Warning: A Stream of Consciousness follows, that may or may not make much sense!
A pretty lively and interesting conversation got thrown up on Twitter yesterday, and as usual it was an event (in this case that very ‘conversation’), that helped me to precipitate a bunch of thoughts that have been percolating in my head for many years.
It all started when Zak Avery (@zakavery), 2008 Beer Writer of the Year in the UK and owner of Beer-Ritz in Leeds, England (I’ve been there and it’s a fantastic little store), wrote this blog post that included the graphic below. (BTW, Zak plotted ‘volume drunk by him’ on the y-axis).
When I saw Zak’s post and graphic, I posed the question, what’s the difference between what he described as ‘Good Ordinary Beer’, and ‘Craft’? The essence of what followed on Twitter surrounded the question, ‘What does ‘craft’ mean?’ This has always been a huge question for me, based largely upon my relatively unusual perspective of having a pretty good handle on both UK beer culture and the US beer scene. (To be quite clear, Zak’s original post is NOT about the definition, it’s about the fact that he enjoys a spectrum of beer to choose from, no matter how it is defined).
The reason that the word ‘craft’ has become such a hot button issue for me, is that people often ask me, ‘What craft beer should I drink in the UK while I am visiting?’. My answer is always, ‘CAMRA approved Real Ale’, plus I tell them if they want beer that follows the American definition of ‘craft’ beer, then things like Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Kernel etc. The problem is that the definition of ‘craft’ in the UK would seem to often EXCLUDE Real Ale, which to an American has the potential to mean, ‘Real Ale is not good beer’. That’s clearly problematic.
In the UK, until relatively recently the word ‘craft’ meant absolutely nothing, If you had asked a beer person about craft beer, then he would have asked you what you were talking about. Of course, here in the US the word has a better definition – or does it?
It is certainly true that the Brewers Association has a specific definition based upon size, ownership and ingredients. However, on closer inspection it’s actually a totally bizarre definition, that is obviously specifically designed not to really define a ‘craft brewery’ as such, but rather to EXCLUDE Bud/Miller/Coors, and even more specifically to exclude American adjunct lager! In that regard it’s largely useless, and certainly not applicable, in the same manner in the UK. The Brewers Association has also muddied the water dreadfully, by further sub-dividing ‘craft beer’ into what they call ‘market segments’ of microbreweries, brewpubs, contract breweries and regional craft breweries. They also (somewhat inexplicably) then go on to describe a separate category of ‘regional breweries’ (those that produce 15,000 to 6,000,000 barrels). Then they describe ‘large breweries’ as those that produce over 6,000,000 barrels. This means that ‘large breweries’ cannot, by the BA definition, ever be ‘craft’ brewers, which again looks like a SPECIFIC attempt to exclude BMC and to INCLUDE brewers like Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams) and Sierra Nevada. In a nutshell, it feels like the Brewers Association is simply trying to define ‘Craft Beer’ as ANYTHING except BMC, and even further, ANYTHING other than adjunct based, American, light, lager (actually, largely the same thing), rather than trying to define a brewing philosophy, or a quality of beer. Philosophy and quality seem like the most important things to me.
In the US, the term ‘craft’ has essentially come to mean exactly what the Brewers Association says it does (even though I strongly suspect that the Genesis of this definition do NOT come from the definition given by BA). I suppose that’s OK, but that idea has brought with a really disturbing unintended consequence. People that profess to be ‘beer folk, or ‘beer aficionados’, or ‘beer geeks, or ‘beer enthusiasts’, who by their own declaration really should know better, are now assuming that all ‘craft beer’ (by the BA definition i.e., ALL non-BMC beer), is actually high quality, good stuff – IT ISN’T, period.
Zak prefers to think of craft to mean something entirely different in the UK.
I think his definition is potentially useful, because it helps to make a distinction between traditional, real ale (which is a very different beast to what most people in the USA think of as craft beer) and most definitely does not (unlike the Brewers Association definition here in the US) imply that beer that sits outside the definition cannot be spectacular, which, for better or worse, I think HAS taken hold here in the US.
NOR (I *think*), does Zak’s definition imply that all beer within the definition is necessarily ‘good’……OR DOES IT?? I suppose that if one extends my thoughts on what craft has come to mean in the USA, then applies it to Zak’s definition, then I suppose it DOES imply that. PHEW! What a mess!
Having said all of that, if Zak is telling me that traditional breweries in the UK that produce beer that is NOT American influenced, are NOT exercising ‘craftsmanship’ in what they do, THEN I have a serious issue with him! (I’m pretty sure he is not saying that).
Zak then sensibly says this;
Of course, he is correct, but what he fails to either realize or consider, is that American geeks are seldom sensitive to such, sensible, global considerations!
In short, I’ve grown to really dislike the word ‘craft’, since here in the US it has come to lead to a thoughtless acceptance that everything that is not BMC is good. Also, because of what it appears to have come to mean in the UK, it seems to exclude Real Ale which utterly preposterous if you think of the literal definition of being associated with an Artisinal ‘craftsman’!
It’s mess, and of course in some (perhaps most) ways it doesn’t matter at all, and what we should be doing is deciding for ourselves what is ‘good’ beer and what is ‘bad’ beer. Although ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are entirely subjective to the group and therefore may attract criticism themselves, those terms still have OBJECTIVE meaning to individuals. However, what does matter is when the word ‘craft’ is used to globally describe ‘all good beer’ (as I believe it IS being in the US). This is problematic since it does two things. It mindlessly includes a lot of beer that isn’t ‘good ‘ at all, and unilaterally excludes some beer which could be (or actually is), magnificent but doesn’t fit the definition. (This is probably more of a problem in the US/UK crossover group/definition). Either way, ignorance gets perpetuated, and that’s problematic and annoying.