Monday 8 October 2012

What The HELL Is Craft Beer?

Scoop front left, scallopcheeks dead centre
As questions go, it's an interesting starting point, but I'm not sure that anyone seriously expected the panel discussion at Indy Man Beer Con to yield any definitive conclusions.

John Clarke and Tandleman (Peter to his friends) both gave a viewpoint that was perhaps informed by many years as CAMRA stalwarts, with John perhaps having a slightly broader view of the global scene, and Peter taking more of a pubs-man approach. Both broadly agreed that anything that was good for beer had also to be good for the culture of beer, with Peter striking a surprisingly conciliatory approach born of a desire to keep pub culture alive - "there's a beer for everyone" was a quote I was surprised (but not disappointed) to hear coming from him.

What of people involved in the industry? BrewDog kingpin James Watt put on a virtuoso performance showboating against the calumnious claims of big brewers making faux craft beer, with a tirade against Blue Moon that produce applause and rolled eyes in equal measure. Big brewers don't make craft beer, small brewers make craft beer - that was the message, and indeed that sort of resonates with most accepted definitions of craft beer, although of course there is no guarantee of quality in that. Ever one for a spot of devilish advocacy, I asked James at what point in their growth BrewDog would cease to be a craft brewery, to an "ooooh, handbags!"-style response from the crowd.

There was an impassioned interjection from the floor about how craft brewing was about the willingness to experiment, and the willingness to get things wrong occasionally. My response - "By all means experiment, but if it goes wrong please don't dry hop it and call it a special" - might have been seen as an attack on the person raising that point (I think it was Jan from Marble), or on any other brewer that I waved an impassioned finger at as I said that (god knows there were plenty in the hall that I've had "polite words" with over the years). It wasn't an attack on anyone in particular, but more of general appeal not to sacrifice quality and consistency for restless, needless, or pointless experimentation.

You would imagine Toby McKenzie of Red Willow brewery to have a viewpoint, and indeed he did. He brews the beer he likes, and if people like it, that's a bonus. His most impassioned plea, though, was for everyone to stop taking everything so seriously, which I completely failed to do with my analysis.

I think craft beer is about identity politics. I think that whether you're a brewer or a drinker, it's about defining yourself as much by what you are not as by what you are. I think it's about a willingness to experiment, both as a brewer and as a drinker. It's the forerunner of something that's going to get bigger, in the same way that styles of music go from being underground cool to mass-produced products. And that's not to belittle mass-production - Sierra Nevada are an example of a brewery that has grown without ever compromising its core ideas, but who are now really turning it out in volume.

Is craft beer more a state of mind, for the brewer and the drinker, than anything else?


  1. State of mind, yes. But if craft means anything, in my view, it's in prioritizing the product over the extraction of profit. Most brewers, if not all, will say that the product comes first. As drinkers we often know better.

    If "craft" were a neat hermetic category or clear set of instructions, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting. I don't mind a good argument now and then.

    Some say it's meaningless, but what they mean is that it's meaningless to them. "Craft" is a nice idea that means a lot to many people.

    1. Well, there's a can of worms. I'm pretty sure that most craft brewers work to similar margins as more mainstream breweries, and on occasion, given the duty breaks, often see a better %GP in return for their (not inconsiderable) labours. So are they more worthy of a good living than other brewers?

    2. I'd be surprised if that were true (in more than a very few cases), once you've figured in the substantially higher labour costs and other (dis)economies of scale, which "duty breaks" are intended to offset somewhat.

    3. Hmm. If you turn that on its head, you're suggesting that craft brewers are just doing it partly for love, and not making the returns that you might expect, which isn't my experience.

    4. I suspect that some "craft brewers" are, to an extent, doing just that. If not "for love", then at least for personal satisfaction (& kudos) that might not be got in "mainstream brewing". But I wasn't suggesting that, merely that the profitability of "craft" brewing (particularly for the small producers) might not be what you imagine.

      Beer's a volume game though, innit? The more we make the cheaper it is. If we get to sell it dear by calling it "craft", then we're laughing.

    5. Recalling that with the "craft" label we're still talking about a tiny sliver of all the beer being produced, this has been my experience: Those calling themselves craft brewers tend to make all sorts of expensive decisions for the sake of a distinctive product. They tend to have the faith or confidence that doing so will still lead to some profit, or at least enough money to keep doing what theý're doing.

      Also, as you say, it is a can of worms. I argue that craft has meaning, but I don't claim there is any clear objective definition. If only.

      Others may interpret it differently, but there are plenty of self-styled "craft" breweries that appear to seek growth and have their own marketing departments. And they use the C-word with a straight face, thanks to the BA's absurd 6-million barrel definition.

      Some of those are my favorite breweries making my favorite beers. But in my view they're not "craft" brewing. Those who argue that quality is what matters are absolutely right, what hedonist could disagree? But "craft" can still signify approach, philosophy, even small size... it doesn't mean quality but it's not meaningless.

      What it does communicate is one thing. What it should communicate is a more interesting question for me.

  2. Well put, Zak. There is a brewing/beer resurgence going on but if you want it to be a "revolution" then it needs to be aligned to an idea, and "craft beer" fills that gap.

