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‘Craft’ beer – what the hell is it and does it matter?

| 23 Comments

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).

Zak's Graphic

Zak's Graphic

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.

Zak's definition

Zak's definition

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;

Global prespective? Not in the US!

Global perspective? Not in the US!

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.


23 Comments

  1. Well said! I’ve had some terrible “craft” brews. I’ve also had some (by many peoples definitions) mediocore ones too. And by craft I mean, craft beer by the definition, small batch, and “hand crafted” with certain ingredients. So either of these examples weren’t really that good at all. Craft ≠ good.

    I like Zak’s graphic, and I probably only drink between the “Craft” and “fancy” and above.

    Honestly, I consider myself a huge craft brew fan, but it has to be good craft beer. Not just craft for crafts sake. Regardless of the geographical origin, batch size, or it’s style, I’m into it. That being said, I hate BMC. Sorry. I used to hate beer when I thought all it was, was BMC.

    Also, I actually had to lookup online what the heck “real ale” was. And according to wikipedia I gather that it’s basically beer that isn’t artificially carbonated (CO2, etc), regardless of it’s container, and has to be living (non-pasteurized, still has the yeast). Did I get that right?

    Which brings me to the point of, I know I’ve must have had real ale’s out of the bottle, and I’m sure on cask. But how does one know in the US if a beer is a “real ale” or not? I’ve paid attention to bottle conditioned beers (still with living yeast in it) they usually note that on the bottle labels, but I havn’t paid much attention to wether or not the beer says it’s been pasteurized. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any beer mention pasteurization. That could just be me. Any ideas?

    • If you want the true definition of real ale you need to use CAMRA’s here and here.

      In the UK, the Cask Marque designation helps, but here you gonna have to rely upon a number of HIGHLY variable and usually unreliable factors. Assuming that the American brewery knows what they are doing, or assuming that the genuine stuff has reached these shore from the UK, the final stage IN THE PUB is the critical one. How many pubs in the USA have cellarmen with ANY kind of significant experience in real ale? The answer is close to none! How the beer is treated at the point of delivery is where things often go very wrong. Budding cellarman should do two things; 1. Read this. 2. Go to England and spend 12 months learning the skills required.

      • Wow is there any in the USA? Real Ale, I mean (CAMRA def). I never thought it was possible here. I’ve never heard of it, well some in Philly claim to have it for fests, but I never heard of it in a full time PUB have you? Call me curious.

        Also I do not think anyone here would do it. I mean sure some micro breweries pubs could do it until that small 5 gallon batch runs out, but none of them even have a cellar half the time here. One would have to find a group of like minded folks that would make that pub enough cash to do that here, would they not? It would be nice, but I do not see it happening and if it did it would be a very small number, and I doubt a non brewing on site pub would do it.

        Thoughts?

        • Posted this on Beer Advocate and got some interesting responses.

          Many interesting links.

  2. As a brewer starting an English-inspired Craft Brewery here in the US, this paragraph intrigues me:

    “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)…”

    I have witnessed quite a shift in the US towards the acceptance of real ale as craft beer. Yes, a lot of breweries put stuff in casks that is not real ale, but it has also paved the way for real ale as well.

    I disagree that most folks in the US would not consider real ale to be craft beer. I think that because of the craftsmanship that goes into it, which is equal to or greater than any other US craft beer, that anyone who sees a cask of real ale over here would consider it to be a craft beer.

    Also, you are correct that the term ‘craft’ has been taken very broadly here. And I think the difference is that the BA is describing a ‘craft brewery.’ So they are describing the operations of the brewery, without putting focus on the quality of the beer. I also don’t think that ‘craft’ is a substitute for ‘good’ beer. But it is definitely considered a distinguishing factor that separates us from Bud/Miller/Coors. The distinction is more on the brewery than the beer. It is up to the individual to decide what is good craft beer and what is not.

    Very intriguing post though – thanks for sharing!

    • Chris – I think we are talking about two different things here. In the USA people WOULD probably think of Real Ale as being craft beer, BUT then again they also think that mindlessly shoving a 12% IRS into a firkin means you are instantly dealing with authentic, cask ale when of course, it’s MUCH more complicated than that. However, in the UK I think that Zak’s definition is a good one, as I feel that most people DO see a very clear distinction between Real Ale and ‘other’ beer. In the USA, with zero tradition of Real Ale, there is no reason why there should be a distinction.

  3. Agreed, and I’ve been saying that for awhile now as well – just because it’s “fresh, local, and craft” doesn’t mean it’s made well. Same with the terms “organic”, “Made in USA”, “Fat Free” and anything else – you can’t call it good or bad and try to apply your definitions to the rest of the world, all you can do is talk about your opinons (not you specifically, but the Royal You). We as Humans (not American, Brit or other) tend to organize and define everything around us, and Craft is a good word. We feel good about supporting local anything, and we have to feel like whatever makes us feel good must actually BE good. The psychology of Craft = Good is interesting and would make for good discussion.

    • This ‘drink local’ (without discernment or the qualification of, ‘is it any good?’) horseshit, has been bothering me for a long time, too.

