  1. Posted 13 June, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

    My current take on the term (outside of the Craft Brewing Association which no one seems to pay any attention to anyway) is that it did have some meaning in the US at one point, meaning not bland lager made by the big boys. In the UK it does seem so vague and wooly that all attempts to define it have made it seem even more meaningless. I was going to say at least Dave doesn’t mention “passion” but when I went back to check there it was near the end :-(

  2. Posted 14 June, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink | Reply

    Ah but if craft beer is bullshit – and most of it probably is – and Dave is a bullshitter – are all craft brewers by definition bullshitters too?

    Is that wine cask aged double imperial lager with fennel – bullshit?

    Is Carlsberg the best lager in the world? On that basis, probably.

    • Phil
      Posted 14 June, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink | Reply

      Ah but (my turn)… I didn’t say that craft beer is bullshit – I said that “craft beer” is bullshit.

      The actual stuff being sold under the name of craft beer may or may not be good beer – you’d have to drink it and find out. (Lots of people would probably call Red Willow craft brewers, & I love their stuff.) But when people talk about so-and-so being a great craft brewer and such-and-such being a brilliant craft beer, it’s almost always bullshit – the words don’t really mean anything, they’re just being used to create the right effect.

  3. Posted 14 June, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink | Reply

    This is the comedy of craft beer, the fact that it is bull.

    It may be nice grog, but the values it appears to espouse are ripe for a ripping.

    • Phil
      Posted 14 June, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

      The trouble with craft beer is that so few things rhyme with ‘craft’. “Ask if it’s cask” works as a slogan. “You’re daft if it’s craft”… maybe not.

      • Posted 14 June, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        craft, aft, daft, draft, draught, graft, haft, laughed, raft, shaft

        More money than sense? Get the shaft, get craft.

  4. Posted 14 June, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink | Reply

    Of course Cookster, some is nice grog, just as some “other” beers that aren’t “craft” (define – Oh no we can’t)

    Is craft the new CAMRA? Something new to take the piss out of? As we have seen, like CAMRA, there is a lot of potential.

    • Posted 14 June, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink | Reply

      Keep your eye on Viz, the craft ale twats will come along soon enough methinks

      • Posted 14 June, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Something more alliterative perhaps?

  5. Posted 18 June, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “subjective and unverifiable” is pretty much the problem with “craft beer” per se, but isn’t it possible to come up with an objective and useful definition for the “craft brewer”? Dave’s (implicit) definition may be judged wanting, but does that mean that there can’t be a more rigorous one? If there was such a thing, would you chew off a body part before using it? And besides, it’s not written anywhere that great beer can only be produced by craft brewers (whatever they are), or that all beer they produce must be great, is it?

    Anyhoo, that’s just a fantasy on my part. No-one’s really interested. The reality is that the “craft beer” *product category* has been created before our very eyes. Cos that’s the way that retailers are trained to sell stuff, and the way we’ve been trained to buy it.

    • Phil
      Posted 18 June, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink | Reply

      True dat. If I ever get the urge to buy something from BrewDog, I know which shelf to look on, and it’s not the one with the White Shield and the Landlord – they’re across the way with the Yanks and the other cool kids (Meantime for one).

      isn’t it possible to come up with an objective and useful definition for the “craft brewer”

      Objective possibly, useful probably not – there’s far too much emotional investment in the term now. Besides, what would it actually be for? If you’re selling to people who know about beer, we already know what to look for (typography-heavy labels, especially using sans serif fonts). If you’re selling to people who don’t know about beer, you don’t need a definition – you just need to shout “craft” a lot, pausing only to reassure the punters with the old “your preconceptions are all true, but they don’t apply to *us* manoeuvre (it’s… real ale without the beards! it’s… folk without the woolly jumpers! it’s… protest without the tedious slogans! Etc, etc.)

  6. dsquared
    Posted 21 June, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink | Reply

    That paragraph is straight out of a marketing textbook. The message is “don’t think about the beer and what it costs, think about the story and specifically think about the kind of person who drinks that beer. If you want to be that kind of person, you need this product. Paying £4 for a small bottle of beer isn’t relevant here, you’re paying £4 to reassert your status as a Craft Beer Authenticity Person, which in turn validates all your past decisions to be a Craft Beer Authenticity Person. If you don’t buy this product or complain about the price, then your past decisions to assume this identity are wrong and you will not have that identity any more.”

