What's in a name?
The survival of an entire industry, apparently.
Two small words have become the source of much celebration, conversation and consternation over recent years, to the point where they are now seen as crucial to safeguarding the future of British independent brewing.
Those words? Craft beer.
Up to this point, the movement for an official craft beer definition in the UK has struggled to gain any real momentum but now appears set to become a major topic for debate over the coming months and maybe even years.
The biggest single factor in this development has been the establishment of the United Craft Brewers (UCB).
Created by a handful of the biggest names from the new wave of British brewers – Beavertown, Brewdog, Camden and Magic Rock – this new industry body is due to meet for the first time this month. To justify its existence, it must quickly provide an answer to the eternal question, 'what constitutes a craft brewery?'
But can this question ever be satisfactorily answered? At the very least, the UCB seems to have set itself a complicated and thankless task.
Advocates for an official definition believe it is a necessary step in protecting modern, independent brewing from cynical exploitation by opportunists. And there's certainly an element of truth in that belief.
There has been a worrying increase in chancers who walk the walk, talk the talk and even have the full range of gaudily-designed cans, yet churn out substandard, inconsistent product.
Others have carefully cultivated the brand and sent out the press release before they've given any consideration to what they're going to brew. Yet more see beer as just another cheap consumable, paying to have it contract-brewed in order to exploit a growing market, but taking little interest in the creative process.
Big brewers too have attempted to profit from a cachet they have done nothing to cultivate and a scene they barely understand by passing off a series of questionable products as 'craft'.
The argument is that establishing a legal definition for craft beer could help to prevent devaluation of a growing industry segment by allowing only qualifying brewers to trade off the language and ethos of 'craft'.
But there's a problem. Although the phrase has become commonly understood through sheer volume of use, its meaning remains almost entirely abstract.
It isn't dependent on the use of particular ingredients and, unlike products such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), it isn't rooted in a defined region.
Nor can it meaningfully be judged by the size of the brewery. In America, the Brewers Association dictates a craft brewer must be 'small', yet the fact Boston Beer Company churned out nearly 5 million hectolitres last year for net revenue of $903 million tends to make a mockery of the situation.
But even if size and independence were used as the two main entry criteria in this country, what about the huge number of cask-focused ale brewers who could equally consider themselves 'craft'?
This has always been one of the biggest problems with any attempt to enforce a definition on these shores. Unlike the US market, where there is a relatively clear division between the craft brewers on one side and the macro lager producers on the other, the UK market contains many different shades of grey. Not to mention years of brewing history that deserves the greatest respect.
Given the lack of useful criteria, I have noticed more than one blogger claim craft beer is about 'flavour' but how can a definition be based on a largely subjective judgment, contingent on an individual's personal experience or palate? And are there not a huge number of non-craft beers that could also be considered full of flavour?
More to the point, the drive to define craft beer tends to shift focus onto external threats, while doing little to address the problems within.
Quality standards, even among many producers who care passionately about what they do, continue to fluctuate wildly. It's perhaps inevitable, given the massive increase in brewery numbers over a relatively short period of time, but there remains a significant skills shortage in the industry which threatens to stunt future growth.
Meanwhile, the price of 'craft' continues to rise, and this combination of increasing cost and uncertain quality could seriously compromise consumer trust, limiting opportunities to appeal to a wider market.
It's hard to see what difference a definition would make in this regard, given 'craft' is essentially a marketing term - and a fairly meaningless one at that.
Take a look at Lagunitas, whose owner Tony Magee repeatedly claimed that 'craft' went much deeper than beer, lending the term a strong anti-establishment tone that ran through all of his company's communications. Then, last week, he sold half of his company to Heineken, the kind of multinational brewer he had spent years railing against.
Such incidences have given rise to greater cynicism towards the term craft beer and caused a number of British microbreweries to reevaluate its usefulness. Several that I have spoken to in recent months are making a conscious decision to step away from it completely.
Frequently, this appears to be an adverse reaction to perceived snobbery associated with the phrase and over-the-top marketing that positions it as an ideological choice rather than a bar call. There is a risk that the language of craft beer is becoming a little too smug and exclusionary, preventing it from appealing to anything other than a predominantly 25 to 35-year-old, middle-class audience. Too often, an 'us against them' scenario has been created where it is pitted against other forms of beer, including Britain's rich real ale scene, rather than being presented as complementary.
As a result, many microbrewers have shunned the 'craft' tag in order to avoid being pigeon-holed.
There's also a sense that many of those at the smaller end of the scale feel they have little in common with those leading the 'craft' charge. After all, the sole trader operating from beneath a railway arch is worlds apart from Brewdog, for example, which is currently in the process of establishing a second brewery in America and boasts bars in Brazil, Japan and Scandinavia. How easily can those differing goals and objectives be aligned by a single organisation?
If the UCB is to succeed it must be careful to ensure its agenda is not dominated by its larger members. If it does that, one way in which it can have a genuine positive impact is by providing representation to an industry segment that appears to be seriously underrepresented, and sharing the expertise of its founders.
A large number of modern brewers believe existing organisations, such as CAMRA and SIBA, are not sufficiently addressing their specific needs, so have been forced to turn elsewhere for help with marketing, distribution and operational issues. An organisation with presence on a national scale could help to address the current skills shortage by providing a strong network of knowledge and support, while also campaigning on behalf of its members.
However, restricting membership to those breweries who consent to the 'craft' label might also limit the organisation's potential reach.
Can't we just agree to call it beer and leave the choice of marketing to the individual?