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Craft, Specialism and Size

April 24, 2014

This post is mostly triggered by a talk I attended at the University of Bath (it’s really neat having the University up the road) by the head of marketing from Brew Dog. This talk was put on for a group of current MA students. The talk itself mainly charted Brew Dog’s meteoric rise since they began in 2007. The talk was really engaging and interesting, especially given that the whole talk was lubricated with examples of Brew Dog’s wares. It was an exercise in branding strategy, communication and positioning.

A Q&A session followed and provided plenty of food for thought, but one topic in particular warrants writing about whilst considering coffee. The topic is ‘the size of the business and its role in the definition of craft and or specialism’.

Brew dog are part of the craft beer movement and for many, due to the way the company has positioned itself, their beers are often a person’s first taste of this movement/field. They have also gone from being a small start up to a significant sized business that is continuing to grow and prosper. Early on in the talk, Brew Dog was being described in many ways, but in particular its size was being cited as part of what distinguishes it from other companies in beer. In that it is smaller. A student then proposed the question “if Brew Dog and craft beer are defined by their size, then as Brew Dog grows, is there a point which it no longer becomes craft beer?"

The justification of Brew Dog’s growth then quickly moved away from size, swirling around something far less measurable – the passion in and behind the business. It was now not being defined by size but by passion. Here the MD of Stella was cited as an opposing example in that he couldn't explain the process and ingredients in their beer. An extreme example indeed.

All along though, I found it particularly curious that we were in effect discussing what it is that makes craft beer craft beer, but the nature and flavour of the beer itself was yet to be properly cited as the defining factor. At its heart craft beer tastes significantly different.
As far as both craft beer and speciality coffee go, does passion for the respective products really equate to the craft or speciality version of them?

For example as far as beer goes one could be just as passionate about traditional real ale as they could about craft beer. And for coffee, one could be deeply passionate about traditional Italian espresso rather than about speciality coffee. In both cases there is plenty of passion but it doesn't result in the same type of approach to the topic or the same end product.

I appreciate that there is a big debate about what it is that constitutes and defines craft beers, just as there is in regards to the definition of speciality coffee.

Here is an article by Brew Dog on how they explore the definition of craft beer: http://www.brewdog.com/blog-article/craft-beer-v-real-ale

However it may often be easier for a company to present its passion and beliefs rather than rely on a product definition, which is cloudy. At the same time, for me the term craft beer suggests particular types of flavours and approaches to beer.

Interestingly, in America craft beer is very much defined by size, the brewery has to produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer a year. This is accompanied by some other regulations. - http://www.brewersassociation.org/pages/business-tools/craft-brewing-statistics/craft-brewer-defined

I also think that it is indeed true that many brand choices will be made on what it is we the consumer think the brand stands for, what we think the business is about, rather than choosing it purely on its flavour attributes. (This of course depends on the specific consumer.) This is where the size element has a strong impact; we can more easily feel we understand the company and what it stands for if it’s small, whereas a huge company with no personal connection can lack that link. Who are the people involved in the company and who's behind it? These questions are often considered, even if only subconsciously. A smaller company can just ‘feel’ nicer. But when is small not small anymore and what about the increased potential of a growing business in terms of what it can explore, how it can bring a product to a wider audience and invest capital in equipment and development of the product?

Brew Dog themselves give their customers access to their identity and ethos with the videos that the owners make and circulate. The videos also engage and educate the consumer about the product. They have the ability to show a transparency that makes a business feel smaller, a lot of craft branding isn't just about the actual size of a company but it’s perceived size.

My point is, that a massive global beer company could potentially make a beautiful craft beer if it wanted to – it’s just very unlikely to do so (they may need to hire specific expertise, say a consultant). At the same time a small company could make a bland totally "non-craft beer".

But, there is indeed a correlation between craft beer and the size of the businesses that make it. This correlation is justifiable. In fact there is more than correlation; there is obviously causation as well. This is very much the same in coffee. Speciality coffee is defined by groups of businesses that don't exceed certain sizes. I don't think the two industries are at all identical, and there will be certain aspects in each that feed into what it is that impacts on the size relationship.

For instance, craft beer is more of a bottled product, one that isn't as changeable and perishable as coffee. As technology advances in coffee we may well in the future be able to distribute and serve our product in a way more similarly to craft beer, or maybe not. But by looking at craft beer I do wonder how much of ‘smallness’ in speciality coffee companies isn’t just about the products physical nature, but is also about the people involved in and driving it.