    It’s what a brand is. Personally I don’t agree with Frankfurt that instrumental use of language is bullshit; it’s a certain kind of analytical philosopher’s intellectual snobbery and would imply that nationality, class identity and everything which makes us who we are is bullshit. But it’s easy to operationalise and that’s what they’re doing. Personally I prefer the way Brewdog does it whereby it’s at least up in your face that you’re being marketed to, and it’s therefore easier to take a detached or critical attitude to it.

    • Phil
      Posted 21 June, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I guess “it’s just a brand” would be a simpler way of putting it.

      I prefer the way Brewdog does it whereby it’s at least up in your face that you’re being marketed to, and it’s therefore easier to take a detached or critical attitude to it.

      Intellectually I like the sound of that – the BD “Monsters of Craft” approach is easier to tune out than a well-meaning guy saying “no but you see this is craft beer because of authenticity and passion and I never listen to my accountant and…” But experience says that the face is liable to end up fitting the mask – I think of how Crass, who were genuine & very sincere anarchists, adopted a dogmatic, confrontational and vaguely fascist-looking public persona as a statement about whatever it was, and ended up with crowds of dogmatic, confrontational and vaguely fascist-looking fans.

      • dsquared
        Posted 22 June, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        I think the consequence in this case is that the Brewdog bars are full of young people who don’t really care about craft beer or the associated culture, and who are just drinking the stuff because it’s trendy. Which is why, of course, everyone who is involved in that culture hates Brewdog so much. (There are lots of other reasons why one might like or dislike, but being real here – this is all about identity politics).

      • dsquared
        Posted 22 June, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Thinking about that a bit more, every subculture has this complicated relationship with its “trendy” element. And it is not exactly difficult to map the Brewdog flamewars onto a generic template which also fits “heavy metal bands with a pop single”, “Twenty20 cricket”, “New Labour” etc etc. We have:

        1. What they’re doing has nothing to do with us and our subculture and I just find it boring and can’t see why we’re all talking about them actually. Boooring. Can we talk about something else please please.

        2. It is good to see all these young people and new people jumping onto our bandwagon but we should not compromise any of our own traditions at all. So popular and trendy representatives of our subculture must demonstrate regularly to the rest of us that they are only working in a missionary role, and we will monitor their progress regularly to ensure that the educational mission is delivering a steady stream of hardcore enthusiasts.

        3. This dillettantism just annoys me, all these people pretending to be like us when they haven’t suffered like us or put in the hard work which it took to establish our image and culture. It’s insulting! Worst of all, people are using goodwill that WE built up for them in order to build popularity with a different audience. They’re rejecting us, what ingratitude.

        4. Actually the purists are the really annoying ones, nothing will ever be good enough for them and they just alienate people. It’s their fault that our subculture are looked at as weirdoes. If it wasn’t for the awful bloody purists, everyone in the land would be just like us and wouldn’t that be great!

        5. Errr … um … don’t jump on me for saying this mmkay … I just … sometimes think … maybe it wouldn’t actually be all that great if we were the mainstream. I kind of liked it better when it was just this small community who all knew each other. Of course I don’t really mean that nononono I realise that some people have built businesses on our culture and I want them to succeed! I just … I’ll shut up now.

        6. One of these days the trend is going to move on and all these half-hearted types and trendies will leave you know. Then we’ll be back where we started, or probably worse off because some of us have overextended. We’ll regret any and all compromises we ever make with the mainstream.

        7. They’ll never leave us! We’re so great and everyone’s going to realise it! WE’LL TAKE OVER THE WORLD! We don’t need to compromise with anything, we’re so great. Just any moment now, the real, hardcore version of our culture is going to go mainstream and everyone will forget about the compromise version. Really soon. Any minute now …

        8. Oh come on guys can’t we talk about something else please, these internal squabbles are what really puts people off. I just find it all rather boring actually and can’t we talk about something else please.

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