It’s Not Just Beer: the Craftication of Everything

Illustration: perfume.

Not being habitual wearers of perfume we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘niche fragrances’ until last week when we heard a report about them on the radio promoting this exhibition at Somerset House.

Now, bear with us as we stumble clumsily through the history of an unfamiliar world: for a long time, it seems, there were two types of fragrance — established brands, and cheaper substitutes, both equally conservative. Then, in the 1970s, a third way began to emerge:

L’Artisan Parfumeur was the result of a challenge, a plaisanterie. Due to his training as a chemist, a friend asked Jean Laporte if he could create a banana scent to wear with a costume of the same fruit to a gala evening at the Folies Bergères. This was quickly followed by grapefruit and vanilla fragrances… He experimented and created original scents with ‘natural essences’. With the success of his first line of fragrances, Jean Laporte was named L’Artisan Parfumeur – the craftsman of fragrance – by perfume enthusiasts.

It’s our old friend natural vs. chemical! And grapefruit! Accounts of the birth of artisanal perfume often also mention ‘passion’.

In the decades since niche perfume has become a significant segment of the market as summarised by Reuters:

Niche brands differ from their bigger rivals in that they focus more on the originality of the scent than the packaging and the image projected via a celebrity. They also usually use higher concentrations of perfume extracts and more natural ingredients which tend to last longer…

There are now niche perfumes designed to evoke everything from fairground log flume rides to a seduction ritual in Mali. Some are stunts, not really designed to be worn so much as collected and shown off, while others have become bestselling standards in their own right. The only rule seems to be that they shouldn’t smell of, you know… perfume.

You’ll be glad to know that niche in perfume, like craft in beer, ‘is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor’ at least in part because bigger producers have jumped on the bandwagon and also bought out smaller houses (Reuters again):

Estee Lauder Companies which owns Jo Malone – which used to be regarded as niche – just bought Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and consolidation is set to continue as big groups hunt for what could be the next big perfume brand

But, anyway, perfume isn’t the point — it’s that this hammered home how easy it is to see everything from within a silo and thus fail to recognise that developments in your field are part of wider changes in society. Craft beer (indie beer, boutique beer, whatever you want to call it) developed at the same time as, and alongside, things like modern sourdough baking, natural wine, niche perfume, upmarket street food, gastropubs, and no doubt a thousand other class-bending trends in fields about which we know nothing.

Niche, the perfume world’s choice of descriptor, is an interesting one because in a sense this is about levering a space between, and maybe a bit to the left of, existing polarised segments.

  • Beer > Craft Beer < Wine
  • Perfume > Niche Perfume < Brand/Designer Perfume
  • Camping > Glamping/Boutique Hotels < The Hilton

Whether you like it or not, this bit in the middle seems to fulfil the needs of a generation whose members perhaps don’t understand class the way their parents and grandparents did, and who are every bit as appalled by tacky gilded visions of LUXURY as they are uninspired by the mainstream bog standard.

Suggestions for other sectors where boutinichecraftification has occurred, as well as for further reading, are very welcome — leave a comment below.

38 thoughts on “It’s Not Just Beer: the Craftication of Everything”

  1. If you had a time machine, you could nip back to 1973 or so and publish this entire article – including the slightly coat-trailing conclusion – as a commentary on the ‘real’ trend: it’s not just real ale, there’s real bread, real cheese, a whole ‘real’ diet, not to mention ‘real’ ways to socialise and bring up children…

    1. Well (see Brew Britannia) we do tend to think the current ‘craft’ thing *is* a development of ‘real’, even if it sometimes seems like two warring factions. Bet someone called that first ‘niche’ perfume back in 1976 ‘real perfume’ at one point or another.

    2. And at least with bread and cheese, the revolution has been as effective as with beer. Sure there is still terrible mild “cheddar” available that tastes of nothing, and some dreadful sliced white bread, but it’s trivially easy to get much more interesting traditional cheese and bread that had almost died out, as well as cutting edge “craft” versions. I think it’s an inevitable trend due to increased living standards and increased incomes – people will always look for new experiences as well as back to old traditional ones.

    3. Not sure – I’d say the current “craft” tendency is something very different from “real”, “organic”, “authentic” etc. It is predominantly urban, keen on innovation and eager to bring in influences and ingredients from all round the world. In many ways it is the antithesis of “back to nature”.

      1. From our little dip into the world of niche perfume — still largely mysterious because we don’t even know which are good sources of info — what seems to have happened there is that it started out wholesome and natural in the 1970s but nowadays they’re just as likely to boast about using all synthetic compounds to achieve a particular effect.