You could label this ‘passion’ as it was labelled in the Brew Dog talk. Craft movement and speciality businesses are driven by people, yes, passionate people, but specific people all the same. It would definitely seem that speciality coffee or craft beer wouldn't exist at all without passion, and that a business of huge size is an entity of its own, with certain profit and growth obligations.

It is harder for there to be passionate people or small groups of people driving the products within a business that is reacting to the existing market and aiming to hit the biggest potential market. A huge company needs to hit the biggest market by virtue of its size. Of course with certain industries which are specialist, but may not be flavour driven – say technology driven – it’s arguable that increased size, competiveness, resources, and better R&D facilities will actually increase the quality, innovation and success of their product.

Craft beer and speciality coffee are products that have required the purveyors to challenge norms of business and flavour in established domains. It often requires the bloody mindedness of a person or a group of persons who don't care that there isn't a market at the moment or that their products are not "what everybody wants". These fields require creativity and attention to detail, often obsessiveness, a search for perfection. They require passion and the goal to make a living from something they find exciting (and are using the business itself to explore).

Specialist is not necessarily the same as craft, however there is often a notion that if something is small and "craft" then it is inherently better – a reaction to a certain modern phobia of technological development or growth. This is typified by books such as The Authenticity Hoax by Andrew Potter.

Dictionary definitions of craft cite making things by hand and on a small level, and at one point the type of beers that represent craft beer’s taste aesthetics may have all been made on a craft basis. The word craft when attached to beer though has taken on a different meaning than the dictionary definition.

Speciality coffee and craft beer are typified not just by being craft but by being sensorial unique. they are not simply identical versions of something already produced on a larger scale. The difference is not simply that one derives from a smaller company and is therefore “craft”. The results are actually different, and yes, size may be part of the cause, it however is not a tight, ‘size equals’ equation.

Interestingly there is a good argument that the pursuit of quality in coffee requires less of a focus on the romanticism of craft, and that we need to embrace technology where it can aid our flavour and product goals. A roaster for example, can improve its consistency with the aid of more expensive technological equipment and measurement tools, as well as its ability to invest in the raw product and certain practices by being a little bit bigger. Of course even with technological support, speciality coffee is highly craft in nature, you could say that certain technology has the potential to improve the craft, depending on your definition.

Ultimately, if Brew Dog continues to produce the same products with the same inspirations but on a larger scale, then they are merely a larger craft beer company, they will not lose that moniker. Or at least I don't think they should. What makes their growth different is that their expansion is off the back of producing a product which they are making because they think it tastes great and that they feel there isn't enough of. Their consumers are following and taking part in their aesthetic journey, this same relationship defines speciality coffees relationship with its drinkers.

They will of course grow due to great marketing and good business practice, but ultimately it’s because there is an audience receptive to and excited by the company and its products. We will just have to wait and see how big that audience is and how that market will evolve. The size relationship in specialist boutique fields will always be there. Brew Dog themselves have always been supportive of and have stocked other breweries’ products which they find inspiring; this is also because they want to grow the field. Specialist fields are importantly defined by lots of different people and businesses exploring the product and how they feel about it. Specialist fields often showcase a collective or individual aesthetic as well as terroir and the natural complexity of agricultural aspects.

Although they have and continue to pursue a large share in the craft beer market, it is obvious Brew Dog’s intention isn't to monopolise it. And even though I mentioned that the passion and ethos behind a company is less measurable, it is in these cases valuable as it is not simply market demands driving things forward, but people with a passion for exploring the flavour of a product. Craft beer is importantly something more tangible than a passion for beer; it’s a passion for particular flavour experiences from beer. To draw a specific line defining when something is no longer a craft beer is very difficult. Citing extremes is much easier.

The companies in craft or specialist culinary fields will be different sizes and some may well exceed the norm. This may actually benefit the field, but the wariness that coincides with increased size in these fields is fair enough, as the correlation suggests that the passion element that helps define these worlds becomes less likely and less possible at a larger scale. Not to mention many other desirable reasons behind supporting and embracing smaller businesses in a particular field.

If speciality coffee, which is driven by a certain grade of coffee and rarer flavour characteristics, could be as easily expanded and grown as a craft beer range, forgetting not only the making aspects of the product but also the raw availability of it, would its ubiquity take away its speciality coffee label?


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