Doubledoublegood! Doubledoublegood!

Q: What’s a craft beer?
A: Nobody really knows. However, there is a standard definition of a craft brewer, which goes something like this:

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

So a craft brewer is a brewer that’s smallish, independent and doesn’t use loads of maize and rice and evil stuff like that. Since the point of calling a brewer a ‘craft brewer’ is to give them a seal of approval, we can add a fourth quality: a craft brewer is one of the brewers that produce the good stuff.

Of course, this doesn’t get you very far with identifying whether the beer on the bar in front of you is a Craft Beer or not. But there’s a bigger problem, which is that – as Barm points out – this definition derives directly from the history of brewing in the USA, which is very different from the history of brewing in Britain. To put it another way, rolling size, independence, tradition and quality into one concept works pretty well in the US context, where – for historical reasons – high-quality and traditional beers do tend to come from small and independent brewers. It’s a very poor fit to Britain, where high-quality brewing, traditional brewing, independent brewing and small-scale brewing are four separate things. If you can get all four at once, so much the better, but mass-produced corporate high-quality traditional brews have their place – and for most of us it’s a place some way ahead of low-volume independent horrors.

Further down the same page, the plot thickens.

* The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.

What’s interesting about this is that there’s no obvious reason for it to be there: there’s no logical connection between independence/tradition/quality/size and feeling the need to dick about adding unique twists to perfectly good styles[1]. If the main definition reflects US beer history, this point reflects US beer culture, and in particular the dominance of extremophilia. (As I wrote a while back, the phrase ‘craft beer’ is “strongly associated with a focus on extremes: strong is good, hoppy is good, weird is good, but stronger, hoppier and weirder are better”.) For whatever reason, this stress on ‘innovation’ (and general dicking-about) is definitely part of the informal meaning of ‘craft beer’; indeed, this is probably the most important part of the definition for the most infuriating brewers in the world[2], among others. People talk a lot about boring bland brown real ales – even to the extent of suggesting that real ale needs as big a kick as CAMRA gave keg beer in the 70s – but the stuff people regard as ‘craft beer’ is never described as boring or bland (and very rarely as brown).

So what have we got? A mess, is what we’ve got. “Craft beer is beer brewed by small independent breweries” – bad luck, Stuart. “Craft beer is beer made using traditional methods” – that’s just about every non-corporate brewery in Britain covered. “Craft beers are beers made with passion, with heart, with commitment” – what does this actually mean, and what does it have to do with whether the beer’s any good? (Can’t a production line operation produce good beer? Can’t a passionate, committed real ale enthusiast produce utter dreck?) Ironically, just about the only part of the definition that does work in the UK is the part about innovation: craft brewers are the brewers who interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent. So that’s, er, BrewDog, and about three other breweries. (A shout out here for Dave, who for my money is doing precisely this and making it work rather better than those pretentious Scots – and with a lot less fanfare.) But even that is problematic, because of the implication that ‘craft beer’ means quality – and anyone who’s not producing ‘craft beer’ (which, on this definition, is about 95% of British breweries) is a lower form of life. It’s as if we were to say that Robinson’s were a boring old family concern churning out the same old real ale, until they started producing Chocolate Tom – and as that put a unique twist on the historic style, they were immediately elevated to the ranks of craft brewers. Clearly, this wouldn’t make much sense.

Two final points, picking up on comments on Mark’s post. One commenter writes: “The problem is that times have changed, and real ale isn’t the only decent beer readily available in the UK anymore.” But it never was! There are – and always have been – a number of non-conditioned bottled beers which any ‘real ale’ fan would be happy to drink; there has had to be. (When I first got into real ale there was only one bottle-conditioned beer on the market – Worthington White Shield – and that was almost impossible to find.) Nobody’s ever felt the need to refer to bottled Old Tom as ‘craft beer’; nobody but a few conditioning bigots has ever thought that it was diminished by not being real ale. Good beer is good beer, and not all of it is real ale; real ale is real ale, and (alas) not all of it is good beer. This is a non-problem.

Relatedly, Barm asks the pertinent question

What is wrong with “good”? It seems a much more useful category to me, in that it actually tells me whether the beer is likely to taste nice.

to which Mark replies: “And who decides to label it good or bad? Can one person speak on behalf of everyone? It’s similar with craft beer as a term but at least that has an overarching meaning, not just a consideration of deliciousness.” To which I can only say, no it doesn’t. It hasn’t got a meaning, it’s got a bundle of connotations – quality of beer, size and independence of brewery, ‘commitment’ from the brewer, use of weird and different recipes – and they aren’t even connotations that fit together well.

In practice the term “craft beer”, in the UK, hardly ever means anything more than “beer I like, made by brewers I like”; on the rare occasions it does mean something more, it seems to mean “beer which is particularly good because it’s ridiculously strong/undrinkably bitter/macerated with raspberries/all of the above”. At best it’s a marketing label which imparts a vague warm glow to the subject of beer; at worst it’s misleading and divisive. I say we drop it. Here’s to good beer, even if it’s made by apathetic brewers working for mega-corporations! Here’s to good beer[1], even if it’s a malty 3.8% bitter made the same way it always has been! Here’s to good beer, even if it’s in a can on a supermarket shelf[3]!

