Monday, 18 June 2012

Flat Cap Beers Ted

I'll jump straight to the conclusion, because I'm going to use some words and voice some opinions here that may well spark a lively debate. I really like this beer, it's a classic English pale ale, with plenty of toffee, nuttiness and spicy, pithy bitterness - so much so that it might be said to be a modern take on a traditional style. It's bitter, edgy and pushes the envelope a bit. It's rad-trad, dad, and all the better for it. I don't like the branding one bit, but maybe that's just me. What I also find slightly jarring is the stab at contemporary branding while cocking a snook at traditional imagery. Is it post-ironic? Retro-modernism? I don't know, but I'm not keen.

Let's have a look at the label, shall we? Their tagline is "Flat Cap Beers: Top Notch Craft Beer". Hmm, craft beer. Well, it's beer, and it's been crafted, I suppose. Their take on the c-word is that it means "small scale and not mass produced, independent and created with human skill and care" - Flat Capper Andy Orr explained this to me in an email. Their Twitter feed adds to the debate: "Brewed in the West Country of England & the Czech Republic". Again, hmm. Am I being taken for a ride here? Am I getting the feeling I've been cheated? The other two beers in their core range - a Czech pilsner and a Czech dark lager - are still lagering in the Czech Republic. That makes them authentic continental craft beers, right?

Make no mistake, this is all rather rum. The knee-jerk response to this is that it is All Wrong, And Must Not Be Tolerated, Because, It's, Like, Not Very Craft Really, Is It? That would be too easy though. Think a bit harder. Know any brewers who brew great beer without owning a brewery? Let's call them gypsy brewers, make it sound more romantic. And do you know any craft breweries who, when suddenly faced by a huge surge in demand for their flagship beer, decided to have it contract brewed for them? Sorry to break it to you so harshly, but that's more common than you might think, and done by the most unlikely people. Some unwillingly admit to it when directly asked, others flatly deny it, but it happens. And every now and again, when a beer moves from a small plant to a big plant, with fancy modern gizmos like flow meters and hopniks, it gets better. How craft is that?!

Craft beer, authenticity, transparency - these are Big Ideas, but now I just don't know what to think. Care to help me out?

40 comments:

  1. I offer a simple two-step path to inner peace of mind.

    1. Ignore any statement or slogan using the word 'craft' as an adjective. You can forget the debates about what these phrases do or don't mean - or whether they mean anything at all - because as far as you're concerned they aren't even there. They've disappeared, like ads on Web pages when you install AdBlock. You won't miss them.

    2. Drink the beer. Ask yourself: is this beer any good? What's good about it? What's not so good? Is it a good beer? A great beer? Why? Have fun.

    PS If at any time you find yourself describing your conclusions by using 'craft' as an adjective, refer to step 1.

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    1. You're right of course, although perhaps one could apply the same school of thought to the word "punk". WOuld that be the same?

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    2. It certainly would if it was being slapped on bands as a badge of quality by managers, reviewers and record shops, which is more or less where we are with 'craft'.

      Punk works as a label because it's all about how the fans see it - and a lot of that is about what's not punk. The Clash were never punk after the second album. Naah, the Clash were never punk after the first album. Get out, the Clash were never punk at all. Punk died in 1978. Punk died in 1977. Punk never died, it just changed its uniform. The Exploited were plastic punks. The Desperate Bicycles were the true spirit of punk. Crass were the real punks... and so on. Never mind slagging CAMRA - if the craft beer scene were anything like punk, BrewDog would be slagging off Kernel, and vice versa.

      (If you ask me cLOUDDEAD were very punk, incidentally.)

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  2. The only reason you face this conundrum is that you're desperate for craft to mean something. Accept that it doesn't and you're just left with a good beer whose label you don't happen to like.

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    1. That's a fair observation, for sure

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  3. Phil has really beaten me to it. There are many and various strands of beer purists and fashionistas sloshing around the blogosphere and t'internet. They vary from radical traditionalists to your died in the wool craft keg fanboy. I'm starting to get rather tired of it all to be honest (although winding up extremists from either end of the spectrum remains one of like's simple pleasures).

    The first question is "do I like it?" followed by "it it a good beer?". If the answers are "yes" and "no" respectively then you can have a little struggle with your conscience. If on the other hand the answers are "no" and "yes" you can go on to ask "now, why is that?". To (tediously, I know) complete the picture - "no" and "no" it's down the sink and move on. On the other hand "yes" and "yes" - bliss.

    The question that too many seem to be bothered with these days is not "do I like it?" but "should I like it?". That way madness lies in my opinion.

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    1. And equally "am I supposed not to like it?"