      • Ding,

        Is your reaction to “drink local” part of a general reaction you have to the slow food movement? I ask because I want to believe that the straw man claim above (c’mon–have you ever met anyone or read anything that suggests that a person should “drink local . . . without discernment”?!) was written not from sloppy thinking but as part of a broader concern, whatever that might be. Although I disagree with the apologists for the new Goose Island, and I will not buy a product from a corporation with such a poor environmental record, I also accept that those who are mostly interested in drinking craft beer can have their needs met by this corporation. I wish they would “drink local,” but I know that, for some, craft beer trumps all concerns. So, while it is true that some local breweries can produce some awful brews, I also think that some local breweries can produce some good and some terrific brews. With at least a tiny bit of effort, a person can find good local craft beers. While not aiming for self-righteousness, I can enjoy a well-made local beer MUCH more than a well-made corporate beer, even though I cannot taste the localness or the ideology of it. It’s the right thing to do. Why do you find horseshit where I find common sense?

        • Hi Henri, thanks for taking the time to write.

          In short, I had never heard of the Slow Food Movement, so to answer your first question, ‘no’!

          Having said that, I do find that there is a political/philosophical/environmental/eco BS angle being applied to the mantra of ‘drink local craft beer’, where people (who are essentially NOT ‘beer folk’) are happy to gloss over the fact that some of products they are promoting are in fact, not very good. For them, the philosophy of ‘local’ trumps the beer every time, but for me the beer must trump the philosophy every time. These people REALLY exist!

          Unlike you, I find no particular comfort, enjoyment or warm-fuzziness from drinking locally made beer over corporately made beer, rather for me the taste (and competence) of the beer is far more important. I guess that’s the source of our disagreement. When it comes to beer, I’m not especially interested in anything other than what’s in the glass.

          • Ding,

            Thanks for the response. If I’ve become warm and fuzzy, please put me out of my misery now. Ugh. In any case, I think you’re trapping yourself in a regrettable false dichotomy, but I also recognize the likely futility of trying to correct social and environmental injustices by consuming wisely. If don’t want to give up quite yet, though.

            Thanks for providing us with a forum to express something other than the mindless grunting emanating from other online beer forums.

        • Problem is beer is not like wine, where many grow it locally and then make it. Beer brewed anywhere but California has to ship it in. It is brewed locally, but there is NOTHING local about it. Think about it.

          I am all for local grown stuff, but most of the time its just not that practical on a scale that is required to provide beer for 10,000 plus folks. Not to mention hops are not well grown in the south.

          Kind of why most wine in Europe in the past was made in the south, and beer and other stuff was made north of that. Kind of why liquor was invented, you can move it easier. You know?

  4. I don’t have a problem with the term “craft beer”. Sure, it’s a name that doesn’t mean much anymore because the definition gets shifted for brands like SA, but it still has power. And it’s that power that the smaller breweries need in order to be taken seriously. There has been a dominance in America for the last 50 years or more of one style, one type of beer, and the term “craft” separates BMC from the new guys, producing beers with more flavor. “Craft” is more about the romance of a beer with more everything. Yes the BA is a lobby. So what? BMC have one, why can’t we?

    • Well, it’s a little more complicated than that! The problem for me is that the Brewer’s Association (in part), and people as a whole, as associating ALL beer outside of BMC as being ‘good’ and ‘more flavorful’ because it is being given the craft moniker. This idea that ALL ‘craft’ beer is flavorful, good and ‘better’ than BMC is PATENTLY not true. There are significant segments of the craft market (as defined by the BA), that are producing better that is a much poorer quality than BMC, and frankly that is no better in terms of taste than the bland adjunct lager that the BA craft definition shuns.

      I have no problem with a lobby for smaller brewers, but a blind faith and a general ‘love fest’ with discernment is no better than the marketing from the big boys that so many beer enthusiasts seem to hate.

      • So you want better standards for the micro-brewers then? Sounds good but how would you do that? Not trying to disagree, I too would love it if they would police themselves, but it’s 2000 micro’s or more. One persons sorry ass swill of a beer is many others favorite beverage.

        I think you want good beer to have some kind of standard of quality before its “earns” whatever new name better beer deserves? Is that what you mean?
        BMC is always going to be a factor in everything beer-wise in the States, unless the 2000 micro folks band together for a common cause, which sadly I do not see it happening yet, do you? BA is not going to change the name.

        We have 3 locals none of which are that great to “me”, but many others like it. So it’s ‘local craft micro beer’, sounds like a good name to me. Even if I never buy their beer (and I do not after trying all of it). But I digress.

        The, ‘good beer union of America’ needs to form; LOL.

  5. Having never read the BA definition of ‘craft beer’ before it is a bit crazy to see. To me craft beer has always been about the brewer and their process. Breweries/brewers that make a beer with passion for good ingredients, a good process and a good final product are the ones I feel fit the mold. I have had plenty of beers that I didn’t care for from what I would consider ‘craft’ breweries. For me the ‘craft’ label is more about the goal and the principles than it is making a perfect product every time. I definitely agree that the term is way over used and has no good meaning to most. Thanks for sharing!

