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08-08-2014, 20:51
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How do we define craft beer? When does a brewery become craft? Can a regional family brewer simply install a smaller brewhouse, use it as a pilot plant and sell the output as craft beer? Or is this just nonsense?

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Brains Craft Brewery - it is quite little

One would have to say that these questions are in themselves intractable problems. We don't have a definition for craft beer so how can we say these breweries are not craft breweries? How can we say that the beers they produce are not craft beers?

It was just before Christmas last year, at the Guild of Beer Writers (http://beerguild.co.uk/) annual awards (http://www2.beerguild.co.uk/?page_id=2162) dinner (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zkoOLI6lzs), where Brains (http://www.sabrain.com/) were once again sponsoring the on-line award1. They had some bottles of collaborations that had been done with various beer writers. I sort of joked with the Brains (http://www.sabrain.com/) people that they should do a collaboration with me.

Now, someone once said "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."2. Obviously, having already had dinner, and a few beers, I couldn't claim to be sober. However, my jocular comment was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm. Looked like I'd have to go through with it.

Subsequently, various Brains people made various attempts to get me to agree a date to go down to Cardiff and play on their "craft brewery" - if nothing else, I think it's a fair enough "thank you" for the sponsorship of the awards. But, me being my usual busy self never found the right date in my diary.

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Bill Dobson, left, and me examining his control panel

Eventually, the Head Brewer Bill Dobson emailed me. The idea had been that whatever beer we'd brew it would make its way to GBBF. I liked that idea as I'd never had a beer that I'd been involved with at GBBF3. The only thing was, GBBF was getting close and we hadn't even agreed on a beer style.

So, with a feeling of duty to help out Brains as payback for my shiny BGBW awards tankard, a chance to have beer I'd brewed at GBBF, a chance to see what a family brewer calls a craft brewery, and check to see if I agree that it is. But then being asked by the head brewer, that properly counts you see. It's OK for PR people to ask for their own, and my publicity sake, but this was a real brewer asking. It would have been churlish to refuse.

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Where the fermentation takes place

So, we hot-footed down to Cardiff and brewed a West Coast IPA at 6% packed full of Amarillo, Chinook and Simco. More hops than Brains have ever used before, as best we know. A little bit at the top of the boil, quite a bit more at the end of the boil, and a hell of a lot more in tank. One of my aims was to make sure that the beer was fully flavoured enough to be classed as a craft beer, by even the most sceptical of beer geek.

So, we brewed the agreed recipe at Cardiff on a Monday, and the very next day, armed with a bucket of WLP001 yeast that Brains had propagated and cropped, we travelled back up to Cumbria via Charles Faram (http://charlesfaram.co.uk/), as we were also short of some of the hops. We were still having coffee at hop HQ and chatting with Will whilst the team back at base were mashing in.

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The Brains version

Back onto the M5, through the great RAC car park at the junction between the M5 and M6, and right on up to Cumbria. We just managed to get to he brewery as Scott was getting the coppers to the boil. Which was good, because he needed some of the hops.

We use whole cone hops in our copper. I've been pondering the use of pellets for some time, but we don't have a whirlpool. Brains Craft Brewery does. Cleaning is so much easier4. Many brewers will say that there are big differences between whole-cone and pellets in the way they interact with the wort in the copper. Anyway, Brains normally use pellets, although they can use whole hops if they want to. This beer had so much in the copper the hop slurry was above the take-off point at the end risking clogging the hose. I seem to make a bit of a habit of pushing breweries past their limits when we do collaborations.

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Our version

So, this might be an interesting experiment to see what exactly the differences are. Only thing is, Bill tends to put his dry hops in the tank prior to fermentation. I don't really like this idea, partly because I think it's better for the yeast, if cropping and pitching on, not to have all that accumulation of hops. We wanted to crop this particular linage of yeast if all went well6.

So, two major differences between the Brains Craft Brewery version of this beer and our own. Everything else, proportions of ingredients etc were all the same, and importantly the same strain and generation of yeast. If you want to try both versions get hold of our bottled version and try it at the Brains bar at GBBF too.

So, back to the original questions. Can Brains little brewery (http://brainscraftbrewery.com/) be called a craft brewery? Well, I mentioned to Bill the idea that some in the beer world simply see their brewery as a pilot plant by another name. Bill fairly rebuffs this notion. There is no way he'd be allowed to have a pilot plant, at the total investment cost, without it having a clearly commercial product as an output. There is no doubt in his mind that it was built as a craft brewery, and that is what it is.

I hope my involvement in this collaboration has helped a little more with the idea that Brains Craft Brewery is indeed worth a look. Do I think it's a craft brewery? Yes, I do. It's only 25hl for a start, hardly massive. OK, so it uses some of the built-in utilities available from the big plant it sits right next to, like the spend grains conveyor7. But, it's all manual, no automation, and there are plenty of breweries people are happy to call craft that are much bigger, much more automated and much less hands-on than this.

We've just bottled our version of this beer, which is called Gordian Knott. I hope we've done something to cut right through the tangled knotty question of what is craft beer, not by defining it, but by showing how diverse and interesting the craft beer world is. And perhaps showing that defining craft is as difficult as it ever has been.

The solution to the intractable problem of defining craft beer is to admit we don't need to. Cut the definition requirement knot to pieces.

Oh, and you can buy the Hardknott version of Gordian Knott on our web shop (http://www.hardknott.com/Shop/?page_id=728). To celebrate our beers being at GBBF, for the week we've incorporated a 25% discount if you use the code "Tonic" - enter code at checkout. The code is automatically set to deactivate by the last day of GBBF, so get those orders in soon.


1I was runner up for this award in 2009, and Brians was sponsor back then too, so I have to have a little bit of affection for the brewery.

2The internet tells me it was Ernest Hemingway what said it. Must be true.

3 I even thought I could have made a bit of a fuss about the fact that I had to go to a bigger brewer in Wales, as despite brewing now for over 8 years we've never had a beer ordered by GBBF. Surely they had heard of Hardknott? I could only have to assume that CAMRA just didn't like me. However, this has really been scuppered a bit by us having Cool Fusion at GBBF this year. Damn, there goes a PR idea.

4Although to be fair, cleaning is also made easier by having an almost unlimited supply of hot liquor5

5Hot liquor is a bit like hot water. In fact it is indistinguishable. Water, you see, always gets called liquor in a brewery. I've never really worked out why.

6And it has all gone well. At the time or writing we are on the third generation of that bucket we brought back from Cardiff.

7If I were honest, this is what I'm most envious of. Open a tap door next to the mash tun and just rake the spent grains into the hole and forget about them. Steam is good, as is bucket loads of hot liquor for washing down. But I WANT a spent grains conveyor.

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