Monthly Archives: September 2012

Thank God you’re here, Captain Pedantic!

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 brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to “beer enthusiasts”

“craft” means “beer like what hobbyists and homebrewers make, except done more properly”

Craft beer is beer made for people who like craft beer. That’s not a tautology, it’s a feedback loop
me (18 months ago)

I’ve spent far too much time on this blog going on about the concept of ‘craft beer’, and I don’t want to spend any more time on it than I can help. But here’s a slightly different angle, suggested by some comments over at Tandleman’s. Four points:

  1. ‘Craft beer’ is an imported concept; it originated in the US.
  2. In the US it’s defined primarily in terms of the size and independence of the brewery and the use of traditional ingredients.
  3. This definition doesn’t work in the UK: applied literally it would mean that Holt’s RegalCrystal Lager is ‘craft’ and Worthington White Shield isn’t.
  4. We haven’t imported the concept of ‘craft beer’ at all; all we’ve done is import a two-word phrase.

Step 4 is the lightbulb moment. That’s why it’s so hard to arrive at a definition of ‘craft beer’ in the UK: in the UK, it has no definition. It’s got a hole where a definition ought to be – or rather, where the original definition used to be.

What’s happened as a result is what always happens when a group of people start using a term without any definition: it’s been defined by how it’s used, and especially by the people who use it. ‘Craft beer’ drinkers are the people who see themselves as drinkers of craft beer. ‘Craft beer’ is the kind of beer craft beer drinkers like, and ‘craft brewers’ are the brewers who cater to them.

And, er, that’s it. That’s all there is to it.

How hard can it be?

A few days ago B&B linked to this CAMRA-bashing piece from last April. I remember reading it at the time and thinking that, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the argument about CAMRA, the author came across as the barman from hell –

“Expensive, is it, sir? That’s because this is craft beer, not like the warm stale piss sir is probably accustomed to drinking. I do beg sir’s pardon, warm stale cask piss. No, I’m afraid sir may not have a ‘top-up’, and no, sir is not entitled to ask for one. Glad to be of assistance, sir. Now might I suggest that sir shuts his malodorous pie-hole, drinks his beer, appreciates it as best he can and then buggers off back to the nearest Wetherspoons? Wouldn’t want them to start their Curry Night without you, sir.”

(On reflection I probably enjoyed that a bit too much.)

Re-reading the post now, anyway – and whatever about the rights and wrongs of the argument about CAMRA – I was struck by the line highlighted below:

Beer lovers across the country probably have the largest range of choice they’ve ever been able to enjoy. Cask, keg, bottle, and the finest imports from across the globe. CAMRA should be refocusing on this, how difficult would it be to promote just good beer? (#CAMRGB) Make a few definitions about cask conditioned ale, craft keg beers, and get people back into pubs enjoying these great offerings from an ever increasing range of quality homegrown breweries. Neither side of this debate are in any doubt what they think about mass produced, adjunct laden, lagers and the like.

There you go, that’s all you need to do: define cask conditioned ale and define craft keg, then campaign for both of them. Oh, wait, apparently cask conditioned ale already has a definition – well, two or three definitions, depending on what you think about cask breathers, Fast Cask and so on and so forth. More importantly, we know how it’s defined; nobody’s going to pop up at this stage of the game and say that all true cask beer is drawn from the wood, or brewed in Burton, or sparkled, or whatever. Cask ale is cask ale because of something to do with live yeast and a continuing process of fermentation (I can be less specific).

So all we need to do now is define craft keg.




To be fair, there have been attempts to define craft beer – boy, have there been attempts to define craft beer. To be unfair again, they’ve been lousy. Using expensive ingredients and/or not using cheap ingredients seems to be the main factor that’s actually measurable; beyond that you’re into a lot of blather about passion and authenticity. But all of that’s beside the point, because what we need here is a definition of craft keg: something that sets craft keg apart from (say) John Smith’s Smooth, and if possible does so in a way that will make sense to people who understand the definition of cask-conditioned ale. (So “craft keg: it’s brewed exclusively on Tuesdays by men called Keith” wouldn’t work, even if it was true. (I assume it’s not true. How would I know?))

Here’s CAMRA’s official line on keg beer:

No, here’s CAMRA’s official line on keg beer:

Keg beer undergoes the same primary fermentation as real ale but after that stage it is filtered and/or pasteurised. No further conditioning can therefore take place. It is known in the brewing trade as ‘brewery-conditioned’ beer. The beer lacks any natural carbonation which would have been produced by the secondary fermentation and so carbon dioxide has to be added artificially. This leads to an over gassy product. Today some keg beers have a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide added; these are known as nitro-keg beers.

Now, I’ll assume that brewers of craft keg beer – Lovibond’s, Magic Rock, Camden, those sorts of outfit – don’t mess around with pasteurisation. Presumably they filter out every last nano-speck of yeast, so the beer’s flat as ink and no further conditioning can take place, and then gas up the liquid, chill it under pressure to slightly below freezing and squirt it out of a tin.

Or do they?

How accurate is CAMRA’s definition when it comes to “craft keg” – apart from pasteurisation, is there anything else ‘craft’ brewers just don’t do? Is there a “craft keg” line on filtration – do craft brewers leave some of the residual yeast in? What about gas and refrigeration?

I’d love to get answers to those questions, but I’m not holding my breath. Real ale advocates may not be able to give a single definitive answer to the question of what real ale is, but they can at least have an argument with a shared set of premises. I don’t know if the craft keg crowd have even thought about what does and doesn’t qualify as “craft keg”, beyond generally agreeing that Magic Rock Cannonball is in and Carling Black Label is out. I’m not convinced that a definition is possible, but it would be really nice to have.

