Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Craft Creep

Craft creep. It's a scourge. The c-word has been hijacked by clowns, hucksters, chancers, opportunists. Some actually care, but can't get right. Some can get it right, but don't really care. Some can't get it right, but don't care. The good ones get it right because they care.

It all started when I tried to buy beer from a continental European craft brewery. As a diligent importer, we pay duty on imported beers at the appropriate rate. If a brewer falls under the UK ProgreSsive Beer Duty rate, then duty is paid at the lower rate "Can you send me your volume certification notice?" I asked "I don't even know what that is" came the reply. "We don't have a brewery, we cuckoo brew at a few places. Just think of us as a wholesaler". A quick squint at Ratebeer confirmed this, but it was news to me. And they didn't have any beer to sell. Did I want to order off a production schedule? Err, not right now, I need to place orders with breweries who actually have beer to sell, who have committed themselves to a course, not just speculatively dipped their toes in.

An email from Brewdog (edit for disambiguation: to mail-order consumers, via their website - edited 14.04 13/08/15): "Stone Clearance Offer: We are offering a selection of awesome Stone beers at, or nearing their Enjoy By date (90 days old). These beers are all still absolutely amazing, but as they have hit, or are close to their Enjoy By dates, we are selling them at these rock bottom prices". Err, hang on, when Beer-Ritz Leeds knocked out a few bottles of on-date Stone beers a couple of years back, and mentioned it on Twitter, we got a personal tweet from Stone Greg saying that if we were selling his beers in anything less than perfect condition, he would see to it personally that we wouldn't get any more (I can't find that damn tweet anywhere, but it happened)[EDIT 14/08/15- this was a Twitter DM to Ghost Drinker, who runs the shop - see below].

Endless emails from new breweries who are contract brewing, or cuckoo brewing, or who haven't even brewed a beer yet, but would like to have a meeting and talk about distribution, or potential distribution, although no, they haven't got anything brewed yet. Can nobody commit to actually fronting the money, buying the requisite stainless, and let their beers do the talking? Or will they just continue to let their talking be the beers?

"Cans are the future of craft beer". Yes, done right but again, you need to pony up and buy the best tech you can afford. Commit to it, realise that you are on the bottom of the 10,000 hour learning curve, and you need to be in it for the long haul.

Craft beer. It's beyond me why people insist that it's not a marketing term. It's only use is as a marketing term, but until it is invested with some sort of meaning, then it will continue to be used to spoof the unwary. The founders of United Craft Brewers have a tough act ahead of them. Their job is to stop craft creep, to try and reduce the bullshit, and to act with commitment and integrity. Looking at the people who founded UCB, I genuinely think that there are enough various vested interests to make it a success. There's no shame in acknowledging that (as I've said before), the beer business is about beer, and it's about business, and these are equally important words. They key thing that needs to be clung to is that this is a business consortium, promoting the interests of businesses that are built on such old-fashioned virtues as consistency, commitment and quality. It's not a free-for-all arty-farty-disco-party, it's not devil-horns awesome, it's about knowing your shit, knowing what CIP means (and having the kit to do it), understanding the value of the 10,000 hour rule.

Stamp out craft creep.

46 comments:

  1. I can't for the life of me see how UCB will be able to impose their craft beer definition.

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    1. Me neither, but I'm glad they're trying *makes popcorn, awaits developments*

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    2. There'll certainly be lots of entertaining knockabout fun while they try...

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  2. Great article. so many people with no skin in the game, in the game.

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  3. You make some really important points. There are far too many shysters out there trading off the recent brewing boom without the necessary knowledge or the inclination to acquire that knowledge. Or they have the knowledge but aren't wiling to commit to the business. The bullshit definitely needs calling out.

    But I'm not sure how the Stone example fits. It seems a clear case of double standards. A brewer penalising a small retailer for a perceived wrong but then turning a blind eye when his 'mates' do the same thing. Yet this is the same Stone who are a prominent member of the Brewers Association and the same Brewdog who are founding members of the UCB. If they don't practice what they preach, will a definition really make a major difference to ethics?

