Saturday, 12 February 2011

Craft beer

The latest hot topic on the blogosphere is the term 'craft beer'. Is it the best thing since sliced bread or is it meaningless bollocks?

As it happens I'm a member of the Craft Brewing Association, so certainly I don't have any aversion to the term, but does it actually mean anything? The Craft Brewers Association is mainly an organisation of homebrewers. So does this mean that craft brewing refers to beer made in the way of craftsmen, doing everything by hand? Probably not as on the CBA website is a brief statement saying that "Nearly all brewers are craft brewers, but some of them have to do as they are told by the accountants". I'm really none the wiser after that so lets look to what our American cousins say, as the term is popular over there.

As recently redefined by the Brewers Association a American Craft Brewer is small, independent and traditional. Now we could be getting somewhere here, but when you look more closely things become less clear. Small is defined as producing less than 6 million barrels per year, independent means that less than 25% of the shares are owned by a non-craft brewer 'alcoholic beverage industry member' and traditional means that the brewery mainly makes all malt beers or only uses adjuncts to enhance flavour.

We've definitely got a long way from homebrewing here. If you're not sure what 6 million US beer barrels means it is over a billion imperial pints. Who owns the shares of a company has not had any effect I've ever noticed on the beer in my pint glass and the bit about adjuncts is obviously vague nonsense.

If I don't seem to be getting into the spirit of things here blame my scientific education. One of the few things I can remember from my early lectures when I was a fresh face student was the importance of "using the correct nomenclature to avoid any ambiguity". I think it was because that was such a clunky phrase that it stuck. But the point that was being made, that's it important to use words with clear and obvious meanings, has stuck in my brain. The Brewers Association definition is so vague it's almost meaningless.

So lets look to how my fellow internet beer nerds on this side of the pond seem to be using the term. As far as I can see it's an attempt to move on from CAMRA's real ale definition of cask or bottled conditioned beers so that filtered and/or pasterurised bottled or kegged beers that taste good can be added. Trying to find a clear definition for this is like trying to grab hold of mist though.

Mark Dredge (to whose brooding we owe this discussion) has said that any brewer can be a craft brewer as it's "an intangible variable". Now I don't need to refer to my old lecture notes to see that this gets us no closer to defining the term.

So we seem to be back at trying to find a term for good beer that isn't necessarily real ale. If some people want to describe beer they like as craft beer that's up to them, but it is an essentially meaningless term and attempts to define it have failed.


  1. I find the terms "good beer", "nice beer", "tasty beer" and "interesting beer" to be perfectly adequate.

  2. Actually I just came up with a definition on my own site that seems to work - craft beer is beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to "beer enthusiasts". What counts is not the size of the brewery, or whether the beer is any good, but the intention of the brewer. Thus stuff brewed on Worthington's experimental plant is craft beer, but Batham's Bitter isn't.

  3. Mudge - I think that works. (Mark Dredge said something very similar - only he made it sound like a good thing.)

  4. I'm not saying it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it does encapsulate what "craft beer" is about. The risk, though, at a time when many non-enthusiast beer drinkers are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, rather than reaching out to them it creates an élitist barrier.

    And there's also the "tall poppies" syndrome. If, say, Thornbridge Lord Marples achieved the distribution of Butcombe or Doom Bar, there would inevitably be mutterings that it had become mainstream and wasn't really craft any more.

  5. There are some breweries that seem to brew with the beer nerd in mind but surely people that use the term 'craft beer' are using it to describe something broader.