I write for the trade publication Off Licence News. They're good enough to let me write more or less what I want, as long as it's related to retail. Although the main news pages are always up to date, the "industry comment" sections aren't. So below is the column that was published today. It's not really so much about craft beer, more how that beer is enjoyed, and how that impacts on the marketplace.
What I will say is that there is something about beer that makes people exceptionally passionate about what they believe, even in the face of reason. For what I consider to be one of the text-book examples of the chest-beating that gets aired whenever we beer geeks get aggravated, see this thread on Tom Cannavan and Roger Protz's Beer-Pages.com. And stone me if I don't find much to agree with in one of Cooking Lager's recent posts, not to mention Phil at Oh Good Ale.
I'm not "doing a Kevin" and not asking brewers to brew beer within narrow constraints. Quite the reverse, I'm celebrating diversity, and trying to underline the fact that, from the bottom to the top, the British brewing scene is as lively and diverse and stuffed full of passionate people as it ever has been. That's what the SIBA's "Proud of British Beer" video is about - sure it's a plea to the Chancellor to stop shafting the industry via punitive taxes, but it's also about the incredible diversity in beer at the moment. With very few exceptions, the brewing community is tightly-knit and celebrates that diversity. How come the consumers don't?
Anyway, here's the column in full - I hope it provokes some thought and comment.
There's a discussion rumbling around the beer blogosphere at the moment that is related to the rise in interest in American craft beer. The nice thing about American craft beer, apart from it being as tasty as hell, is that it has both a standardised definition by the American Brewers Association, and also by shorthand use. The ABA's definition relates to volume of production and an emphasis on flavourful beer. It's basically set up to talk about tasty beer from largely small, largely independently owned breweries.
But the problem that has arisen is that a lot of vocal beer geeks (and I use that term with love, and recognition that I am one) have started using the term 'craft beer' to talk about the rise in American-influenced beer brewed in the UK. Whereas a few years ago, we had premium bottled ale, and even super-premium bottled ale, now we find that these terms aren't enough to describe the rise in small-production, American-accented beers.
The big problem comes because nobody can define what craft means in a UK context. Whereas 'real ale' has a text-book definition, pertaining to the beer's method of storage and maturation, there is a big problem when you start bandying the term 'craft' around, as it seeks to exclude a tranche of the brewers in the UK who are producing perfectly decent British beer.
The joy of British beer is that it draws on a long heritage, has been gently influenced over the centuries by improvements in brewing practices and, lets not forget, the introduction of hops in the 15th century from mainland Europe. It's quite apparent to anyone who drinks (for example) a Greene King IPA, and then a BrewDog Punk IPA, that these two beers are dancing to two very different soundtracks. In my opinion, both have a place in the repertoire of the beer drinker. Many disagree about being so eclectic, and both of these beers that draw on the IPA moniker have their vocal champions, and also their vociferous denouncers. But that doesn't mean that one has more right to be brewed, or drunk, than another.
But this is where the 'craft' argument starts to unravel. BrewDog are seen as craft brewers by what I'm going to call the crafterati, producing bold, American influenced beers with an iconoclastic streak. The crafterati see Greene King as a dinosaur brewery, making boring beer for boring people. Of course, they conveniently overlook the fact that Greene King have been wood-ageing beers since Noah was a boy, and not in a way that gives a beer the seductive, easy-to-understand polish of the bourbon barrel, but in a huge vat, blackened by time, gently sending beer sour and being blended to produce a classic old ale.
The crafterati are producing a division in the beer world, seeking to endorse some beers and denounce others, sanction some breweries and our scorn on the rest. In its most complex iteration, the crafterati will divide a brewery's output into craft and non-craft – see for example, the smaller volume output of Stuart Howe at Sharp's brewery vs. Sharp's flagship brand (and undoubtedly Molson Coors' target in the recent takeover) Doom Bar. Doom Bar, ordinary brown bitter – Monsieur Rock, high-concept craft beer.
As you can tell from my vague distancing myself from the crafterati, I'm not sure that this point of view is an entirely welcome development in beer appreciation in the UK. But from a retail perspective, it's important to understand how the marketplace is changing. What you decide to do with that understanding, however, is up to you.