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    1. I guess that what I was driving at here is that a few years ago, freshness was all important, whereas now, it seems to be less so. I originally put in a paragraph about how the Scottish brewery's brewing under licence of Arrogant Bastard was another example of craft creep, and also seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that the imports we've always been excited about must have been slightly sub-par, otherwise why would Stone agree to a BUL agreement? But I'd already fallen foul of Boak and Bailey's Brewdog rule, so I deleted it.

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    2. Ah, makes sense and yes, that's a good point. Stone setting up in Berlin (and likewise BD in the States) is another acknowledgment that imports have traditionally arrived in a sub-par state. It's this reason why I've gravitated almost entirely towards UK beer when buying pales or IPAs - freshness should be valued highly.

      In that sense, if UCB do anything I hope it's to help raise awareness around the benefits of drinking good British beer over American alternatives. I see too much deference towards US craft and very little pay-off when I do try many of the beers.

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    3. Well my long-term hobby horse has been the USA obsession of (parts of) the UK beer scene. If you want fresh and hoppy imported beer look to some of the great beers being made in Europe rather than the USA.

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  4. Who insists it's not a marketing term?

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    1. It seems to me that "craft beer" is perceived to be a clearly defined thing by lots of drinkers, like AOC in wine, or PGI in food (and beer), which is exploited by every muppet with a dream to be a brewer, and every global megacorp, and everyone in between.

      The tension arises when people who are brewing craft beer see the term hijacked, and insist that it isn't a marketing term, but actually stands for something real, definable, and measurable. At least that's how I see it.

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    2. Which people?! So now it's a marketing term that's been hijacked by brewers? ffs.

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  5. Ah... the sorts of "craft brewery" looking for distributors that don't actually have any beer yet, or a brewery. Even I get them.

    And the people with a "craft brewery"... who don't seem to know much about beer at all. Had one in touch "oh, I don't drink beer". Funny thing to admit. Sales/marketing type. (Interesting thought: is it a bad or indifferent thing to have folk who don't like beer selling your beer?)

    And too many "spin off" brands. I'll never be happy with a brewery trying to jazz itself up as "craft" by making a brand that does all it can to pretend to be its own entity and nothing to do with the actual brewery behind it.

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    1. I've rarely seen any spin-off brands that have been convincing, or more crucially, transparent about their origins, which obviously sets the bullshit-detector off.

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    2. And I guess, without wishing to get nostalgic, none of this shite was going on even 5 years ago. People actually had breweries, huge bank loans, and dreams.

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  6. Hmm. One of the jobs of the founders of the putative UCB is to reduce the bullshit? And one of those founders is BrewDog? I can already detect a tension there...

    More seriously - very well said, Zak. It's about time some of the more thoughtful bloggers stated taking down some of the nonsense that's spouted about craft. It's not going to go away though as there are a few bloggers out there who clearly want to make a living out of it if they can - and the presence of the UCB is, I fear, going to make matters worse. It's also has the potential to be very divisive I think.

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    1. You can say what you like about the Scottish brewery, but they changed the landscape of British brewing permanently. Sure, there's been a lot of bullshit and deception along the way, and there will be more to come, but you pays your money you takes your choice.

      I actually think that a bit of divisiveness is what's needed. I make decisions on a daily basis about who we list for sale, and who we don't, and gradually the bar keeps getting set higher and higher. I like to think that our list is a bullshit-free zone.

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    2. Well, I guess there could be "good" divisiveness if we are looking at quality issues but I'm not sure that's where all this is headed. More likely I think is that the UCB will present themselves as the cream of "craft" brewers with the implication that all the rest are somehow also-rans. In this they will probably be aided and abetted by the usual suspects in the blogosphere. I hope I'm utterly wrong about this but I do fear this is the direction of travel.

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    3. My advice would be to tune in to HopZine next week and listen to my interview with Logan Plant where I ask him about the UCB.

