Saturday 5 March 2011

The Crafterati

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 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.


  1. Interesting ... but your blog has made me think of something slightly unrelated ... the relative merits of the UK and US craft brewing scene.

    *have I just given myself away there as a crafterati?*

    I'm wondering how much the beer brewed in each country is influenced by the duty laws.

  2. dred - I think the taxation system in the UK is so elegantly punitive that brewers don't give it a second thought before they brew a stronger beer. That will change towards the end of this year with a UK strong beer tax applied to anything over 7.5%abv. There is no graduation by strength in the US, only by output volume, but I'm sure that doesn't hold brewers back in either country

  3. Beer duty does haver an influence on the decision to brew strong beer. Trust me on that one.

  4. Dave - well, I can't argue with that, can I!

  5. Something we overlook in the esoteric blogosphere is that there are thousands nay millions who enjoy traditional British beers without writing or talking about them everyday of the week.

    They aren't inclined the write a blog or use twitter, they desire a beer of a certain standard as beer itself in their eyes isn't worthy of further discussion. This doesn't by default make what they consume 'bad beer' it is just unremarkable beer, but in terms of volume I can assure you that the millions of barrels produced by the larger British brewers are consumed en-mass nonetheless.

    It just so happens the consumers you refer to don't find the need to celebrate these beers, it is merely enough to consume them. There is plenty of room in this industry for all of us. It is just us the smaller producers without hundreds of thousands of pounds of marketing budgets have to use what we have & that is our ability to be flexible & innovate with hops & brewing techniques to appeal to the blog/twittersphere & embrace the internet as a shop window for our artisan wares.

    We pride ourselves at SWB on producing a full range of beers from 'Classical to Evolutionary' our Dark Mild is 3.7% & brewed with all English hops & English yeast, yet our IPA's use masses of US hops & US yeast, I want our range of beers to reflect the entire of gambit of styles gracing our eclectic British marketplace.

    Yes there are what Martyn Cornell calls 'extremeophiles' who discount anything non US & sub 6% without blow your socks off bitterness, the only difference between them & Joe Bloggs who consumes British session beer is the 'extremeophiles' have made the internet & social media their own.

    Surely we cannot judge the entire consciousness of the market based on the content of a 100 blogs or so & 500 or so beer lovers on twitter. It is much, much bigger, as I am reminded everyday by people I meet who drink our beer & have never even visited our website let alone our blog or twitter feed.

    But I believe you are right to try & redress the balance as the 'online' beer world does seem to have lurched quite dramatically towards denouncing all wares produced by larger British brewers, as you know Zak I'm a big fan fan of Greene Kings 'Suffolk Strong Ale' as I know you are.

    It sadly appears to have become unfashionable to celebrate our British brewing heritage which is the richest in the world bar none.

    I am a proud British brewer who also loves American hops & beer styles but I respect English too. I am STILL a British Brewer, who is proud of our brewing heritage, but at the same time I'm excited to be a part of the evolution of our modern British brewing scene.

  6. James - I can't disagree with a single word of what you say, and in many ways, you make the point much more clearly than I do.

    I always think about writing about beer as writing about a foodstuff - partly because calling beer a foodstuff pisses off the neo-pros, but also because I think there are many parallels between being a beer writer and a food writer. If you only confined yourself to reviewing Michelin-starred restaurants, you might still be a good writer, but I'm not sure that the writing would be of much use to the eating public. Equally, if all you ever wrote about was chip shops, that wouldn't be particularly stimulating either.

    What there is a dearth of in the UK is good, ordinary eating houses. Ironically, they are an integral part of American culture - mom & pop diners - but are so commonplace as to be almost invisible. But still, these places serve an awful lot of people their daily bread, and just because the menu is more or less the same in all of them, it doesn't mean that those diners aren't something to celebrate.

    Just as that sort of good ordinary cooking has fallen by the wayside in the UK, so will good ordinary beer unless it is celebrated. And as a commentator on UK beer culture (forgive me if I'm elevating myself above my station), I feel responsible to point those things out. And if the millions of pints of ordinary ale go unremarked every week, well, that's a shame.

    There has, surely, to be a middle ground that we tread that celebrates both tradition and innovation? I was intrigued to read Michael Hardman's piece in the latest What's Brewing which noted that when they formed CAMRA 40 years ago, it was, for the first couple of years, the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. Who knows what might have been?

  7. Zak, James - you have articulated what I have been thinking for some time - and rather better than I could have done, too. Thank you.

  8. such an interesting post this one Zak. Am catching up with all the blogs after a week away and this really stood out, keep up the good work mate.

  9. Just the phrase "Crafterati" makes it an appealing thing to want to join. I'm off to create the Louterati.

  10. It has to be much easier to make the decision to brew stronger beer when the tax system is only charging per volume not per strength.

    The above 7.5% strong beer tax will only make it more difficult for most UK brewers to break away from the 4.2% standard bitter bracket.

  11. I met a cheesemaker at the weekend. She makes small amounts of very tasty cheese. She didn't call herself an artisan cheese-smith or a hand-crafted curd-maiden. She called herself a cheesemaker.

    She didn't slag off the major cheese producers, nor their product. She knows that 90% of consumers may never hear of her cheese and that her product is a niche within a niche.

    She simply stressed the time, effort and passion that went into making her product. No pretensions, no bombast, no attitude.

    She was passionate about gaining protected designation for the style - for the benefit of all the producers in her area.

    A great advocate for her industry. Note - industry. Not craft. She produces a product via an industrial process for sale as a business proposition.

    I'm prepared to be shot down in flames now as I haven't carried out any primary research, but I doubt that the likes of and blogsofcheese.blogspot rail against 'macrocurd' or hail hand-churned barrel-aged cheese as the once true way.

    It was a refreshing perspective.

  12. John, Neil - thank you. I think Pete said it a lot clearer than me on his blog. I should take a leaf out of his book and (a) say exactly what I think, rather than ponceing about coining neologisms and (b) not save my best writing for responding to comments.

    Cookie - Louterati has a much better ring to it.

    dred - that's a fair point, and as Dave, brewer of strong beers points out, it is an influence, But all I meant was that it is an even playing field, in fact it has serious tax breaks for smaller brewers. I'm not sure that it will stifle innovation or creativity at all - there are plenty of really tasty 4%abv beers out there, and there are only a few 'native' styles that really rely on getting above 7.5%abv. But it will sound the death knell for a lot of imports.

    Simon - but have you tried the cheese that her apprentice makes? That's so much better than anything Madame Fromage has done, she's just a big volume sellout - she made, like five truckles last year, and one of those was a large one. I had some microcheese the other day, grown on an agar plate, it's really rare, you can't buy it, and if you could, it would be illegal to own as it's basically a load of anthrax spores suspended in fat. It's nice on bread, but if you get more than a few molecules of it in your mouth, you can't taste anything for a week, it's brilliant.

  13. Great posts. Don't forget that most drinkers out in the sticks have never heard of for instance a 'Black IPA' never mind drank one. I've got a house full of Hardy's Ales and aged Westvleterens but in my opinion nothing beats a session of well brewed 3.8% bitter in my local with a few friends.


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