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    2. Oh yes - "am I supposed to like it?" There are some breweries where (in parts of the blogoshpere at least) it is mandatory to like everything they make. Critical faculties not wanted here thank you very much.

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  4. Well clearly this is Freudian, as you are a flat cap wearer. That's where your inner conflict comes from. It's a self hate thing. You want to be in with the in crowd and are being held back by your inner Yorkshireman. Seek help on that front, get it sorted, then follow the advice of Phil, Barm and John and you will find that conflict within you has gone.

    Or you could try drawing a small beard on the label. That might work too.

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    1. Which reminds me of a student who challenged Freud on his love of cigars, which (the student claimed) pointed towards an oral fixation combined with some amusing phallic symbolism. Freud replied "Sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke"

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  5. Have they killed anyone or treated dogs badly, if so then ignore, but if the beer is good then enjoy. It’s all getting rather ridiculous.

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    1. Ah, the voice of reason, as ever, from Mr. ATJ.

      I understand that "craft" is a bit of a loaded word in the UK, and elsewhere, of course, but as with all language, we should be looking less at perceived abuses and more at uses. In other words, we need ask if the term has meaning for the average consumer? I'd say that yes, it does. It denotes a beer that sits well outside of the mainstream, or in the UK, outside of both the mainstream (ie: Carling, Stella, Smith's Extra Smooth) and CAMRA-ascribed "real ale."

      I see it as more a declaration of intent than a denotation of quality, as with music categories like the Blues, which give the average punter an idea of what to expect when they put on the cd or download the song. "Blues" does not tell me whether a song will be good or bad, or whether it's from a raw garage band, an incredibly talented unsigned artist or a slickly marketed mainstream performer; it just tells me what very general sort of music to expect.

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  6. Don't think the comparisons are fair between this marketing/branding company and gypsy brewers. Gypsy brewers are often creative brewers who simply don't have the money or desire to own their own equipment. Gypsy brewers often actually brew the beer! This beer has been brewed by another brewer in a brewery who sell their own beer, under there own brands. I imagine the only input the marketing company had was to brew a marketable product. Are we going to start commending Tesco or M&S for their own brand beers? They do work with brewers on recipes and brand them as their own, is that any different for what has happened here? We should be asking who brewed this, and if its any good complimenting the brewery.
    I think it is interesting that you, like I, don't think much of the label. This is surely the most input the marketing company has had in this product, does it show a lack of understanding of the industry?
    The question is really, do we need another tier in the industry? Removing us, the drinker further from the producer. Cheers Jimmy, Somerset.

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    1. Jimmy, good points all, and although I was being devils advocate, it does raise the question somewhat of transparency and authenticity. And oddly enough, yes, M&S and Tesco have won praise for their own label beers!

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  7. Send the beer to the official craft council and get it certified. Dredge will show you how to do that, he's on the committee.

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    1. Has the BGBW trademarked some kind of "this is craft" sticker? If not, I'll might go half with you. There's a real licensing opportunity here.

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    2. I was thinking of setting up "The craft council" with 3 grades of craft depending on how much free grog I got sent and how pissed I got. The grades were "Craft", "Awesome Craft" and "Goddamn Awesome Craft"

      Happy to go halves if we can get enough free grog to get both of us pissed.

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    3. How about this for the craft marque, I'm good with your grading idea.

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  8. The key might be in one of the tags you've given this post: transparency. If you don't know exactly where in the Czech Republic the lagers are brewed, or have a convincing story to tell about why that decision was made (cost or quality?), then the self-declared 'craft' status doesn't seem earned. Breweries who want to call themselves 'craft', rather than having that designation bestowed up on them by drinkers and enthusiasts, need to make a case. Otherwise, yes, it does just amount to marketing puff.

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  9. Hmmm Flat Cap brewery and Bank Top do Flat Cap beer. I smell a court case:)

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    1. Lawyers, like accountants are not allowed in "craft". It's not commercial. Think Brewdog.

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  10. We were very happy to let the debate run as it's all very interesting! However one thing we have always wanted to be is transparent so thought we should answer some of the questions being asked about Flat Cap Beers!
    TED is a unique recipe created by an authentic brewer called Paul Buttrick and brewed at the Salisbury Brewery by another authentic brewer called Rod Macdonald. Our Czech beer is being authentically brewed at the Zatec Brewery near Prague. Sadly we do not have the cash to build a brewery in this country, or the Czech Republic for that matter - but we can dream!
    I hate to disappoint but we are not a branding/marketing company - but am very happy to provide our CVs if anyone feels the need to check our authenticity ( for the record I previously was a gardener and then had some holiday cottages, Ken was a creative designer, and Paul is a brewer!)
    We wanted to brew high quality beer and this seemed like the best way to do it. Branding and use of vocabulary are subjective but surely the question is – ‘does the beer drinker want good beer or not?’
    Andy from Flat Cap Beers

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    1. I think your comments emphasis my point perfectly.