    • I think their definition is ‘crazy’ because they are essentially an advocacy/lobbying group that want to represent everyone EXCEPT the big boys. As a result we get this meaningless definition which is designed not to INCLUDE, but rather to EXCLUDE.

  6. I actually don’t think Zak’s definition of UK ‘craft’ beer is at all useful without the context of knowing what he thinks the definition of US ‘craft’ beer is to start with. Also, surely a UK brewer can make an IPA or an Imperial Stout and not be influenced by the US craft movement, so where is the line drawn? I think the term ‘craft’ is simply confusing and unnecessary.

    • >I actually don’t think Zak’s definition of UK ‘craft’ beer is at all useful without the context of knowing what he thinks the definition of US ‘craft’ beer is to start with

      Agreed.

      >Also, surely a UK brewer can make an IPA or an Imperial Stout and not be influenced by the US craft movement

      Absolutely, but you would probably be able to recognize it as being (relatively) subtle and understated.

      >I think the term ‘craft’ is simply confusing and unnecessary.

      I agree.

  7. It’s silly to use terms like “good” and “bad” when trying to define something objectively (namely: what does “craft beer” mean?). Good and bad are subjective and relative. Taste is completely subjective. Some people find fermented soy beans absolutely delicious – who are we to tell them that that’s “bad” food? So whenever conversations start on the nexus of “good vs bad” they lose me because then it’s just a bunch of snobs trying to out-snob each other.

    That being said I agree with some of your points. I think the BA definition of “craft beer” is a little fickle. And yes, it does come down to “anything that’s not BMC.” The absolute best example of that is that they changed the definition Specifically to accommodate Samuel Adams when they surpassed whatever arbitrary number they came up with that separates craft from macro. The BA is a lobby, after all, so they look out for their own. I cannot get on board with any policy where a law is arbitrarily drawn in the sand (i.e. legal BAC levels, drinking ages, etc). It should be a more universal definition.

    That also being said I think the (gasp) Alstrom brothers of all people had an op-ed along these lines in one of their rags (err mags) a year or two ago. I forget the details but the thesis was “it’s time to stop using the term craft beer and just say beer.” And I agree with that up to a point. I think “craft beer” is almost necessary label if only to make it easier to understand for outsiders. In the US, up until 10-15 years ago, if you said you were a “beer enthusiast” people thought that was a nice way to say you’re an alcoholic. Today if you call yourself a “craft beer enthusiast”, lay people (I assume) think “a beer snob but not an alcoholic”.

    I notice whenever I read something in the mainstream news about the craft beer industry is that they’re very quick to use the term. For example a brewpub wants to open up here in Albany and the news reports say “the owners would like to turn it into a craft beer brewery.” Why do they need the caveat of craft beer? Why can’t they just say brewery or more accurately – a brewpub?

    I also agree that “craft” is indeed synonymous with “good tasting” in both the beer nerd community and the public at large. But obviously not all craft beer is created equal. I have had a lot of mediocre beer from local breweries and brewpubs. But again “mediocre” as in “bland” not “poorly brewed” – because how would you really measure how well or poorly brewed something is? The teamsters that make malt liquor work just as “hard” as the hipsters at Dogfish Head. I’m sure the teamsters could beat any craft brewery in a skills competition like who can clean out a mash tun the fastest or who can bottle the most amount of beer with the least amount of jams and breakage. Does that make them “better” brewers?

    I think we’re going to have to live with this “craft beer” label for a while until the culture at large accepts that craft beer is here to stay. A lot of people think it’s just a fad and are expecting a beer bubble to pop (no pun intended). Once it’s established that “beer” doesn’t equal adjunct macro lager then we can drop the moniker. Until then it’s a minor annoyance.

    • ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are not subjective to an individual, they actually have meaning. I wasn’t suggesting their application to the group, I am suggesting their application by the individual, for the individual. Worrying about the wider aspect I think comes down to the American obsession with ranking everything.

      As for poorly made (as opposed to ‘bland’) ‘craft’ beer, yes, I’ve had PLENTY and a lot more often than poorly made BMC.

  8. Quote:

    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.

    End Quote:

    Much to do about nothing, good thing to argue about when you’re drunk. ;.)

    Bottom line the end user decides if their cash for beer is what THEY want.

    Not to mention in BA mag its all been chatted about and in other mags/blogs/forums I have read.

    The rest is just labels, most of them done by marketing folks and shills for Brewers A.

    No label effects what I drink. Only what I’ve been saying for over 30 years does, price and taste. I want the best taste for the buck.

    So who cares what “craft” means, its a new label to me, but I am old. Still I enjoyed reading your posts, always keep an open mind.

    • Well I agree and disagree. Sure on an individual basis I can work it out for myself, but there are monikers that are getting abuse and confusing the public. The specific example I am thinking of is the ‘Bomb Beer‘ nonsense. They are SPECIFICALLY call their beer a ‘Craft Beer’ when in reality it has ALL of the hallmarks of the exact opposite.

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