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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Is anyone still interested in a definition of craft beer?

I wonder...

It's been a depressing spectacle this last couple of years watching people who share a love of great beer tear each other apart over trying to define what craft beer is.

I've been using the term for years in a very loose way to describe most things that are not mainstream commercially produced lager. But in the last three years, as craft has become a defined movement, some people have felt an increased urgency to give it a proper technical definition. Others have asserted that because it doesn't have one, it does not and cannot exist - an attitude that seems to me to display a curious mix of arrogance and paranoia.

There are various obstacles to coming up with such a definition.

One is competing interests. The nearest thing we have to a definition is that put forward by the American Brewers Association. It talks about size of brewer, ownership and adjuncts. The thing is, this is a trade association's description designed to benefit members of that trade association. It serves their purposes, not the drinker's. It changes to suit the evolving needs of its members. Which is fair enough - for them. What's not fair is when they seek to impose this definition on the whole world of beer. The best beer I've had this year is a bourbon aged Imperial stout with cherries from Goose Island. According to the BA, this is not a craft beer because it's owned by A-B Inbev. Now I hate A-B Inbev as much as anyone, and I'm deeply wary of their intentions to Goose Island. But any universe where the beer I had is not a craft beer is a strange place indeed.

Then at the other end there's the whole "if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck..." school of thought, which says you don't need to be able to define a craft beer to spot one. This has been criticised for reducing things to "I like this beer so it's a craft beer." I think that's a bit disingenuous. Amid all the debates about what is and isn't craft beer, those arguing could probably agree on nine out of ten beers being craft or not. But many people would rather spend their time arguing about the one out of ten that's ambiguous.

The definition I have the least time for is the "craft beer is quality beer that is served in keg" school. This is absurd and feeble minded. The kind of people who say this in a positive way do so to distinguish 'craft' from what they see as 'boring brown' cask ale. It's nonsense. By taking this stance against the real ale diehards who believe anything in a keg is bad, they're merely proving themselves to be a mirror image of those diehards, just as ignorant and bigoted. If craft beer is about anything specific, it's certainly not about the container it's in - the whole point of it is that it should be all about the beer.

My personal view, as I expressed in response to Mark Dredge's excellent recent post about craft beer whiners, is that it's more useful to think of craft as an adjective rather than a noun. Not as a specific style of beer, but as a general description, the same way we'd say 'dark' or 'full bodied' or whatever - deliberately non-specific, but carrying a degree of commonly understood meaning.

That's how I've always thought about craft beer. But I'm all too aware that many people in the beer world NEED technical definitions - it's how they navigate the world.

Well if you're one of those people, how about this?

At a recent conference on innovation in beer, St Austell brewer Roger Ryman gave a presentation about craft beer in which he quoted an article by Dan Shelton, which appeared in the last edition of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium. This guide is currently out of print because a new edition is launching this summer. But editor Tim Webb very kindly sent me a copy so I could read the piece and write about it here.

Dan Shelton clearly has some axes to grind of his own, but I found his multi-part definition of craft beer quite compelling. He identifies five aspects:

  1. Ingredients - does the brewer seek the best possible ingredients or is s/he more concerned about keeping costs down?
  2. Methods and equipment - the brewery's intent - does the brewery do everything it can to maintain quality or does it let things slip as it grows? Is the brewery making the best beer it can? 
  3. The brewer's spirit - hard to measure, but does the beer reflect the brewer's personality or is it simply generic and lacking in faults? Are they just following the market, or trying to do something special?
  4. Company structure - who's calling the shots? It's not necessarily about company size, but does the brewer decide what beers are brewed or does the marketing department?
  5. Control - is the brewer able to exercise some control over how the beer turns out or is s/he simply throwing in ingredients and hoping for the best?
Everyone who I would call a craft brewer ticks each of these boxes. What I like about this definition is that it's objective. A global giant could produce a craft beer if they followed these rules, but they don't. Their structures don't permit it. But it doesn't rule them out on size or ownership. It's about intent.

