Friday, 11 February 2011

“Craft Beer”, why it’s a crock of shite

Mark Dredge, award-winning cheerleader for everything new and exciting in the world of beer, has invited blog posts on the subject of "craft beer". Not the beer itself, that is; the expression "craft beer" and whether it's useful in the context of the UK.

I've put forward my position on several occasions: it doesn't mean anything in the UK, hence using it is redundant and stupid.

Those of us who hold this view are boring, according to Mark, so to spare you the mind-numbing tedium of having to read my argument, here is a link you can click to skip to the end of the post where there is a quiz.

Now then. As everyone probably knows, craft beer as a concept comes from the US. It was a reaction against the process of consolidation in the brewing industry which saw the number of breweries fall to just over 80 by the beginning of the 1980s. Six companies had 92% of the market, mostly selling the same sort of fizzy yellow beer of the "making love in a canoe" variety.

When people started opened microbreweries and brewpubs, they naturally saw themselves and each other as part of a movement. So craft beer has a context in the USA, where it originated and where it makes sense.

But those advocating its use in Britain should note that even in America people are encountering the limitations of the concept and beginning to question it. Is Yuengling, the oldest surviving brewery in America, craft? Should the definition of craft be changed to accommodate the success of Sam Adams? Is it still craft if you have a computer-controlled brewery? Does it really matter whether beer is craft or not?

Terms are useful if they serve a purpose in the culture where they're used. A British term which makes sense in a British context, for example, is "session beer". It's a beer weaker than standard beers, that you can drink four pints of and still go back to work sober. It's not just a word for a low-strength beer. It depends on the pub context and the pre-existing concept of a session. It belongs to a particular culture.

I wouldn't even use the term "session beer" in a Belgian or German context, never mind an American one. It's simply out of place if you try to introduce it into a beer culture other than the British one. That's probably why the Americans get their knickers in such a twist trying to define it.

The German Frühschoppen is a nice custom of going for a drink on a Sunday morning. But if I go to the pub on Sunday morning, I'm not Frühschoppen. I'm just going to the pub. The German word is meaningless out of its context.

Problems arise when you take a term like "craft beer" and try to graft it on to an alien beer culture, where it has no history and no context. As The Beer Nut has argued, it works reasonably well in nations that, in beer terms, resemble(d) the United States in 1980: Ireland, Denmark, Italy.

It doesn't work nearly as well in countries like Britain and Germany where the beer landscape remains much more diverse. We haven't had a Year Zero against a monolithic backdrop of crap (although I appreciate that Fraserburgh did). There are big megabreweries punting their international lager brands; large companies (what CAMRA used to call the super-regionals) that brew a lot of cask beer; conglomerates that incorporate a bit of both; old-established family brewers; a host of little micros that have been set up since the introduction of progressive beer duty; rather larger breweries that started as micros in the 1970s and 80s.

What this means is that nobody in the UK can say clearly who is a craft brewer and who isn't with any consistency. Are Fuller's a craft brewer? Bateman's? Harviestoun (set up at the same time as Sierra Nevada)? What about Marston's? If not, well, why not?

The beer scene has its problems, of course, no one denies that. But I don't see how using the term "craft beer" is going to solve any of them.

Everyone knows the beer range of the third-rate microbrewery. There's the 5.0% boring golden ale; the 4.2% brown bitter that tastes mostly of toffee; the 3.7% session ale, suspected to be the 5.0% ale with more water in it; and the seasonal beers which are the 4.2% bitter rebadged with a lewd cartoon on the pumpclip. I don't see any reason to dignify this stuff by labelling it "craft"; nor do I understand how, if we are to refuse it the label "craft", we can objectively distinguish — other than by taste — between it and beers that we like better. In which case, the definition has become "beer that I like".

Does it have to be a strongly-flavoured, unsubtle beer to be "craft"? Then you're excluding Harvey's Sussex Bitter, for example. That is fair enough if you prefer something with more hop and less yeast character, though it does imply something else: it means, once again, that your definition of "craft beer" has become "beer that I like to drink".

Why not just say "hoppy beer" if that's what you like? At least that means something. I like hoppy beer too but I don't make out that it's more virtuous or more sophisticated than other types.

I was arguing with Woolly Dave about something a while back, and he suggested that "craft beer" was beer brewed with passion. My response then was: what about all the little third-rate microbreweries who are passionate, but not very good at brewing? Are they "craft"? If so, if the expression doesn't mean the beer is going to be good, what's the point of it?

In any case, people are passionate about different things. I've spoken to people who brewed cooking lager for a living and they were convinced their product is great.

Talking of cooking lager, there's the role of big companies. They're always a sore point. Residual small-is-beautiful thinking permeates the minds of beer geeks on both sides of the Atlantic, and the idea that a big company can brew something good seems to be particularly mentally irritating. Here, people mutter darkly that Doom Bar will be ruined; over there, people complain that "faux craft" is driving real craft out of the market, even though they might admit the beer itself is quite nice (Bear in mind that CAMRA are called dogmatic for far less).

So, to sum up, "craft beer" in a UK context is meaningless and undefinable. At most it's a marketing term for the wannabe avant-garde and the self-important. Neither of which I particularly want to encourage.

Welcome back to those re-joining the post without reading the boring argument. Now here's the quiz.


Here is a list of thirty British-brewed beers. For each beer in the list, please state whether you consider it "craft beer". If yes, state why. If no, state why not.

 1. Samuel Smith Alpine Lager
 2. Belhaven Wee Heavy
 3. Yates' Solway Sunset
 4. Caledonian Deuchars IPA
 5. Courage Directors
 6. Tesco American Double IPA
 7. Fuller's Past Masters XX
 8. Greene King IPA
 9. Greene King Strong Suffolk
10. Grolsch
11. Harvey's India Pale Ale
12. Harvey's Sweet Sussex
13. Holt's Bitter
14. Houston Helga's Big Jugs
15. Innis & Gunn
16. Morland Old Speckled Hen
17. Newcastle Brown Ale
18. Belhaven Best
19. Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale
20. Tennent's Sweetheart Stout
21. Fuller's London Porter
22. Theakston's Best Bitter
23. Thwaites Nutty Black
24. Harviestoun Ptarmigan
25. Whitbread Gold Label
26. Worthington P2
27. JW Lees Moonraker
28. Meantime Helles
29. The Kernel SCANS
30. Black Sheep Imperial Stout