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How Drinks Producers Are Defining ‘Craft’ Around the World

6 min read

The global explosion of craft brewing and craft distilling has led to an unexpected literary micro-genre: writing that attempts to define just what is meant by the term “craft” when it comes to food and drink. While essays on the subject can be found all over the place, the most significant contribution to the category probably arrived last year with the publication of the book “Craft: An Argument” by the British beer writer Pete Brown, whose attempt to explain the pros and cons of the term craft covers some 200 pages.

Brown might have offered the deepest thinking on the meanings, advantages, and shortcomings of the word craft to date, at least in English; but around the world, speakers of dozens of different languages have been working through the same issues. As drinks makers and consumers everywhere promote the idea of craft production, the way they explain or express that concept has interesting connotations and connections — and, sometimes, unexpected difficulties.

It’s not easy to find the right equivalent for “craft beer” in Finnish, according to Suvi Sekkula, a journalist, service designer, beer lover, and the chair of Kieliasiantuntijat ry, a Finnish trade union for language and communications experts.

“The question is a tricky one in Finnish, as there is no strong consensus,” Sekkula says. Currently, she says, three competing terms are being used in her country: pienpanimo-olut, meaning “beer from a small brewery,” käsityöläisolut, or “beer made by a craftsperson,” and erikoisolut, which means “speciality beer.”

The problems? The first term only refers to brewery size, but not to the quality of the beer. The second term has a connotation of coming from a skilled producer, but it is not as widely used or understood as the first term. And the last term has been adulterated through its use by Finland’s state alcohol monopoly to describe any beer that is not a mass-produced lager, no matter the size of the producer or how good the beer might be.

“So, a lot of people see ‘erikoisolut’ as referring to craft beer, and that drives beer enthusiasts crazy,” Sekkula says. “I use ‘pienpanimo-olut’ as the equivalent of ‘craft beer’ myself. Someone more pedantic would use ‘käsityöläisolut.’”

In other languages, saying “craft beer” can be close to impossible, at this point being “too new” a phrase to have a local equivalent. Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela, a brewer and consultant at Brewsters Craft in South Africa, says that she wouldn’t even know how to express the idea of a craft beverage in a language like Xhosa or Zulu.

“The concept is not new — Africans have been hand-crafting various items for years,” she says. “The traditional beers here have different names, but they all mean beer. Like one is called ‘utywala besintu,’ because ‘utywala’ is beer and ‘besintu’ means for traditional people or natives. But craft beer? Craft beer is still a new term. I don’t think we have a word for it.”

Missy Begay, co-founder and creative director at five-year-old Bow & Arrow Brewing in Albuquerque, N.M., says there is also no clear way to say craft beer in the Diné (or Navajo) language, even if the Diné word for beer has a wonderful etymology of its own.

“The Diné language is generally very descriptive for modern items,” Begay says. “Beer is bizhéé’ hólóní. To a native speaker, the word bizhéé’ in literal translation means ‘with saliva.’ There is no distinction between craft beer and beer.”

(Those familiar with chicha may assume there is a connection here, but that isn’t the case: Begay says that in Diné, the word is used to describe liquid with carbonation or a liquid with “spit-like” character.)

In countries with a long brewing history, the idea of “craft” production can seem particularly modern — and often quite foreign. The German language might have bier, a word that sounds like (and which means the same as) beer in English, as well as kunst, the equivalent of the English word craft. But instead of making a new word out of those traditional roots, the updated Duden dictionary lists a typical German compound noun with a clear English origin: das craftbeer.

Across the border in the lager-loving Czech Republic, Czech brewers and beer lovers have taken a different approach, adopting the phrase řemeslné pivo, a term that evokes řemeslo, which includes traditional handicrafts like weaving and pottery. While it might have sounded weird to many Czech speakers when it first appeared a decade or so ago, it has more or less come into common use, with local producers like Volf, Lobkowicz, and Morava all using the term řemeslný pivovar, or “craft brewery,” to describe themselves in recent years.

Some languages have had an easier time, especially the Romance tongues. Italian, French, and Spanish speakers have used their equivalents of “artisanal” to come up with terms for modern craft beer — Wikipedia includes pages for birra artigianale, bière artisanale, and cerveza artesana, respectively — which tend to sound traditional and well established. Beer fans in other languages have had to come up with more newfangled constructions, many of which are less than 10 years old.

Rick Green, author of the book “How to Drink Beer in Mandarin: An English-Chinese Craft Beer Glossary,” notes the relatively recent origin of the contemporary Chinese term for craft beer, 精酿啤酒, or jīng niàng píjiǔ. Composed of recognizable linguistic roots, that term only spread after being suggested by Xiao Bian’r of the Beijing craft brewery NBeer in a widely shared article in 2012.

“Basically, it means ‘fine’ or ‘skilfully’ brewed beer,” Green says. “Older people unfamiliar with the term may be a little confused at first, but they would know it is some kind of beer.”

That term, he says, replaced a couple of earlier phrases for craft beer that didn’t stick, for various reasons.

“According to Rocky Wang, head brewer of Bravo Brewing in Guangzhou, craft beer was initially referred to as 自酿啤酒, or zìniàng píjiǔ, which means ‘self-brewed beer,’ as opposed to being made in a factory,” Green explains. “Also in the south of China, they called it 手工啤酒, or shǒugōng píjiǔ, meaning ‘handmade beer.’ But in the current term jīng niàng píjiǔ, jīng means ‘fine,’ ‘refined,’ or ‘excellent,’ as in fine wine. So in Chinese, it gives an impression of what we in English would think of when we use the term ‘craftsmanship.’ Even though 手工啤酒, or shǒugōng píjiǔ, is more of a literal translation to what we think of as ‘craft beer,’ that meaning doesn’t give craft beer a suitable status in people’s understanding. Rocky likened it to the food made by street food vendors — handmade and cheap.”

At Four Provinces Brewery in Dublin, Ireland, co-founder Feargal Chambers says that the relatively recent Irish term for craft beer, beoir cheirde, echoes the current rebirth of the Irish language itself.

“In Ireland, ‘beoir cheirde’ was something that I started hearing maybe eight years ago,” Chambers says. “I take it as meaning ‘something built with your hands.’ It’s a new term in the Irish language — before, we’d just have used beoir. The people who translate and add the new words to the dictionary are quite sharp, because there’s a growing Irish-language community in Ireland, and they’re very much trying to bring it into the 21st century so it becomes just as relevant as English.”

While many tongues still don’t have good equivalents for “craft beer” or “craft brewery,” the growing popularity of craft beverages means that those terms might be found in Diné, Zulu, and every other living language at some point soon. And who knows? Perhaps we’ll see new essays originating in those other languages arguing for and against “craft” and what it means.

After all, it’s a great topic to write about.

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