Here’s another question: let’s say we take beer that’s ready to rack in casks and put it in kegs instead – no filtering, certainly no pasteurisation. I’m guessing that that would still count as ‘keg’ because of the CO2. But what about if the beer’s never in contact with the gas, perhaps because it’s inside a collapsible bag within a pressurised container? Given the appropriate number of ppm of yeast in suspension, would that still be keg? Why, or why not?

Incidentally, as a kid I remember being told by two different people – aged about five and ten years older than me – that they were happily drinking keg as teenagers when an “old bloke” at the bar told them to try something decent and converted them to real ale on the spot (in one case with the words “You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin!”). I don’t think either of them was making it up. Presumably this sort of encounter, later immortalised in Nick Hancock’s ad for Randall’s (of Jersey), was happening up and down the country in the late 60s and early 70s; CAMRA could build on a real, if elderly, cask ale rear-guard.

That special offer

Most of my beer purchases these days are from the supermarket. I’m not complaining – you can get some good stuff these days – but there is a certain kind of beer that seems to find its way into my stash and then stay there for rather a long time. I’m talking about 3-for-2 offers and the like, and the kind of decent but unexciting beer that usually feature in them.

So: note to self. Next time I’m in the ‘ale’ section, don’t buy

Thwaites Double Century
Marston’s Oyster Stout
Ringwood Old Thumper
Theakston’s Old Peculier
Fuller’s 1845
St Austell Tribute

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these – they even come in brown glass. I just don’t find myself looking at them, days or weeks later, and thinking “oh good, I’m glad I got one of those“. Same goes for

most other things by Thwaites
most other things by Marston’s
anything by Holt’s

To be clear, these aren’t bad bottled beers – that’s a different list (which I won’t give here). These ones are usually perfectly good. They’re just not very inspiring.

On the other hand (note to self continues), feel free to go mad and get some of these, three for two or no three for two:

Old Tom (original)
Guinness Foreign
Brakspear Triple
Timothy Taylor Landlord
anything by Adnam’s (even that weird blue thing, maybe)
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer
Thwaites Indus IPA
anything pale’n’oppy
anything that looks interesting, dammit

Perhaps I need to go back to getting beer from offies – our local Oddbins stocks Red Willow and Buxton, I noticed the other day. They don’t do three for two, though.

Update I’ve now been to the supermarket; I came back with
Old Tom
Adnam’s Broadside
a 6% own-brand porter brewed by Harviestoun
a silly-% own-brand DIPA, also brewed in Scotland
a Budvar Dunkel

costing an average of £1.25 each (!). So far the plan seems to be working. Nothing pale’n’oppy, though – maybe I need to brave the offie. (Or I could just go down the pub.)

Skim the cream off

For the last year I’ve been recording a folk song a week and uploading them to a site called 52 Folk Songs. As the name implies, my plan when I started it up was to keep going for a year. I’ve now reached week 52; over the last year I’ve uploaded something like 130 songs and taken up four different instruments* as well as the ones I played at the start**. Time for a bit of a breather, I think.

And there’s a beer connection. Well, sort of. As well as the 52 main weekly songs, I’ve been recording one or two extra songs a week, not all of them folk songs. This week the ‘non-folk’ selection was Ewan MacColl’s song Ballad of Accounting – a slightly unfortunate title, calling to mind somebody trying to be hearty and come-all-ye about double-entry book-keeping. Actually it’s not that kind of accounting. Not at all.

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?

The song’s a challenge thrown down to everyone who was ever born without a silver spoon in their mouth. As if to say: This life of yours, what did you make of it? And, most importantly: People wanted to keep you down – did you let them?

What’s it got to do with beer? This. Verse four:

Did you ever demand any answers,
The who and the what and the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy? Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight?

Did you settle for the shoddy? That, for me, is exactly what CAMRA came to combat – shoddy beer; more precisely, shoddy substitutes for decent beer. Decent beer is what I believed in when I first heard of CAMRA, and what I still believe in now – decent beer for everyone. Which is also why I try to avoid getting drawn into the world of the £12 bottle and the £5 half; I don’t think there’s a future for beer in letting them skim the cream off, even if I can sometimes be one of the ones doing the skimming. With Tim Martin a Kipper and Right-Libertarians making themselves heard on the smoking ban, it’s easy to forget how left-leaning the real ale scene was in the early days of CAMRA. But I think the founding ideas of CAMRA had a real affinity with the Left: it was all about the drinkers (not the brewers) and it was all about all the drinkers, not just the tickers and cognoscenti. There was a campaign for real ale, because real ale needed to be fought for – and it needed to be fought for because big business wasn’t on our side: there was too much money to be made out of not selling it and not brewing it in the first place. I read this evening (in comments at B&B) that the CAMRGB (look it up) holds that “it is important that a brewer makes their beer how they choose” – after all, “if the consumer doesn’t like it they won’t drink it”. The capitulation to the business point of view is total. Presumably, if a brewer wants to reduce the quality of their beer and spend the money on advertising, that’s OK too – people wouldn’t drink it if they didn’t like it.

This has come out a bit more Mr Angry than I intended – I guess that’s what comes of doing Ewan MacColl songs.

So, anyway: 52 Folk Songs. Featuring 52 traditional songs, 42 other traditional… shall I start this again? Featuring 94 traditional songs, 34 non-traditional songs, and some others that I haven’t kept tabs on. Also featuring me singing and playing a bunch of different instruments. Lots of multi-tracking. Lots of songs you probably don’t know. All good stuff, apart from this one Dylan song which didn’t come out quite… er, never mind. Basically, all good stuff. Check it out.

*Melodica, zither, concertina, ukulele.
**Flute, recorder, whistle(s), drums.