Saturday, 12 February 2011

Craft Beer: What Does It Mean?

I'm not much of a one for off-the-peg ideas, but Phil at "Oh Good Ale" completely nails this debate to the wall. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but he nicely sums up the intricacies and pitfalls of the question.

My point of view is that trying to find a category name for the beers that we enjoy isn't as important as explaining why they taste like they do. Once people understand what malt, hops and yeast are (I'll take water as read), and how they contribute to flavour, then things might start to change. It's easy to preach to the converted, but a bit harder to talk to the merely curious.

Having spent a decade doing that (talking to the beer curious) behind the counter of what was once a fairly good off licence, but is now a really great beer shop, I can tell you that explaining people what makes a beer great isn't as much fun as drinking it. But as always, education makes a difference, education is the key.

POSTSCRIPT: I'd also point out that education cuts both ways. I've had plenty of people ask what makes American beers taste the way they do, and on finding out that it is largely American hops, they've asked which beers don't contain American hops. And that's just fine too.



  1. I agree , although I find that people do want a word to sum up this more characterful beer they are tasting. In England I suspect its traditionaly been framed in the ale verses lager language, something which is increasingly becoming a less useful cheif division, here the words boutique (a word I hate) and micro brewed (ok, but linked to production size which really isnt always acurate) have been popular. Craft beer does seem like the best bet so far, as long as it doesnt get to closly linked to the often misguided German/American obsession with the absence or presence of adjunts.

  2. Kieran - I'd be happy if I was never again asked "Is this a beer or a lager?". As Phil references Barm, what's wrong with 'good beer'?

  3. I think when you start using a value judgement like 'good' you are opening a whole can of worms. That is fine in blog situation but in a retail environment at the coal face as it were I think its better to say

    "here are mainstream beers they are simple, often well made and priced accordingly here are (insert word you want) beers they are produced to be flavourful, these are the reasons they are flavourful, and they are priced accordingly"

    I think to resist a term that sums up the beers we advocate is to resist human nature.

  4. can't really get my head round this "craft beer/brewer" issue to be honest, I don't know if I like it or not.
    so what do you call great beer that has no yeast in the container from which its served?

  5. KIeran - 'tastier' or 'good' would fit nicely in those brackets! I think the challenge is to make the word both descriptive and non-exclusive.

  6. Great Beer! is probably the answer.

  7. I'm not sure it needs accepting or rejecting as a term, but the reason we use it is because we feel this definition most accurately describes our brewery's activities:-

    craft beer
    A distinctively flavored beer that is brewed and distributed regionally. Also called craft brew, microbrew.

    Where as this no longer is adequate to encompass everything that we do:-

    real ale,
    Any beer which is allowed to ferment in the cask and which when served is pumped up without using carbon dioxide.

    People should use descriptors that they are comfortable with.

    It goes back to your post on dispense Zak, is the message of great tasting beer regardless of origin being lost by trying to pigeon hole everything?

  8. Tastier is right but it will never catch on, it sounds abit juvenile.

    Good I think is hight of exclusive as it infers that other beer is bad.

    I suspect the argument is academic anyway as the dominant popular culture has christened it "craft" and craft i suspect it will be.

  9. James - I think that trying to pigeon-hole things does lose some of the romance, yes. The definition is woefully lacking - BrewDog are nationally/internationally distributed, does that make them less 'craft'? Is the American Brewer's Association redefinition of craft an acknowledgement that you can have macro-craft, or is that idea a nonsense (see also 'industrial organic' food production for another apparent oxymoron)?

    Kieran - which dominant popular culture are you referring to? Does 'craft beer' have a widespread popular meaning in NZ? And what is that meaning?

  10. I am of the idea that you should let the beer do the talking, it'll do it much better than any of us.

    I'm helping the head chef of a fancy restaurant put together a Czech beer and French food pairing menu. He'll be the first one to tell you that he doesn't know F all about beer, but he knows what he likes and you should have seen his face when he tasted a smoked dark lager. I didn't need to explain to him why did it taste like that, but he just loved it. He jumped form his chair, went to the kitchen and put together a simple sauce with it that was delicious.

    He is really excited about the whole thing and he still can't doesn't know what a Pale Ale or a Bock are.

  11. ...this is probably my usual digression into off-topicness!

    I wonder how easy it is to 'preach' to the beer drinker who always drinks to be drunk?
    They may be converted but do they appreciate in the same way as others who drink for appreciation rather than drunkenness?

    The merely curious will listen, nod, try and taste, then probably go back to drinking that blonde/pale ale that doesn't offend their senses or stretch their pallet.

  12. I'd be happy if I was never again asked "Is this a beer or a lager?"
    (fits in pretty well with people asking "can you recommend me a beer?"

    - I'd be very happy as-well if it was never asked again, but like you say it's about educating people. Everyone that usually asks that question is genuinely interested in the answer and are willing to listen. We've converted a large number of people at the shop - it's really good to see, but on the other hand as you say - you can't beat a good tasting session!