And this definition does what no other does - it excludes small brewers who aren't very good. Any idiot can throw an extra bag of citra hops into a copper, it doesn't make them good brewers or their beer good beer. I've tasted bland beers that are not craft created by huge corporations, and I've tasted bloody awful beers created by tiny breweries that call themselves craft when they are not, because craft has to be about skill as well as size. I don't know how you measure some of these criteria, but of it's a neutral, objective detailed definition of craft you want, I think this does the job.

But like I said, I'm not sure we need it. While I was thinking about this post, I looked up 'craft' in the Oxford English Dictionary and it says "An activity involving skill in making things by hand." Do we really need it to be any more complex than that?

23 comments:

Joe Stange said...

Frankly I think your loose "not mainstream lager" definition may be more useful, even if it's a negative definition. Craft beer with all its connotations is/was a reaction against lack of variety and lack of character in available beers. And it has been an international movement, as much from the UK as the US. Which is why it's weird that it's become a nasty word for many real ale types. CAMRA is a branch of the same movement, formed about the same time Anchor Steam was, er, picking up steam. Most cask ale is craft beer and always has been. Dismissing "craft" as kegged (or over-hopped, or overpriced, etc.)"is inaccurate and only serves narrow political purposes.

Mark Seaman said...

Your last paragraph is all that is needed Pete. Dictionaries are marvellous things! ;-)

py0 said...

I can't think of an occasion when you might use "craft beer" when you would not be better off using something more specific. Microbrewed. New Wave. American Influenced. New World Hops. Cult. Experimental.

At least we can agree what those words means. Words like Craft and Artisanal is just a load of old marketing dribble.

py0 said...

I can't think of an occasion when you might use "craft beer" when you would not be better off using something more specific. Microbrewed. New Wave. American Influenced. New World Hops. Cult. Experimental.

At least we can agree what those words means. Words like Craft and Artisanal is just a load of old marketing dribble.

Nate Dawg said...

Nice post, Pete.

I've just stopped using the term 'craft beer' as much as possible because it just provokes arguments. Discussions I'm fine with but some people get really fucking angry if you use the term wrong. I mean, offended almost and they're not even the bloody brewers.

Alan said...

At the risk of driving you entirely mental, there are a few things to note.

(i) "craft" is entirely unnecessary as a concept in relation to beer. All beer is made by industrial process scaled up or down. Handmade beer is an oxymoron as it would be with any boiling fluid.

(ii) "craft" is used exclusively as a marketing term of differentiation, not as an informative word in itself. It is important as without it trade organizations cannot get tax breaks and drinks writers (me included) won't get attention but, otherwise, there is little that a nano brewer and Boston Beer have in common other than gathering under the common umbrella with a logo that reads "craft".

(iii) "craft" in the UK sense is very different from "craft" in the US sense, to the point I would think they would need a separate line in a dictionary definition. "Craft" in the UK stands in opposition to real where in the US it stands in opposition to macro. Oddly, in each case it takes an incomplete stance as bottled beer is not included in the UK polarization while, as you say, in the US there is little sense of the wee cottage left in either the scale of Boston Brewing or AB-IB's involvement with Goose Island.

"Craft" beer is now code for something that is not defined. We should ask ourselves why there no craft wine in an effort to determine if there anything there to define at all.

John Medd said...

Reading the letters page in Camra's What's Brewing was depressing beyond belief. 'No, we're the Popular Front of Judea' springs to mind. What with the real ale zealots and the Brew Dog militia, it would appear they've all forgotten what the hell this is all about: good beer, well made. Here endeth my rant. Great blog btw. I'm in The Beer Writers Guild myself but very rarely write about the stuff these days.

Anonymous said...