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  7. I had an email the other day from a new brewer who wanted to send me some beer. All very cheerful and efficient - nice-looking Web site, instant responses to my emails, and the beer arrived in a flash. Then I said I'd like some more info about the brewery and sent them a few basic questions - who's doing the brewing & what's their background, have they got their own kit, & so on. That was three days ago.

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  8. Nothing wrong with marketing terms, and nothing wrong with craft being or becoming a marketing term if the marketing term ends up having some sort of quality control or standards attached.

    I don't work in the industry, so I can't comment on that specifically, but I do work in an industry where to be accredited you have to go through fairly rigorous training, continuing professional development, and fairly robust quality control to keep going - Junior members have to affiliate and then once they've hit a minimal standard of knowledge and experience are then qualified - if that happens then that'd be great, I'm all for sets of standards so that the consumer can know that what they're receiving is good, and recognised by peers.

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    1. I think the problem that UCB will face is that nobody wants to be the bastard who says "no you can't join our club". But I do think that membership needs to a bit more rigourous, with boring questionnaires about CIP schedules, cold storage of hops, etc etc. I guess I'd see a parallel with what Cask Marque have done for real ale dispense - sure, it's not perfect, but there is a series of measurable criteria that people need to meet. I love a bit of form-filling, me.

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    2. The problem with this idea is that the big “boring industrial swill” brewers almost certainly have better process control, better quality control, better health & safety standards, better personnel development schemes, etc etc etc etc. than the people trying to exclude them.

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    3. Yup, that's a problem alright. Maybe it works like the Slow Food movement, with defined criteria, qualifying status, etc?

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    4. My current feeling is that rigour and objectivity aren't all that's needed. One big issue for craft beer as a thing isn't the debatable stuff at the fringes, it's the long tail of obvious and complete bullshit. Stuff like that recent Grauniad article with the pull quote about "craft beer is all pasteurized", like the general view that "craft = non mainstream keg", like pubs thinking that they've ticked the craft beer box because they've got Greene King Noble Lager on instead of Peroni.

      One really helpful thing that UCB could do, IMO, is to be the people who say "we are an obviously authoritative voice and we call bullshit on that." To be an obvious first port of call for journalists who are interested in writing about craft beer or publicans who wonder if they ought to be stocking it. They don't really need a rigorously and legally enforceable definition for that to work, any more than CAMRA's influence is dependent on the nitpicking over exactly what constitutes "secondary fermentation".

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  9. That comment from Stone Greg was sent to me personally via my Direct Messages on twitter... He followed me so he could send it, and then un-followed me so I couldn't reply......

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    1. Oh, class. Do you still have it?

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    2. I wish....

      It seems to have deleted any DMs that are older than 4yrs..

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    3. Just send out a tweet saying you're drinking some OOD Stone beer and I'm sure you'll get a similar response!

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  10. Maybe craft is the word du jour for good? Of course everyone says their beer is good. People who's beer isn't good are bullshitting. Twas ever thus. No biggie as far as I can see. I was at a judging session yesterday where the panels seemed to have been trying to outdo each other in an attempt to prove who liked sour beer the most. Horrible piss. (runs away)

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  11. Nice piece Zak. Marketing flim-flam has it's place in beer as it does in shoes, music, cars or any consumer goods, but Denzil's right - there is a fine line between trying to persuade people your product is good, and bullshitting.
    Endorsing your point to "pony up", in my experience, the aroma of BS is lessened the more personally invested the top people are in the ultimate success of the product. Once you start becoming responsible for paying staff members mortgages via your wage bill, the time for bullshit stops and you'd better hone that product until people want to buy it, again and again.

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    1. Which is why you and I tend towards the white hair Mr Seaman.

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    2. Indeed - you can't afford haircuts, I can't afford razor blades....

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  12. Greg Koch has been known to put out comments if people are selling Stone beer when its past its best. I think the original was a bit harsher but its been changed since then: http://www.forum.realbeer.co.nz/forum/topics/1500433:Topic:5363?commentId=1500433%3AComment%3A73095&xg_source=activity

    To be fair I also think he was totally right in the NZ case

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    1. " Fresh-and-as-intended, or not at all." - we should all make a note of that.