      I wasn't suggesting TED wasn't brewed by an authentic brewer. Just that the brewer and brewery have nothing to do with your company. Paul is a fantastic brewing consultant, but just that a consultant, and unless I'm mistaken nothing to do with your company.

      I'm not having a dig at the quality of the beer or what your doing personally. Just questioning whether we need this marketing/branding tier to the brewing industry?

      I personally don't see any difference between what your company does and what Tesco or Sailsbury's do. Which is, in essence, to brand a product which has been made for them. I don't have an issue with contract brewing. It's just most companies give credit on the bottle to the maker. Sainsbury's state brewed under contract by Meantime, Tesco co-brand their IPA with brewdog, and so on.

      As you say its about transparency. And giving credit where credit is due. If you don't see your company as a branding/marketing outfit, what is it?

      Jimmy

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  11. I don't really see a problem. Like Bailey says, calling it 'craft' is up to them, it's just a marketing term in the end because it's not regulated in any way.

    From Andy's explanation it seems a damn sight more authentic than some brewers who have a tendency to shout 'craft' very loudly at every opportunity. Good luck to Flat Cap, keep up the transparency, and I'll keep an eye open for your beers - on the recommendation of Zak's palate of course.

    PS. Can I have a Craft Marque T-shirt? Ta. ;)

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  12. So long as it's an authentic beer made by an authentic brewer in an authentic building sitting in an authentic country. None of this ICI chemical yellow disco fizz.

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  13. Most of what I wanted to say has been already.
    Just to add that I wish small brewers, who brew lovely beer, the best of luck. If their start up, or growth means using others equipment or expanding to large breweries, or contracting out... as long as their beer is still lovely, then good on them. Making more really good beer, creating opportunities for it to be more widely accessible, and perhaps drawing some some new people into drinking "craft" beer, should be celebrated. Without this, I'd have never been drawn into beer, and never tried anything from small independent breweries.
    As long as labelling is done honestly, and as long as smaller breweries are not stamped on of course!

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  14. This obsession with the word 'craft' is REALLY getting tedious now. I entered the beer blog world hoping that beer geeks might be less irritating than say, gaming geeks, but they're not - they have exactly the same sort of pointless circular arguments that go on and on.

    Leave 'craft' to the Americans and those publicity hungry Scottish chaps.

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    1. Olly, that's fair enough, but it's not actually the bloggers who coined the phrase, it was the brewers themselves! Geeks are geeks the world over. We like to take things apart and look at how they work.

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    2. While it may be the brewers themselves who coined the term (and I have a 1996 beer festival programme where one north west brewer refers to craft beeer), it the bloggers who have flogged it to death in a pointless and fruitless search for a definition or common standard. If I see one more blog post agonising about this I will...well I don't know but it won't be good.

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  15. The point is that this is ,as Jimmy put it, an 'industry' and there already is a marketing/branding tier within this industry whether you want it there or not . We call ourselves a beer company and have never professed to be a brewery - as far as the labeling goes it was the brewery who did not want to be on the labels not us! Yes - supermarkets collaborate and name the brewery but as Zak alluded too there are a number of beers that are not brewed where you might think they are! We are just trying to make good beers and if someone would be prepared to sort out the global economy soon then perhaps a bank will lend us the money to build our own real brewery ( craft built of course).
    Authentic Andy from Flat Cap Beers
    PS I love the Craft Marque T-shirt idea too - though not sure whether I'll be accepted in the club yet!

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    1. Thanks for breaking cover and chipping in, Andy!

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  16. cambrinus craft brewery has had the craft tag since the early nineties.
    the craft brewing association ( http://www.craftbrewing.org.uk/ ) has been going longer still...

    craft brewing is by nowhere means a new term it has however been slightly hi-jacked!

    regards, critch

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  17. A thing to bear in mind too is that terminology and graphical depictions in beer and beer advertising, as in any human endeavour, have always been variable, inconsistent, imprecise to a degree. For example, in the past it was common to see the depiction of a goat on the label of a bock beer, today perhaps less so at least outside Germany. But not all who made a bock beer used the image. Bock is spelled in different ways outside German even though a borrowed term, e.g. Bok in Holland, and there is (or was in Belgium) Dort for Dortmunder-style. Returning to bock, the term meant the opposite in France at one time to its usual meaning, it meant a mug of low-gravity beer.

    As regards the terms craft beer or craft brewery, some producers, and consumers, find value in the term, some don't, most drinkers probably don't mind one way or the other. It's down to individual preference on the vending and consuming sides as I see it. There is really no consistency again to the use of the term even in North America.