I like your article, and it shows an almost futility to the concept of defining 'Craft Beer', which I agree with. I doubt this is going away however and I like the idea of BA setting a definition to what 'Craft Beer' which is thereby protecting their investments against attempts to hedge in the expansion of the Craft Beer movement (namely brands like Green Valley an ABI claim to be a small local brewery located on an unoccupied patch a ground)

Anyone who has had a beer at The Sandlot at Coors field knows that the big guys can make Amazing beer that is worth noting. I expect great things from AC Golden Brewing (also owned by Coors) I don't think the Definition on Independence should be changed though, the definition is not about quality and if it was, who would decide which is better than the others. I Want Nothing to do with the process of declaring quality. however Im infuriated by the exclusion of breweries because of the use of adjuncts and calling it "Traditional" thereby ignoring the fact that they have been adding adjuncts long before Prohibition and the Commercial wars.

The Beer Nut said...

@py0: When there's a whole section of beers, each of which fits at least one of those categories to some degree, and you need an umbrella term for the lot of them, separate from the beers that don't fit any of the categories. That's the occasion.

Dan Shelton's criteria just look like an extension of the "if I like it it's craft" rationale. Every industrial macrobrewery I've ever met has been fastidious about ingredients, applied rigorous quality control and is making the best beer it can of the type of beer it makes -- usually crappy lager.

The only breweries I've encountered who would countenance throwing ingredients together and hoping for the best are unmistakably craft. The word often applied to them is "innovative" or "experimental". Sometimes the beer is great; sometimes it isn't, but there's usually a grinning maniac wielding a mash paddle behind it, and that's craft that is.

Deciding a brewery's motivation and inner processes for yourself is unhelpfully subjective, IMO.

PivnĂ­ Filosof said...

No, we are not. But the marketing people want us to. That's what it all seems to me. Give me good beer and you can call it what you want, I don't care, I will call it "Good".

Phil said...

The whole problem is that we in the UK imported the phrase "craft beer" without importing the definition - which is reasonably serviceable in the US (although not without problems), but useless in the UK. So it didn't have a definition when people like BD started using it, and it's never really acquired one - except the (reasonably serviceable) ostensive definition "something that people who use and value the term 'craft beer' refer to as 'craft beer'".

I'm not sure your definition is usable, unfortunately. The fourth and fifth criteria are fine, but the third can't really be called objective - the brewer's 'spirit' must surely be a judgment call (what if the blogger who went round the brewery caught him on an off day?). More important, the 'objective' first and second criteria aren't really objective - or rather, they're factually objective but not objectively ascertainable: they're only knowable if you've got a God's eye view. Since none of us has, they basically reduce to judgment calls as well.

Two big questions. First, is 'craft' a descriptor of a beer or of a brewer? (Could a beer you'd praise as 'craft' come from a non-craft brewer? Could a brewer you'd praise as 'craft' turn out a bland, lowest-common-denominator beer?) Second, if 'craft' does apply to brewers, what does 'craft brewer' convey that wouldn't be conveyed by a simpler term of approbation - 'decent brewer', 'competent brewer', 'brewer who knows what they're doing'?

Glass Half Full said...

I think what your definition almost gets to is that craft brewing is about wanting to create something new and unique, and then honing it towards the brewer's idea of perfection. That's the craft part. The thing is that the original UK real ale revolution was the craft brewing of its day - rejecting the status quo and pushing off in a new direction (inspired by the past of course). The fact that the real ale movement now chooses to become the orthodoxy and lay down rules as to what can and can't be in their club is just really sad, and denies the original ethos of the movement, which was about rediscovering taste, quality and originality.

Glass Half Full said...

I think what your definition almost gets to is that craft brewing is about wanting to create something new and unique, and then honing it towards the brewer's idea of perfection. That's the craft part. The thing is that the original UK real ale revolution was the craft brewing of its day - rejecting the status quo and pushing off in a new direction (inspired by the past of course). The fact that the real ale movement now chooses to become the orthodoxy and lay down rules as to what can and can't be in their club is just really sad, and denies the original ethos of the movement, which was about rediscovering taste, quality and originality.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I tend to think of " craft " beer like " pan-fried " food.
It's a poncy way of simply charging more for what may or may not be a tasty beer.
I couldn't care less how it's made provided it tastes okay.
In much the same way I couldn't care if a steak was fried in my wife's bra or a frying pan provided it tastes okay.
The craft beer movement is gaining a reputation for expensive experimental beer that drives people away from drinking it in much the same was as breweries drive away people when they call flat,dull brown beer real ale.
They're both beer - it's just that some of it is good and a lot of it is shite.

