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:
- Ingredients - does the brewer seek the best possible ingredients or is s/he more concerned about keeping costs down?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?