Mega mega white thing

Boak and Bailey have picked up the “craft beer” banner again, and put up a page explaining what they mean by the term.

When we say craft beer, we mean a group of beers, including many real ales, which, in our view, are a good thing and deserving of respect.

(Emphasis in original.)

That’s the short version; the longer version consists of a list of criteria, mainly applying to the brewery, and headed

Craft breweries and craft beers will have some of the following characteristics.

(Emphasis not in original.)

I have to say, I think this is all a bit of a waste of effort. Unless I’m talking about the American brewing scene – where the term came from, and where it arguably makes some sense – I never use the phrase “craft beer”, for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s divisive. At least, it’s been used – in Britain – in ways that are openly and deliberately divisive, by people who make a point of displaying contempt for large parts of the beer scene, and I think it carries overtones of this kind of usage. B&B write elsewhere:

If people just starting out on beer happen to get all excited about Guinness, or crazily hoppy American IPAs, we should be encouraging them, not sneering.

I agree entirely, but when I hear the words ‘craft beer’ I hear sneering. Specifically, I hear something very like the “what’s the matter, Lagerboy” snobbery of old, only this time it’s aimed at boring brown beer, people who drink boring brown beer, people who like (supposedly boring) brown beer, people who don’t like double IPAs, people who don’t like imperial stouts, people who don’t like ‘craft keg’, Colin Valentine, the CAMRA executive and CAMRA members in general. “Lagerboy” snobbery was crazy because it was alienating the very people who CAMRA needed to win over, but this new brand of snobbery is even worse – it’s alienating the minority of people who are already into good beer.

Secondly, it’s incredibly imprecise. Read literally, B&B’s long definition implies that the only breweries that aren’t ‘craft breweries’ are those that have none of the listed characteristics; and, since one of them is “They brew cask- or bottle-conditioned beer”, this in turn implies that all real ale brewers are ‘craft brewers’ – as well as some that don’t produce real ale. (I know I’m being a pedantic pain in the backside here, but that’s what definitions are for. If you’re defining quality X, you have to be able to say when something is not-X.)

Thirdly, it’s unnecessary. I don’t insist on bottle-conditioning when I’m buying bottled beer, and I can’t really get behind the idea that bottle-conditioned beer is “real ale in a bottle” (brewery-conditioned beer would be “keg in a bottle”, presumably). I’ve been drinking Old Tom on a fairly regular basis since I first discovered it; the cask is better, of course, but the brewery-conditioned bottled version is still one of the greats. So when Bailey comments that “if you don’t think ‘real ale’ captures every beer worth being excited about, ‘craft beer’, however compromised and crap, is the current best alternative”, I can’t agree – not because I’ve got a better solution, but because I don’t believe there’s a problem.

No, ‘real ale’ doesn’t capture every beer worth being excited about; it never did. Not all great beer is real ale; not all real ale is great beer. If you want to talk about a great beer that doesn’t qualify as real ale, I can’t see what’s stopping you.


  1. John Clarke
    Posted 15 November, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink | Reply

    Utterly agree with every single word of this. Care to adapt it into an article for Opening Times?

  2. Posted 15 November, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink | Reply

    “this in turn implies that all real ale brewers are ‘craft brewers’ – as well as some that don’t produce real ale.”

    Yes, that’s what we’re saying — that *we* would probably regard as a craft brewer anyone taking the time and trouble to make cask- or bottle-conditioned beer, even if we don’t like it.

    Having now expressed and re-expressed what we mean, and why we find even this imprecise term useful, I guess we find ourselves “agreeing to disagree”?

  3. Posted 15 November, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink | Reply

    A very well-argued post which makes your objections clear. If the fundamental point is you don’t think a term is needed, we can’t really argue with that.

    A couple of points though, in case it wasn’t clear from our original post;

    (1) it’s what we, personally, mean when we use the term craft beer, so I take your point about some people loading the term with snobbishness, but that’s their lookout. We could have used another term altogether (cerveza artesanal…)

    (2) We think it’s useful to have some kind of answer if one if your friends comes along
    and asks “what’s all this craft beer stuff I keep hearing about?”

    (3) As you say, old-fashioned ale brewers make craft beer in our definition. We agree entirely.

    • Phil
      Posted 15 November, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink | Reply

      In that case, why isn’t it “a group of beers, including all real ales”? Are there any corporate, non-craft, real ale brewers?

      At the end of the day I think the only thing we disagree about is the name – in the British context I don’t think it’s worth reclaiming. (Your post might get some interesting reactions on BeerAdvocate, on the other hand.) In the unlikely event that anyone asked me about “craft beer”, I’d say “well, it doesn’t really mean anything, but let me tell you about Hydes and Thwaites and Robinson’s, and Marble and Thornbridge and Magic Rock, and see if you like this one…” Pretty much the same as I’d do if someone asked me about ‘folk‘.

      • Posted 15 November, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        I think we’re sticking with it because it’s a neat package of two words, and it gets us on the same page as people all over the world who like beer, even if we then end up having a barney over the detail of what it means.

  4. Posted 15 November, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink | Reply

    There is an increasing path divergence in beer caused I think by some of the things you identify Phil. I won’t go into it here, but it is the subject of a blog post I’m working on.

    I agree with all that you say and think that B&B do raise an interesting point in saying “what’s all this craft beer stuff I keep hearing about?”. I’ll deal with that in my post too.

  5. Posted 15 November, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    Many breweries, even up to and including Greene King (as mentioned in the B&B blogpost), have “craft” and “non-craft” elements, so you can’t really sort them out into two distinct camps. “Craft beer” really is a pretty meaningless term that effectively just means whatever the user wants it to mean.

    • Posted 15 November, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink | Reply

      And that’s why we’ve set out what *we* mean when we use it for the purpose of our blog posts. I think if we were entering into a contract based on the definition of craft beer, we’d want something more definite, but for the purpose of an informal conversation, it works for us.

  6. Posted 15 November, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Come to think of it I very seldom use the terms ‘real ale’ or ‘craft beer’. ‘Cask beer’ and ‘bottled beer’ work for me, and there’s always ‘keg beer’ and ‘canned beer’ for those of that persuasion.

  7. Posted 11 December, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink | Reply

    Even from my little beery outpost (a small startup online beer store on the other side of Europe), this whole thing is becoming a bore. The terms ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer are being wielded in the UK as weapons by people with an agenda.

    But frankly, no one else cares.

    Whatever you prefer to call it, quality beer is quality beer. It’s beer made up to a standard, not down to a price. And we should all be joyous, whenever and however we encounter it – regardless of whether or not it aligns itself with the precepts of some slick marketing plan, fogeyish orthodoxy, petty snobbery or other.

  8. kenanddot
    Posted 22 August, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t think it follows that only a brewery that met none of the characteristics would fail to be a craft brewer. Boak and Bailey appear to be advocating a Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance’ account of craft beer, ie while nothing is necessary and sufficient for being a craft brewery, craft breweries have certain common features, and anything with SUFFICIENTLY many of those features is itself a craft brewery. Craft breweries will resemble other craft breweries more than they resemble noncraft breweries. I think that’s the idea anyway.

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