        So, somewhere along the line, the hippy version mutated into something more ‘conceptual’, a bit like with molecular gastronomy and all that, I suppose.

        1. The molecular perfumery may be part of it but I guess a more fundamental thing is that the “natural” perfumes rely on esoteric natural ingredients that can’t be ramped up and down just like that. Compare with the great surge of enthusiasm for grapefruity beers 2-3 years ago – hop farmers couldn’t produce enough of the Simcoe/Amarillo hops that were needed to generate the fashionable taste, so brewers turned to other means of achieving the same flavour using grapefruit peel/juice – hence things like Elvis Juice. It may not be as “pure” but it was an effective way of satisfying market demand in the face of shortages of a natural product.

        2. The interesting thing about ‘craft’ is that it sounds as if it’s the same thing that was going on in the 70s – to the extent of using a lot of the same vocabulary (like ‘artisan’ and for that matter ‘craft’ itself) – but it really isn’t. There’s a premium on novelty and variety, together with a much higher level of marketing, leading to the ‘Republic of Craftonia’ no-branding brand experience. ‘Craft’ producers do sometimes evoke locality and tradition – there’s continuity to that extent – but by and large it’s not central to what they do, as it was during the ‘real’ wave. ‘Real’ is the wholemeal loaf made with locally-milled flour; ‘craft’ is sourdough pizza everywhere.

          1. As I said below, any small producer has three obvious ways to go – quality, localism, variety or a combination of all three. But I wouldn’t say variety is uniquely defining – look at many of the big US craft breweries like Sam Adams, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas – all principally known for just one beer even if they are now trying to diffuse the brand a bit. Freedom and Camden are examples closer to home – admittedly it’s a bit different with lager as the keg founts that are the main route to market are so hard to break into, even Guinness (arguably the biggest “craft” brewery in the world) has historically struggled to get into adjacent founts until the last 5 years despite their huge advantages in distribution and scale. But I bet 90% of Brewdog customers have only tried the 3 beers in their local supermarket, and half have probably only had Punk. Ditto Beavertown with Gamma Ray and Neck Oil – are Brewdog and Beavertown not “craft”? Sure, the likes of Cloudwater are pushing the “variety” angle, but I’m not sure it’s a defining attribute for “craft”. I think it’s more reflecting the current retail market – we’ve gone from beer being mostly sold in estates tied to a few brewers, and subsequently in supermarkets, both of which have only a handful of “slots” and hence it’s worth getting behind a single beer as a brand (Guinness being a classic example, Doom Bar a more recent one). At the moment we’re at a Cambrian explosion stage, where there’s lots of new models being tried and lots of outlets with lots of choice – which is an opportunity for small breweries to get their products onto shelves – but I’m not sure it’s going to last. I can see the number of pure High St bottle shops contracting, which in turn will put pressure on the second-rank breweries. Same with cask freehouses. As the handpulls and slots on the shelves decline, breweries will have to either go to a super-seasonal Cloudwater model or concentrate on individual beers (like say Titanic with Plum Porter) if they want to sell more beer – or revert to the tied pub model (as Titanic are doing, they’re up to 7 or so).

            But no, I don’t think variety defines all craft, although it’s one of the Big 3 options for small producers.

  2. To me ‘slow food’ has always looked like part of the same thing: local, hand made and ‘authentic’, not industrial, multinational and ersatz.

  3. Interesting article, and much (artisanal) food for thought. The example of this elsewhere that immediately sprang to mind was chocolate. Something like:

    Cadbury >Green and Black < Lindt?

    Also, posh(er) crisps. What next, pork scratchings?!

    1. Chocolate is a great example — can’t believe we didn’t think of it. Maybe more like:

      Dairy Milk > Small Batch Artisanal < Valrhona Don't know. Need an expert to chime in.

    2. Scratchings are already there – Mr Scratchy is no longer good enough. I was incredibly cynical about flavoured scratchings but some of them really work – salt & vinegar or chorizo (pig on pig – what’s not to like?). Some just don’t – in particular there’s a bit of a thing putting insane amounts of chilli in scratchings, which is just unpleasant. Snaffling Pig are the best craft scratchings I’ve had, but there are others.

      Also popcorn – I’m not a big fan, but I have to admit that flavoured popcorn from the likes of Joe & Seph do kinda work.