  13. "here are mainstream beers they are simple, often well made and priced accordingly here are (insert word you want) beers they are produced to be flavourful, these are the reasons they are flavourful, and they are priced accordingly"

    It all depends what you mean by 'mainstream', but at least within the world of real ale I just don't believe it's the case that "mainstream" beers aren't flavourful. They generally don't beat you about the head with extreme and unexpected flavours, but that's a different matter. I'm also resistant to the idea that there's a necessary correlation between new & different flavours and high prices - when the euro exchange rate was more favourable I used to buy things that really made me recalibrate my definition of beer (rauchbier, oude gueuze, Flemish red beer) at prices far more reasonable than BrewDog currently get away with charging for a series of variations on a theme of "American-style IPA".

    But you're certainly describing a recognisable type of beer and a recognisable marketing strategy. "Specialist" would work as a one-word adjective; also "boutique". What you're really looking for is a word meaning "aimed at beer enthusiasts who are into seeking out the new, different and extreme, and don't mind paying over the odds for it" - bearing in mind that lots of beer enthusiasts aren't and do.

  14. Pivni F - and you'd expect that from someone who makes his living dealing in flavour - but what of everyone else?

    pdtnc - I'm sorry, but that's just snobbery. My personal view is that everyone should know what their beer is made from, just as they should know what their food is made from. If they have that knowledge, and decide that they genuinely prefer Fosters to (say) Budvar, or that the cost-benefit analysis doesn't reap sufficient rewards of a modest upgrade, then fine, but at least give it a go. I'm amazed at how many people who drink good beer often refer to having eaten a McDonalds or a Burger King or a KFC - to me, there's a total disconnect between eating fast food to line your stomach for a night of quality beer. I'm not saying that I look down on anyone who chooses to eat that, but it's just not for me. On the other hand, if they've had more beer than they can handle, and are spewing it up into the gutter on a Saturday night, then to me the constituent beer isn't the issue - it's their inability to behave properly despite being drunk that pisses me off. You make it sound like no-one ever got drunk drinking 'craft' beer.

    Ghostie - there is no substitute for just handing someone a good beer and saying 'try that'

  15. Everyone else? I've "converted" many people who could be considered "everyone else" and I've always let the beer do the talking. In most cases they wanted to know what made that beer different from the ones they were used to, and I was happy to explain, but always it was the beer who did most of the job.

  16. PF - you're being disingenuous - it was you that did the job. Clearly those people didn't seek it out, you gave it to them. It's like giving people an album from a group they've never heard of - you have to actively sow the seeds.

  17. Fair point, I'm only using my own view of alcohol consumption. I don't drink to get drunk and its only the social aspect of drinking that alters that, and I'd rather be antisocial than legless. :)

  18. While people may well choose the beers they drink for "appreciation", they are being disingenuous if they say they are indifferent to the effect the beer has on them. Of course there are many stages of alcoholic effect short of being drunk as such.

  19. Zak - You are right, of course. I gave those beers to those people, but what I did was just say "drink this" and not much else. If the person liked the beer, they would ask things like where it came from, etc. It was the beer that got the interested in that, and that's what I meant by "let the beer do the talking".

    Though I think I should also add that I when I do all this I always try use beers that are at first sight the same as the ones they normally drink, e.g. they drink Staropramen or Pilsner Urquell, I show them Svijany or Poutník, which are also pale lagers. Having that possibility makes the job a lot easier.

  20. pdtnc - fair point, and also I guess that your observation that there are a bunch of people who only drink to get drunk is a fair one. But equally, I think there are a lot of people who are into beer AND like to get drunk too, as Curmudgeon points out!

    Pivni - It's true, and you talking about the chef is an interesting point. There are lots of people who are into food and cooking who don't pay any attenion to the beer they drink - see BrewDog's "Foie Gras with a side of Stella" - and I just think that's a shame. Maybe it's for lack of exposure to the possibilities that beer offers?

  21. "there is no substitute for just handing someone a good beer and saying 'try that'"

    - I do it on a daily basis. I've sold pretty much every bottle of Detour that way. It's good to enforce people into buying £10 bottles of beer and knowing there going to love it. Feel the power!

  22. "Foie Gras with a side of Stella". If you think that is shame, have a look at this then.

    I don't think it is a lack of exposure as much as it is a lack of interest by most people involved in the restaurant business. Beer is still regarded as an inferior drink, a generic product, which is something that, in a way, we can thank the macros for. Ask an average consumer what their favourite wine is and they will say thinks like "Bordeaux", "Chardonnay", etc. Ask that same person what their favourite beer is and the'll tell you a brand.

  23. PF - I agree, but let's not forget that one of the reason's for Chardonnay's success is that it turned itself into a brand via the rise of Australian wine, and Bordeaux is almost a brand in itself, despite the huge variety of wine produced there.


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