    Terms are often taken from usage elsewhere to try to suggest a specific quality or idea, that's how language, and commerce, develop. This is why Americans successfully used English terms such as Imperial Stout and stock ale and barley wine to convey an idea of the character of what they were selling. We all have our own ideas whether what is in the bottle lives up to the way the brewer describes it. Recently I had a beer labelled Black IPA that I thought wasn't one at all but I can't quarrel with the producer's term as these terms are not regulated, thankfully, by statute, people can use them as they wish. And it was a great beer!

    I believe it was Michael Jackson, in his earliest writings, who coined or at least publicized the term craft brewery, meaning a small-scale operation, and not necessarily a newly-established one. He meant the idea of a hands-on operation where ownership is directly interested in product attributes and quality. We know of course that a large operation which uses modern technology can also make great beer, e.g., Pilsner Urquell, so the craft idea shouldn't be restricted to that and surely Jackson would have agreed. (Being hands-on too doesn't necessarily mean making great beer, we all know that!).

    Thus, my view is, let people use the term as they see fit and the consumers will be the final arbiters of the merits of the product, as they always are.

    Gary

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    1. We know of course that a large operation which uses modern technology can also make great beer, e.g., Pilsner Urquell, so the craft idea shouldn't be restricted to that and surely Jackson would have agreed. (Being hands-on too doesn't necessarily mean making great beer, we all know that!).

      Can I just play that back?

      "Craft" = small hands-on breweries
      "Craft" is good
      BUT
      Large hi-tech breweries can also make great beer
      THEREFORE
      Large hi-tech breweries may also be "craft"
      BUT
      Small hands-on breweries sometimes make mediocre beer
      THEREFORE
      er...

      Can we just go back to saying "this beer is good"?

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  18. Sure - I started by saying that the term craft is not precise, used erratically, and can mean different things. Let the buyer decide if the producer's use is justified - I decide every day in the products I buy. And, I didn't say "craft is good", I said craft generally means a small-scale operation where the ownership is hands-on. (This is not to say in general, craft-scale brewing doesn't trump industrial-scale in quality, of course it does, or IMO).

    Gary

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  19. Its interesting. I think NZ is the only place in the world where there is no stigma attached to contract brewing. Through the pioneering work of Epic's Luke Nicholas and Yeastie Boy's Stu and Sam its now a totally valid and accepted way of making great beer. Alot of that has come down to the fact that both these guys made no secret of it, in fact they highlighted it and showed how not having to own and maintain a brewery means that instead of brewing bread and butter beers they can push boundarys.

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  20. Seriously? Actually having a brewery is considered a handicap now?

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  21. Unless i'm mistaken. The NZ boys are brewers who use other people's kit, that is very different from 'brand' contract brewing. How much input to the process have flat cap had? And I don't mean employing a consultant brewer to come up with a recipe, or turning up on brew day to take photos. What I mean is, do the people behind this brand know about brewing? or are they, as I suspect, some blokes who like the idea of making some money from a sector which is growing.

    Cornwall seems to be full of 'Beer' companies. I was on holiday in St Ives earlier this year and popped into a few breweries, most of which were great. I contacted St Ives 'brewery' to arrange a visit but to my surprise they don't have a brewery and their beer is made by another Cornish brewery. Mr St Ives brewery is a marketing guy who saw a gap in the Market. As I understand from my visit to Wooden Hand, who make St Ives beers, they are owned by the same guy as Zatec and Salisbury. Sounds similar...

    Worryingly, it seems that anyone can set up a 'brewery' these days. You don't need to know about brewing, just have enough money to pay someone to make some for you and package it. I love the romantic suggestions that these companies are just passionate brewers who can't afford their own kit. Of course these people exist, Compass Brewery in Oxford are a great example. They use other peoples breweries a night. The brewer is a Herriot grad and makes cracking beer. That is where he 'gypsy' model works for me. Allowing breweries to make some extra cash from their excess capacity and brewers to gain experience without the financial risk involved with setting up a on their own. Everybody wins.

    I really want to support brewers trying to find there feet, and use the gypsy approach. Maybe I'm being a naive romantic but i can't see the point in beer companies who pay a consultant to make a recipe, pay someone else to brew it, and then market it as their own beer.

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  22. I'm with anonymous above... I too am aware of the plethora of "beer companies" in Cornwall and it really grips my shit! Especially as I have put so many hundreds of hours and weeks and months of backbreaking labour into raising the cash to buy my own, pathetically small brewery. I just want to make great beer in as honest and open a way as possible and anyone is always welcome to come and inspect my operation for themselves.

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