What lies behind the craft movement?

by User Not Found | September 18, 2013

The Worthy Burger in South Royalton, Vermont, is a favorite watering hole of mine. A friendly atmosphere, an ample selection of craft beers, and burgers made with grass-fed beef and grilled over a wood fire. What’s not to like? And yet, when I first came to the U.S. 25 years ago, most bars would be dispensing nothing but Budweiser and Miller Lite. 

The volume sales of craft brews have been growing at over 10 percent year on year and more breweries are currently operating in the U.S. than at any time since the 1870s. So what is behind this shift and is there potential for the influence of this trend to extend beyond beer? 

I would define “craft” in the context of food and drink as expertise in making things by hand, usually in limited quantities. I would suggest that we are already seeing categories apart from beer adopt the craft ethos. Craft distilleries have been making the news of late with 250 operating across 45 states in 2012 – increasing from just 50 distilleries in 2005.  

On the basis of my definition, wine-making qualifies as a craft. The number of wineries in the U.S. has rebounded from a low in the 1960s to an estimated 8,000 today. Much of the growth has come in recent years (check out this interactive map from the New York Times) and the vast majority of the new wineries are small, limited production ones. 

And then there is the food category. While they may go by the name “artisanal” rather than craft, foods like coffee, bread, humus and cheese have proliferated. It used to be that all you could buy in much of the U.S. was processed cheese. Now there are over 40 independent cheese-makers in Vermont alone and big brands like Sargento now offer Artisan Blends

So what is behind the interest in the craft foods? I have a few ideas but would love to hear yours. I would particularly like to know whether this is a U.S. only phenomenon or is it apparent elsewhere in the world? 

My first idea might sound a little whacky but bear with me. I suspect that there is an innate conceptual appeal in the transformation of natural ingredients “by hand” into something new and desirable. It is a transformation more akin to alchemy than science.

Too fanciful an idea? Well maybe the allure of craft goods lies in the fact that they just taste better than their mass-produced counterparts. Craft food and drink also offers a far wider variety of tastes and flavors than are typically available from large, familiar brands. They are meaningfully different from the standard offerings. 

Or maybe it is the idea of individual expertise that is really the driving force behind the craft movement. The goods somehow feel more authentic when you know that a specific person or group of people are responsible for their creation. 

So what are your thoughts on this matter? Will the craft movement spread to new areas and what will they be? Is this trend limited only to the U.S. or a specific income group? And what are the implications for mass manufacturers? Please share your thoughts.