THOMAS CIZAUSKAS said...

At the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C., Charlie Papazian —founder of the Brewers Association— did not once use the term "craft brewer" in his introductory speech, except when he was referring to the name of the conference itself. Instead, he repeatedly used the term, "small and independent," and, even then, pointedly excluded the term "traditional," the third peg of the BA's definition of "craft brewer." This deliberate usage/non-usage startled me, and I've read no one speculating on what it might mean.

Cooking Lager said...

Nothing like a craft beer debate to get the blogging stats up. The thing about your definition, whilst serviceable, it ignores other pertinent aspects of the market. In the US it is middle class beer as opposed to blue collar macro beers. Class is such a divisive issue in the UK that this obvious feature is often dismissed. The big success of wine was its relatively recent democratisation. Just as beer is becoming less democratic as the beer you drink and bar you drink it in becomes a reflection of whether you went to university or not or been abroad somewhere other than Benidorm. And people think it is going mainstream.

py0 said...

Caring about how things taste is a poncy middle class affectation in general Cookie.

Phil said...

I met up with an old friend yesterday. She doesn't drink beer - ever, at all - but we still spent a pleasant quarter of an hour talking about microbreweries, craft beer, the proliferation of craft beer bars and the strange slappability of hipsters.

I think "craft beer" is going mainstream to about the same extent that "being a craft beer hipster" is going mainstream - and that's going mainstream in very much the same sense that "being a Rocky Horror fan" went mainstream in the 80s (i.e. we all know what they look like, most of us know at least one, and we all think they're weird).

Tom S said...

The main thing that annoys me about the rise of the phrase 'craft beer' is that it feels like people are using this as an excuse to jack up prices. This beer's £6 a pint? Oh well, you know, it's a craft beer, that's just how they are...

Richard E. Simpson said...

hmmmm - as a long time lover of music from all "classifications", for some reason all I can think of is Jethro Tull winning hard rock grammy when Metallica were also nominated....

Richard E. Simpson said...

classifications, classifications - its like rock music in the eighties and nineties. for me, it culminated in the furore over Jethro Tull collecting the grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental "instead of" Metallica - not misplaced "category" classification but inevitable discord created by such notions....

Buster Grant said...

To be honest, as a Brewer, I find the whole debate a little strange...
I produce beers to the best of my ability; I brew to my taste (its my brewery, so why not!?), and I hope that my customers enjoy the beers too. I've even won awards for a lot of my beers.
Am I a "Craft Brewer" running a "Craft Brewery" - I've no idea - I'll leave that to others... [Any thoughts Pete?]
However, despite enjoying researching and experimenting with all sorts of ingredients, and producing some (hopefully) splendidly esoteric and unusual beers, I still run a commercial operation - my main beers have to sell well in my environment - if they don't, we don't get to brew any more...
Yes I produce beers that might well be termed as "Craft", be they in cask, bottle or keg - does the term help me sell the beers - probably not. (Maybe I'm selling to the wrong people?)
I think Dan's suggestion that the passion, knowledge and skill of a brewer should shine through is spot on - however, I remember a somewhat fractious debate with some people from Tennents over beer flavour and quality - they were possibly even more passionate and enthusiastic about their raw materials, quality control systems and need for consistency than many micro-brewers that I know, yet many people still deride Tennents' beers... Yet they produce more beer in a week than a whole fist full of micro-brewers annual output, and it all sells - that should tell you something...

My conclusion is that we should drink and appreciate whichever beers please us most, and not worry about trying to define or pigeonhole them.

Coxy said...

Craft fairs are boring things I get dragged to, Arts and Craft shops are shops full of shite. I don't think any beer should be associated with that term, although Hovercrafts can be fun.