      I guess you can trace a lot of this “affordable luxury” to Haagen Dazs (founded 1961, sold to Pillsbury in 1983, assimilation into Nestle started in 1999). Then came people from New England who were more interested in mouthfeel (as one of them has taste problems) – Ben & Jerry’s started in 1978, sold out to Unilever in 2000. I guess you could throw in Kettle Chips (Oregon, 1978) and Starbucks (Washington state, 1971), Fever-Tree (2005), Innocent Drinks (1998) and Pret a Manger (1984) as well.

      If you’re a small producer you can’t compete on price, so your options are to push the local, crafty angle, the quality angle, or the variety angle. And ideally you want to be good at all three. Quality is the most sustainable, but there is always a fraction of the market that craves novelty, so the Baskin Robbins approach can work but it tends to be quite niche. You’re seeing it in gin at the moment – punters have worked out that most of the new gins kinda taste of citrus and juniper, but there’s not much between them. They will pay more for “gimmick” flavoured gins, things like the Zymurgorium sweet violet and Slingsby rhubarb, which is where the growth in gin seems to be at the moment.

      1. Astute observations.

        It occurred to us that Starbucks was a good example after we’d posted but we didn’t think of the others you mention.

      2. I guess you can trace a lot of this “affordable luxury” to Haagen Dazs (founded 1961, sold to Pillsbury in 1983, assimilation into Nestle started in 1999). Then came people from New England who were more interested in mouthfeel (as one of them has taste problems) – Ben & Jerry’s started in 1978, sold out to Unilever in 2000. I guess you could throw in Kettle Chips (Oregon, 1978) and Starbucks (Washington state, 1971), Fever-Tree (2005), Innocent Drinks (1998) and Pret a Manger (1984) as well.

        Riffing off this, the other interesting thing about the ‘real’ phenomenon (including the early days of ‘real ale’) was that it took root in a country where long-established mass production had led to a widespread homogenisation and perceived debasement of food, symbolised by Watney’s and Mother’s Pride. The ‘real’ stuff was intended to be beer/bread/cheese as it used to be, and as – perhaps – you could still find it, if you looked far enough afield.

        The US is another country where the homogenisation/debasement of food progressed a long way; perhaps even further than here. A lot of the names listed above can be brought under the heading of ‘re-creation of quality’ – or rather ‘re-creation, standardisation and branding of quality’. But the massification/homogenisation trend wasn’t universal in the 1970s and 1980s, and probably isn’t even now. (I was in France a couple of years ago, and if I wanted to find locally-produced milk, butter and cheese in a supermarket I just needed to look in the milk, butter and cheese section; national brands would have been harder to find.) The best ice-cream I’ve ever tasted was in Italy in 1991; it wasn’t Ben & Jerry’s, but it wasn’t Nestle either. Neither craft nor Kraft, as you might say. I’d happily call it real, though.

        So maybe the difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘craft’ waves is that the former was trying (quixotically?) to roll back the tide of mass-production, and the latter is happy to find a niche within it. (And we’re back with niches.)

  4. As a Swiss citizen living in a city with a solid horology heritage, I noticed it happemning on the wristwatch market too.
    A sector which has has, around a few influential forums (notably Watchuseek) and websites, as well as heavy use of social media, seen in the past decade or so the emergence of WIS – the “watch idiot savant”, equivalent to the beer geek – as well as microbrands, a concept, which, just like microbrewery, everybody understands, yet has no absolutely clear definition.
    They are the horology equivalent of gipsy brewers, designing watches – usually automatic / mechanicals, quartz being looked down on by many WIS – and having them produced by a third party, making use of the globalisation of the watch industry: Japanese or Swiss movements, Chinese cases and parts, etc. to market watches aimed at the WIS crowd. A lot of those start up using crowdfunding, Kickstarter, for instance being pretty full of such projects at all times, or offer them at reduced prices during pre-sales (think bottle releases, etc.).
    The “compulsory figures” in the sector – think the equivalent of US IPA or Imperial stout in the beer world – are large diver watches inspired by world-famous upmarket bands (think Rolex, Omega, Tudor, Panerai…) and “minimalist” watches with bare-bones dials (think Daniel Wellington), along with large pilot watches, notably “flieger” styles, modelled after the watches worn by WW2 Luftwaffe pilots, bronze and brass cases instead of stainless steel being a notable current trend.
    The usual marketing blurb on Kickstater also has its slighly ludicrous tropes such as “disrupting the industry”, “luxury at non-luxury prizes”, “redefining / reinventing affordable luxury”, “I couldn’t find what I wanted so I made my own”, etc.