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  13. Regarding the Stone 'freshness' debate, I run a beer shop and recently received a Stone price list where some of the beers (including IPA) had one week until their enjoy by date on them. Had I ordered them, I would've received them on the day they went past it. When I queried this with Brewdog and suggested selling effectively out of date Stone beer was probably not a good thing, I was told that they had been told by the powers that be to just try and shift it all. Doesn't seem very 'craft' to me I don't think. My point in this context being that it's a clear example of double standards from Brewdog, who as a founder member of this UBC nonsense would happily wage war against Non-fresh beers. Maybe I'll forward the email on to Greg at Stone so he can see what his Scottish buddies are up to.

    To the point about bullshit in craft beer - I see it every day. There are so many great breweries out there which we stock but we also get a lot of chancers knocking down our door. If you're going to do it, do it properly!

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  14. Dan here From the bottle shop(s) in cardiff / penarth @BottleShopDan

    Zak - you are preaching to the choir .
    im going to start a blog .. or at least a journal to document some of this shite that goes on .. and deffo in the last 3 years its just got silly.. offensive even. the crap i get offered or half offered in some sort of cock measuring sales speak bingo laden horse trading dressed up as an alcholic beverage formerly known as beer has me literally weeping into my beard yeast brett laced cuckoo brewed hipster snake oil beverage concept!!!

    ive had e fucking nough.

    i could go on.

    also brewdog distributing stone? WTF like WTF pre redbull .. sorry i mean brewdog i could get cheaper FRESHER stone. now they aint shifting it? - i wont deal with them

    if i was being distributed by a company that had its core product (punk ipa ...not bullshit apparently?) in every corner shop / cash and carry / super market et al.... yet you cant buy a retail bottle of stone with a decent date on it ...even if you offered up a nut???

    where did it all go so wrong?

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    1. Hi Dan, thanks for the comment. Having tried (unsuccessfully) to sell you beer a few years back, I know how passionate you are about this subject. I've no idea where it went wrong, but I do know that the only way to put it right is to stay focussed on what is good, and ignore what is bad.

      There is a sense with every blog that we are all just preaching to the converted, although those of us in the trade do have an opportunity to cut the bad stuff off at source by just not stocking it. I got an email this week that gave as much detail about the brewery's favourable credit terms than it did about the beers. That rang a few alarm bells, but the truth is that not everyone cares about beer quality.

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    2. Dan - Again

      i saw this last night and it struck a cord (good blooging eh) im not naieve enough to think that people like me (self employed small operators who are doing it as much for the love of the game as anything else) might in thier own little bubble think they know best and beleive thier own hype...

      that said i think though opinionated we may be at least there is integrity and conviction - your right we are the barrier to a lot of this craft creep as we have the oppertunity to nip it at source.

      sadly the supermarkets and profitiers fall for the sales pitch...

      one guy phone me up said he had the best american beer to ship... id never heard of the brewery... hed been doing it 4 months ... beer tasted shite .. he then called me and said i should stock it because its american and thats bang on trend ... sent me about 4 powerpoints

      i gave a polite no thanks

      2 years later - morrisons stock it .... now loads of peple drink shit beer

      ive no gripe people selling a product but dont hijack our love / ideals

      call a spade a spade

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  15. Thanks everyone, some really good comments and ideas being shared here.

    Craft is a pejorative term for many people in the UK, because the good denizens of CAMRA's fundamentalist wing have decided that its short for the sort of Keg beer that young people with inappropriate trousers like to drink and therefore is to be denigrated, and because there are some utterly horrific products being touted about under the tag from people who lack a convincing argument for being termed thus.

    The biggest failing I see week in and indeed week out is the failing in discernment by people who should be looked to for an independent and fair minded approach to the industry, people who write and comment on beers who are easily flim-flammed by people whose job it is to flim-flam, who view newness in the same manner is greatness, and who simply fail to call out the bad and applaud the average.

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