Sunday, 20 September 2015 21:30

What does 'craft beer' really mean?

Written by 
Rate this item
(4 votes)

Lagunitas bottles

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?

Read 10191 times Last modified on Monday, 21 September 2015 21:41

12 comments

  • Comment Link Captain Obvious Monday, 21 September 2015 08:32 posted by Captain Obvious

    Christ on a bike, the amount of hand wringing 'we' get through about the semantics of one particular word!! Aside from the crafterati on Twitter no one in the real world actually cares. Isn't the REAL problem that younger drinkers are turning away from alcohol in droves? We need to be getting people out to the pubs again!

    Report
  • Comment Link John Clarke Monday, 21 September 2015 09:41 posted by John Clarke

    Well put. I think the horse has well and truly bolted when it comes to defining craft - indeed even raising the subject is enough to send many thoughtful commentators running for the exit these days.

    And of course the elephant in the room is cask beer - some use craft as shorthand for keg to the exclusion of cask which in my view is nonsense (the point I usually raise when I come up against that is is "So, let's take Marble Earl Grey IPA. Are you saying that on keg it's craft but on cask it's not?". I have yet to get a sensible answer to that one...)

    Report
  • Comment Link py Monday, 21 September 2015 12:51 posted by py

    are there not a huge number of non-craft beers that could also be considered full of flavour?

    No. This is the entire point. Can you give an example? Budweiser? Carling? Green King IPA? All non-craft beer just tastes like sweetened water, either with or without an unpleasant soily aftertaste.

    Report
  • Comment Link Nick (ErlangerNick) Monday, 21 September 2015 14:07 posted by Nick (ErlangerNick)

    Very well said -- especially your last line, a question I've been asking for over 20 years.

    Report
  • Comment Link Connor Monday, 21 September 2015 14:16 posted by Connor

    py - that just isn't true. Take Jever, for example, or a number of beers from Paulaner. Closer to home you've got Robinsons' Old Tom and Timothy Taylor Landlord, or take your pick from many of the beers brewed by Adnams or St Austell. Heck, even Greene King produce the odd decent beer too.

    I think the recent brewing boom has had an incredibly positive effect on the scene in this country, providing us with much greater diversity than we've probably ever had.

    I'm also quick to avoid homogeneous lagers and beer produced by the big multinationals but to suggest that craft brewers are the only ones producing anything that could be considered full of flavour is incredibly narrow-minded.

    Report
  • Comment Link K Monday, 21 September 2015 14:21 posted by K

    py, I raise you Paulaner Oktoberfest or Ayinger Celebrator. Non-craft? Possibly (probably). Full of flavour? Certainly.

    Report
  • Comment Link py Tuesday, 22 September 2015 10:05 posted by py

    Errr... you've just listed several well-known craft beers... Adnams and St Austell in particular are two of the biggest and most famous craft breweries in the UK.

    Open your mind. Do you think that any beer not brewed under a railway arch by a young man with a silly beard is not a craft beer?

    Report
  • Comment Link Connor Tuesday, 22 September 2015 20:15 posted by Connor

    I'm not sure you've understood my piece. My mind and my eyes are fully open, so no I don't think craft beer can only be brewed by bearded men under railway arches because I don't believe craft beer exists. Not in any meaningful way.

    Craft beer is just a marketing term used by a number of breweries. Adnams and St Austell both make great beer but neither of them market themselves specifically as a craft brewer. If you want to call them craft that's your lookout but I wouldn't because I believe the term is meaningless. If you want to put any label on them I'd class them as independent, family brewers. Until recently both were members of the IFBB, although I think Adnams has left now.

    One of the biggest reasons I believe the term craft is meaningless in the UK is precisely because the existence of excellent, traditional ale breweries muddies the water. These breweries don't market themselves as 'craft' and would be highly unlikely to join the UCB (they certainly aren't among the brewers in the vanguard) but would fit any definition of the term.

    Report
  • Comment Link py Wednesday, 23 September 2015 07:03 posted by py

    They do both market themselves as craft brewers anyway, which is obvious, because that is what they are.

    http://adnams.co.uk/beer/our-beers/adnams-green-bullet/

    http://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Operators/MA300-Business-Club/St-Austell-opens-new-craft-beer-and-smokehouse-concept

    Craft beer and craft brewery are not meaningless terms, they're perfectly apt and concise definitions that separate out the decent beers and decent brewers from the tasteless lowest common denominator rubbish.

    Its very easy to tell if a brewery is craft or not, just taste their beer.

    Report
  • Comment Link Connor Wednesday, 23 September 2015 09:24 posted by Connor

    "Its very easy to tell if a brewery is craft or not, just taste their beer." No it's not because that's an entirely subjective judgment.

    Anyway, what use is a definition that lumps in producers of traditional, flavoursome bitter with producers of American-style IPAs for example? Both could lay claim to being 'craft' but are poles apart in terms of approach, objectives and what they're attempting to provide drinkers. Lumping them into the same category provides consumers with no real clarity.

    Without wanting to labour on the point re: Adnams and St Austell - one beer and one bar does not a craft brewer make. Adnams tend to market a certain segment of their beers as 'craft', mainly the Jack Brand stuff but don't apply the term to Southwold Bitter or Broadside. See here where Jonathan Adnams refers to craft as a sector rather than trying to claim his brewery is craft http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/04/brewer-adnams-keeps-up-with-craft-boom-with-more-beers He even distinguishes between craft and traditional cask, which has been Adnams bread and butter for much longer, all of which suggests they use craft as a marketing term rather than something that defines their identity. Even Thornbridge don't see themselves as a craft brewer - check Simon Webster's reply to me on Twitter for evidence of that.

    Then there's all manner of German brewers who don't claim to be craft but produce beer that could be considered full of flavour. Some on an industrial scale.

    Anyway, I'm going to leave it there because we're just going to go round in circles ad infinitum.

    Report
  • Comment Link py Wednesday, 23 September 2015 10:45 posted by py

    Its no more "subjective" than being able to tell the difference between a hamburger and a fillet steak. Craft beer and commodity beer have completely different tastes and people drink them for completely different purposes.

    I feel like you're an outsider looking in on the British beer scene and trying to guess at what is going on but getting it hopelessly wrong. You've bought into this silly misunderstanding of craft beer as being all about brewers in silly hats and massively hoppy IPAs.

    If you think its such a useless term, why did we invent it?

    Report
  • Comment Link Jonny Friday, 02 October 2015 09:35 posted by Jonny

    Craft beer is dead. We're brewing artisan beer now.

    Report

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.