    1. This is great stuff — thanks, Laurent!

      Seems like exactly the same impulse. Similar with fountain pens too, I gather, where there are obsessives trading notes online. They can’t afford super-expensive Mont Blancs but don’t want bog standard < £10 pens either, so they buy c.£100 pens from small firms that specialise in fitting and fine tuning custom-made nibs to mass-produced pens and so on.

  5. I think you’re broadly on the right track, except I’m not convinced that craft fills the gap between mass market and expensive; I think it’s a touch more complex than that. In some cases, it’s about bringing the unattainable to a wider audience, but for the most part, I think it’s about pushing boundaries; producing products that have never been seen before, or more extreme versions of ones that have.
    As far attainability goes, I think It’s more generally access to a product rather than just price; of course in many cases price is that barrier to access, but simple rarity may be too; Westvleteren beers, for example, long widely acknowledged as among the best in the world but rather difficult to get hold of. And for me, such high-end beers are a more logical top boundary; wine appears to me to be much more a comparative and competitive product on all levels. Has the latest craft beer really got any connections with a Grand Cru Classe? Does it attempt to compete? Would it recognise the comparison? No, but it might very well consider itself a competitor to a vin de table from a cutting edge vigneron. What craft beer owes to wine for me is the roadmap; a path to follow; it’s no surprise to me that craft beer started in the US, where winemakers had already been experimenting with flavours for some time, and that Sean Franklin, a man immersed in the wine world, was one of the pioneers of what was to become the craft scene over here. Not because they were taking on the top end in any sense – in fact Michael Jackson, Roger Protz and Susan Nowak inter alia had been doing that through their writing for some time, using existing beers for the most part – but because they were following the successful wine blueprint; get into those niches. The difficulty for craft beer, wine and perfume is that those niches become mainstream over time, and that pushes craft ever more extreme, where the niche market is smaller; or else it transforms the craft producer into a a much more mainstream entity, eroding that almost illicit, underground character that is so central to the craft movement.

    1. I think what we had in mind was that, before real-ale/craft-beer, if you were someone who enjoyed food and drink, you “graduated” to wine. Now, you can instead “graduate” without having to leave beer behind. But perhaps we’re thinking of wine in a specifically British cultural context which is why it doesn’t quite work.

  6. My two cents is this is the fulfillment of Graeme Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. TV introduces variety and baby boomers add self-assigned exceptionalism. Relative good economic times from 1950 to today supply that variety care of better shipping of goods. As boomers age, they teach their kids the same lessons. Add the Internet and peer to peer, then the individually curated life and then the constant demand for individually packaged experience. Churches empty, political norms break down. Suddenly, it’s all T.S. Elliot. Pass the brown sauce and the brown ale, please.

    1. Groping towards something here… Is it about exclusivity through knowledge rather than through price? These things are relatively affordable but you have to spend years beforehand on web forums and reading books, learning the lore, to really know which things are good and which things are just aping the trappings. Calvin Trillin’s account of New York “chowhounds” from 2001 springs to mind. (Paywalled)

      People sometimes say craft beer is about showing off wealth. I don’t think that’s true, but it might be at least partly about conspicuously demonstrating knowledge. (Or trying to…)

      1. There’s always been an element of that with fashion though, hasn’t there? Either you are part of the in-crowd so get tipped off what’s “cool” by word of mouth or you’re a few months behind because you read about it in the specialist magazines – and then by the time a restaurant/dress is in the national media or in High St shops, it starts to become uncool and the in crowd have moved on.

        There is the product-knowledge aspect, of which wine is perhaps the best example, but that’s a bit different to the “knowing what’s cool” bit. And I think some of your beer-> wine thing specifically relates to the shift from beer to wine in general in the 90s/00s. Going from eg Blue Nun mass-market wine to more “crafty” wine has always been a thing within wine itself.

        Something I’m a bit fascinated by is the effects of women working longer hours in better jobs in the late 20th century. One of the biggest effects has been that the age of first baby went from something like 24 to 32 within two decades (thereabouts) – one of the biggest social revolutions in history. That in turn meant that there was suddenly a large demographic of single 20-something women with money in their pocket, who initially were ladettes apeing men by drinking macro lager in the 90s, but then evolved their own identity and drinks, like Pinot grigio in the noughties and craft gin in the teens. I can’t help thinking that some of what’s happened is transplanting that restaurant/bar culture of one’s twenties into the post-baby “nest” at home.

        I’m not saying this is all driven by women, far from it – but that age-of-1st-baby thing is such a staggering change that it’s bound to affect patterns of consumption.

