The term ‘craft beer‘ gets chucked around literally more than ‘literally’. No one seems to know exactly what it means, and I can’t claim to either. But the great thing about the Internet is that you can throw your opinion out there and I thought I’d partake. I will explore different definitions and how they came about and asking whether craft beer is defined by the product and method or that maybe it’s just a marketing tool.
The emergence of the term ‘craft beer‘ has been borne out of our love for real ale, which has grown rapidly over the past three decades, helped immensely by the passing of the Beer Orders in 1989. We now have microbreweries popping up across the country on a weekly basis. Many of them claim to be craft breweries.
The definition of a craft is “an activity involving skill in making things by hand”. Running a brewery takes immense skill and knowledge, but doesn’t require your hands more than any other profession per se. This blog isn’t called a craft blog because I’ve used my hands to type it. So we have to look a little deeper.
Let’s look to the States, after all, they are a fountain of constant wisdom and guidance from which all countries should learn, right? The U.S. Brewers Association defines it quite simply. A craft brewery must be:
There we go. That was easy. Job done.
Brewdog is probably the most well recognised craft brewery in the UK. You google ‘craft beer’ and they come up on the first page, three times for me. In their mission statement they say they “challenge bored British palletes”. Those bored British palletes who’ve had to put up with dull, weak flavoured best bitters for too many years. Traditional best bitters. Surely they can’t fit the description if they actively advertise as opposing that tradition.
And then we take the example of Blue Moon. It’s marketed as ‘North American Craft Beer’ on the pump clip. It is one of the best selling beers in the States and now owned by Molson Coors: one of the biggest brewing companies in the world. So that’s not really small or independent.
So, here we are, back on this square one that we all know so well. I suppose now would be a great time to inflict my opinion on you.
I think it’s fair to say that in the UK, craft beers are usually perceived to:
- break the mould
- use international hops
- be served from kegs (cold and slightly fizzy)
And probably a few more conceptions. Camra, (Campaign for Real Ale, who were the organisation that lobbied against big breweries taking over all pubs and serving generic beer from kegs eventually leading to Beer Orders) appeared at first to be against craft beer. I think this was mainly because the U.S. had taken our real ale, developed it, put it in kegs and sold it as craft beer. Camra saw the method and were instantly unimpressed because they had fought so hard against kegging beer.
Camra were wrong. The ‘Big 6’ breweries in the UK had kegged beer to save costs and to try and fit into the new lager drinkers mouth. They formed an oligopoly and Camra fought against this power that was stifling the beer market.
The Americans were, dare I say, pioneering. They were creating a product that was interesting, new and bold. They were putting into kegs because they:
- give beer a longer life (useful to brewers as they can play around a bit more, be experimental, but not be under pressure to sell quickly)
- are easier to transport (a benefit in U.S. because of their size)
- are easier to look after in pubs (more appealing for landlords and gives brewers confidence that their beer will keep its quality)
It does mean they’re colder and lightly carbonated, like drinking a lager but with ale flavours.
A few brave UK breweries adopted this storage and service method. Again to use Brewdog as an example: they started with cask beer on hand pumps but have moved over to kegs, and they were the ones to bring this into the mainstream.
Camra were a movement that evolved to fight a monopolisation on the bar. They fought so we could have the selection we have today. They fought for the progression we’ve made. They now need to understand that keg doesn’t mean what it used to, if anything, there’s been a role reversal and now the breweries kegging are the pioneers.
But I digress. It would be unfair to say that craft beer is only kegged. I think that craft beer – and here we are, finally getting to the point – can be put to any pint (or 2/3) that is exploring new techniques, creating original beers and developing the trade. Beers with a punch, beers with big flavour.
Do the breweries have to be small? No. But small breweries are the only ones succeeding because larger, older breweries are struggling to understand the movement.
From the Guardian, Saturday 21 March 2015:
“The difference between us and the big guys is that they’re not beer people. I don’t believe they even drink beer,” says Richard Burhouse, founder of Magic Rock [UK craft brewery] “They might be able to brew decent beer, but they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. They’re just trying to protect their market share; it doesn’t come from within. They’re always responding to the market, and that’s why they’re always late. If they really cared about beer, they’d have done it earlier.”
Craft brewers create beer borne out of passion, large breweries out of profit & loss accounts.
There is a lot to be said for craft beer. But in my opinion, it is still real ale. Just real ale that been rebranded by the US because it’s what our Dad drinks. How can such a ‘traditional’ and ‘boring’ Dad-drink appeal to a beard-wearing, fixie-riding, tattoo-donning hipster? It can’t, but craft beer can.
What do you think?
Written by Peter Gibbs