    I like the beers produced by breweries who pin their colours to the craft movement. Moreso, I like the exciting range of choice in pubs like The Craft Beer Co, or Port St. Beer House. For me it's about choice (and I'm not talking about this week's brewery tied "special guest" ale), and the craft scene is driving that forward.

    1. For sure, and for me its about great beer, not just new beer. I'm with Reluctant Scooper on that dilemma of seeing a beer you love (Magic Rock High Wire) on the bar next to something new. Half the time I'll take the beer that I know I'll like.

    2. I thought Zak was saying it wasn't an idea - identity politics, defining yourself by what you're not, etc. I also thought he was saying it was about fearless willingness to experiment, but maybe not.

      In the UK context I think it's a label that people have grouped around, & to the extent that it means anything at all it means "those people and the kind of beer they make". So Brewdog will always be "craft" - they can contract out the brewing, they can grow by 5000% (they wish!), they can sell up to AB Inbev, they'll still be "craft", because they've been part of the club since the beginning.

  3. I cannot help but compare and contrast this to any one of the fringe meetings that occur at any of the party conferences that are currently on. Interesting for those in the club, irrelevant to everyone else.

    I hate myself for finding it interesting.

    Your opinion in regard to identity politics has the ring of truth in it, at least for me. Identifying with a sub culture sticking it to the man. Something directly at odds with mainstream popularity, which is selling out.

    I was rather hoping that you'd all thrash it out and come up with a definitive definition. Ah well, at least that means we can all continue to debate it.

  4. Maybe the purest definition would be the past participle of craft - as in "crafted". This would suggest care, skill or ingenuity. This would fit neatly with the well made point about Sierra Nevada who have stayed true to producing a first class product without compromising quality so far.
    Contrast that with the bland Pedigree that Marston's now chuck out in vast volumes that has changed beyond recognition in flavour - as has Deuchar's IPA due to changes in ingredients. I can understand the association of "Craft" with small batch brewing operations though, as it lends itself to that perception - the artisan small producer compared to the mass production which is usually associated with bland homogeneity - and not just in beer but in many beverages / foodstuffs.
    Many pubs for instance now sell pork pies and other comestibles from small local producers/butchers and are proud of that provenance rather than Walls etc...
    Maybe it is more romantic notion "knowing" that you are drinking something from a small producer rather than a multinational. Not saying that's how it should be - there are some great beers by large producers and it's got to be the taste that matters and whether you like it or not. I don't mind being pointed in the right direction or have something recommended to me but my tastebuds are the ultimate arbiter not peer pressure or labels saying "craft" - which I'm sure is the same for most of us.

  5. I am surprised that you were surprised at my reasonableness Zak. I like your summary, though perhaps the consensus that I felt we had about beer (not just pubs) doesn't come through strongly enough.

    My own take coming soon, but I have some days away drinking beer in pubs!

  6. I’m waiting for post-craft and neo-craft to emerge — that will make things very interesting. Oh and how dare you suggest that BD might not be craft if they grow large enough ;-)

  7. Thanks for the write-up... I agree with Toby's 'Don't take it too seriously'.
    I notice the occasional pub state that they serve Craft beer thanks to just having another Keg Line put in, its almost a comical statement... Now with added #Craft as if the range of cask ales on the bar weren't already craft :)
    That said, its all good :)

  8. Any explanation as to why beer labeled as 'craft' seems to be 2 to 3 times the price? At the beer festival cask ale was generally £3 a pint, keg was £6-9. I don't think these prices can purely be explained by duty or more ingredients. I was under the impression that keg beer is more economical for pubs to sell.

    Sadly I'm priced out of drinking 'craft' no matter how tasty it might be.

  9. Maybe the definition should focus less about size and profit margins and more on the choice of ingredients and process. Blue Moon tastes chemical to me. I don't know what they're putting in that stuff, but it's either something beyond malts, hops, yeast, and water or they're using some combination of those things that just plain tastes bad.

  10. I've also noticed this price issue - there's a bar/restaurant in my town that serves cask and keg beer. The keg beer is at least £2 per pint more than the cask stuff. I can sort of understand it for imported stuff, but £5.50 for a pint of Jaipur or Meantime Pale Ale is a joke.

  11. At the end of the day, for me craft beer is quality beer. Not in the sense of quality control or consistency, but in the sense of beer made with top ingredients and that tastes traditional to the style (style being everything up to 1842, basically, but we can add too new styles like Black IPA, Pumpkin Beer and APA - these are really not new IMO, but one can concede the point for the purpose of the exercise).

    Also, it is not whether I like the taste as such, but does the beer fit in the range typical of quality beer?

    Anyone can make craft beer. Pilsner Urquell is craft beer. Fuller London Pride and ESB are craft beer. Mort Subite's gueuze is craft beer. The Kernel's 1890's-style double stout is craft beer. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is craft beer. Some of the big names of yore are not craft beer in my opinion again, not because I disagree with the taste, but they have gone mainstream too much, they are too bland.

    I recognize this approach to it is personal and subjective, but that is the only way I can make sense of it.



Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.