[1] A CAMRA member writes: Make me a good dark mild, O breweries of Britain. Never mind the coffee and the chocolate and the winter spices and the summer fruits and the honey and the ginger and the rosemary and thyme. Just make me a good dark mild, a good 4% bitter, a good pale ale, a good stout and if you’re feeling ambitious a good porter. And in winter, a good old ale. I ask for nothing more – except, of course, the chance to try more than one good 4% bitter, etc, etc; I can arrange this myself, by sampling the products of more than one brewery. PS Don’t forget the dark mild – I haven’t had a good one in ages.
[2] I’d much rather just ignore them, but they make such bloody good beer. (On cask, at least.)
[3] Shurely shome mishtake? – Ed.

Update The Curmudgeon has, I think, nailed the working definition of ‘craft beer’ in comments over at Ed’s:

craft beer is beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to “beer enthusiasts”. What counts is not the size of the brewery, or whether the beer is any good, but the intention of the brewer.

In reply, Ed commented that “craft” means more than those few breweries that “brew with the beer nerd in mind”, which is a fair point. But I think part of what gets people excited about the likes of Marble, Thornbridge, Dark Star and Kernel is the impression (in some cases the certain knowledge) that the brewers are beer nerds: they like the kind of thing beer nerds like, and they brew the kind of thing they like. And, while beer nerds like lots of different beers, craft beer stands for the type[s] and style[s] of beer that nerds are particularly likely to like (in some cases because the rest of the world is conspicuous by its absence).

What’s interesting about this is that, while it fits in well with criticisms of the cliquishness and in-groupery of the ‘craft beer’ scene, it’s also not a million miles away from at least one of the definitions Mark sketched out in his more positive post on the concept:

Craft beer means beer made for a more discerning audience than the mass-market beers that ubiquitously line bars around the world.

Craft beer is beer made for people who like craft beer. That’s not a tautology, it’s a feedback loop: (via): the more tickers rave about a certain approach to beer, the more they’ll get it, and the more they get it, the more they’ll rave about the latest and best examples. And so it will roll on, becoming steadily more distant from the world of real ale, let alone the larger world of beer-drinkers. Me, I’ll be happy with a nice pint.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted 12 February, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

    You’re quite right, it’s a largely meaningless term with a strong whiff of snobbery and élitism about it.

  2. Posted 13 February, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink | Reply

    Excellent post which I almost entirely agree with Phil.

    Excellent comment Mudgie. As above, particularly in the UK context. And regrettably becoming more and more so.

  3. Posted 13 February, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink | Reply

    Nice piece, Phil. Here’s to good beer :)

    I do think craft beer has a different usage in the UK to the US, even if it’s inspired from there. My argument is to use it as a ‘marketing term’ because I think it can make some beers more approachable for those, especially younger drinkers, who haven’t tried it before. Real ale doesn’t have a good image, but craft beer could. Either way it’s been fun to see the discussions on the topic.

    • Mike
      Posted 16 February, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink | Reply

      Believing that a ‘marketing term’ will have more traction with ‘especially younger drinkers’ is a rather sad and pessimistic view of young people. Marketing is intended for the benefit of the marketer, not the consumer. Are young people so cloistered or ignorant that when they hear or read ‘this is great’ they will run out and buy it?

      I suggest that, instead of trying to entice young people to a false promise, that you instead talk about good beer. The kind we can all drink and enjoy.

  4. Posted 13 February, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Perhaps the beer landscape would be healthier if people in general paid less attention to marketing?

  5. Posted 13 February, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Mark – Of course “Real Ale doesn’t have a good image” is a debatable point which you speak of as fact. It may be correct to say that real ale doesn’t have a good image with some, but that in itself wouldn’t explain why real ale is the growing sector of British beer. What you may really be hinting at is that it doesn’t have a good image with home drinking, bottled beer snobs.

    This is quite a problem in my view. I am glad to see in the blogosphere (following your request for debate) that there is a fair backlash against it.

    Perhaps you should be less concerned with image and marketing? This taint of elitism and snobbery is going to drag down the very cause you appear to espouse.

    • Posted 13 February, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Phil, Good points right through. I’m not sure I agree totally, but very well put points none-the-less. Thanks for the name check too.

      Tandleman, I can’t see how snobbery and elitism is going to drag down the very cause. I think it’s very much what is needed.

      • Posted 13 February, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        If you can’t beat’em, join’em I’m sure, but if you support the Marie Antoinette argument and see and wish elitism and snobbery for beer consumption, then I am sorely disappointed.

        If you think that, then all is on the way to being lost. I feel really glum now.

    • Phil
      Posted 13 February, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

      What you may really be hinting at is that it doesn’t have a good image with home drinking, bottled beer snobs.

      Which may actually be a problem, if (I don’t know one way or another) more people are discovering good beer through the bottle than the beer pump.

  6. Posted 13 February, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Good stuff Phil, pointing out the feedback loop makes things clearer.

  7. Billy Cheer
    Posted 16 February, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink | Reply

    The lunatics have got hold of the keys to the spice cupboard approach to beer.

    Beret wearing beer beatniks, so extreme, punks not dead do you dig my shemagh.

    Mutton dressed as lamb, the Noel Edmunds look is down with the yoof man. An anecdote to the hobbyist image of real ale is to take it even more seriously and make it more elitist and boring, a siege mentality, a fight against CAMRA! They’ll dig it! The kids will love it!

    Give me a break! At least the Jesse in the sandals can talk about trains as well.

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