        OT-ish – saw my first Northern Monk in a Morrisons in a northern mining town today. Truly “craft” has won… But I think NM have got it right, a cheap bulk offering – 6-packs of Eternal – in the supermarkets where they make almost no money but at least have volume and advertising, and then singles and specials in the specialist trade with no real overlap between them.

      2. It’s interesting how different parts of this thread have focused on niche being something that has either been producer-created or consumer-demanded. I’d suggest a lot of it is the former and that products of all descriptions have hit upon how to leverage cultural capital. Consumers want their products to allow them to show off and producers oblige.

        If you create more niches within a given category as a producer, the subject grows more complex and satisfying for your target audience since there is more to geek up on and consequently more to show off about when you are down the pub. It also makes it more likely these consumers will stay within your category in general rather than find niches elsewhere. You mentioned that people need not ‘graduate’ out of beer to wine anymore, which is of course tremendously welcome for the brewing industry since they can now produce – and more effectively market – premiumised offerings. More revenue from a captive audience. Isn’t this the very purpose of line extensions?

        Many people will believe they are independently-minded, discriminating consumers when they stride into their nearest brewpub. The reality may be that their tastes are growing ever narrower and – possibly – ever easier to predict and direct by the brewing industry at large.

  7. Interesting.
    Part of a general trend in the UK at least for more individualisation, fuelled I suspect by two key issues:
    – a much higher % of higher-educated under-35s than was historically the case, able (in theory!) to think for themselves and not follow the mass-branded crowd
    – the need to cultivate an interesting personality online; this will affect all manner of sectors including beer; you get few social interest points for posting “I’m at a Harvester” when you could be showing off your latest artisan burger.

  8. In the 1950s, if you use the drunken lecture on Merrie England at the end, there was the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd that got the ire of Amis’ hapless eponymous character, presumably the crafties of their day.

    1. Suspect there’s a book title missing there — Lucky Jim?

      Anyway, it’s a good point. A handful of beatniks and folkies moving in their own circles doesn’t amount to much but you might argue that it was those people who went on to invent and market things like miniskirts and affordable stainless steel cutlery. Stuff that wasn’t junk, but wasn’t posh either. Middling in terms of cost, highly interesting in terms of conception.

      1. yep, senility awaits, and I’d even pulled the book down from the shelf to check the quote.

  9. Agree that the craftification is happening all over, but I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion about what need it serves. Your formula beer -> craft beer craft beer <- traditional beer" seems closer, but I don't think that quite captures what's going on. But I haven't formulated a better theory just yet.

  10. What you wrote about fountain pens sounds very similar indeed. All the more since fountain pens, just like mechanical watches, are seem by most people as obsolete, and can constitute a kind of philosophical statement about technological progress and luxury from their owners. Pretty much what German retailer Manufactum (UK presence : https://www.manufactum.co.uk/) have been fostering for two decades by selling all kinds of items made.
    (FWIW, one of the pioneering watch microbrands, Christopher Ward, is British, but they went as far as merging with their Swiss contractor: https://www.christopherward.ch/our-story)

  11. I bought a new crafty French fragrance just last week. I’d never even really thought about doing so before and it was not in a traditional store at all, but one of those hipster stores which sold all sorts of stuff. As long as it smells good, and is not evil, then great. A bit like beer then…..

  12. Phil & qq

    On the subject of variety/novelty this post by Dave S springs to mind:

    “It’s undeniable that new-wave British craft breweries don’t trouble themselves too much with prescriptivist ideas about what ‘doesn’t belong’ in beer, and it’s often the weirder stuff that grabs attention at beer festivals and gets Twitter and Instagram buzzing. But again, once you actually start looking, you find that virtually every British craft brewery builds its range around pale ales, amber ales, stouts, porters and lagers.”

    As we say in the post, there are some Ker-aaaaaazy perfumes that don’t really seem to be designed to be worn, but quite a lot of ‘niche’ perfumes seem to shift decent volumes because they’re just a *bit* to the left of the mainstream, rather than completely barmy.

  13. I think there’s a book – or a PhD thesis – in this thread. Lots of fantastic ideas to explore further…
    Have to say I’ve really enjoyed this post (and the follow-up) even more than usual, together with the previous one – amazing thought-starters; especially if we see it as the before and after of the craftification process.

  14. Its always been the case that with the benefit of local knowledge, you could find higher quality products and services without necessarily having to pay the price premium associated with more widely known, knowingly high-end producers. This applies to everything from bakeries to car mechanics.

    This knowledge used to be spread by word-of-mouth, but with the advent of the internet, it can be widely disseminated, creating an upsurge in demand for these high quality “local” products, and the possibility of a much wider distribution.

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