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Writing in the Morning Advertiser, Pete Brown wonders whether this is the last time he will have to drop the c-bomb? It is certainly true that the term “craft beer” has proved confusing and impossible to define in the UK context. The key to the problem is that its advocates tried to read it across directly from the USA, but that just doesn’t work as the markets are very different. In the US, the established stratum of medium-sized independent breweries had largely disappeared, so it was easy to pitch craft as anything that wasn’t Big Beer.
But, in this country, there was a long-standing group of independent brewers, mostly majoring on cask beer, who had in more recent years been joined by a growing number of new microbreweries. By the definition in general usage, “craft” would have encompassed pretty much all of these. But the British craft movement deliberately chose to ignore them, and indeed pitched itself as being in contrast to “real ale culture”.
Thus we have arrived at the situation I described here, where “cask” and “craft” are polar opposites, and I wrote:
...the cultural connotations of the two concepts remain diametrically opposed, and that is why they have become established in the public mind as mutually exclusive categories. Craft beer, essentially, is fashionable beer that does not carry the baggage of either real ale or mainstream lager.
Or, as Cooking Lager said in the comments, “Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff.” In British terms, “craft beer” has become just another market segment, and one increasingly dominated, to a greater extent than real ale, by the products of the international brewers or their offshoots. Something similar has happened in European countries with a long-established brewing tradition, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, where “craft beer” is often seem as a hoppy, US-style IPA in contrast to their indigenous styles.
To avoid these issues, Pete is proposing a move to defining craft beer as that produced by independent companies rather than the industry giants, which indeed is what already is accepted in the USA. However, this cuts across how the concept is viewed in this country, as he writes:
Applied to the UK, every single beer from one of our traditional family-owned breweries would count as a craft beer. I would have no problem with that, but I know a lot of craft drinkers who would.
There is much to be said for championing independent producers – it encourages both competition and a more heterogenous beer market. It’s also a good idea to promote transparency in terms of who owns what. But it’s a lazy assumption that independent beer and good beer are synonymous. Many of the world’s great beer brands, such as Pilsner Urquell, are owned by multinational brewers, and Fuller’s ESB didn’t become any less worth drinking when it was acquired by Asahi. In contrast, plenty of unbalanced, low-quality homebrew comes out of inexperienced brewers’ garages.
In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation made great play of promoting the independent brewers in preference to the “Big Six”. After all, it had been their commitment (or inertia) that had been largely responsible for keeping real ale in existence in this country. But it always recognised that the major brewers could, and did, produce good real ales, and indeed one of them was responsible for Ind Coope Burton Ale, one of the poster boys of the initial real ale revolution. CAMRA always recognised that the product was distinct from the corporate ownership: it never sought to claim that the only beer worth drinking came from independent brewers.
The concept of independence is also very hard to define. The US definition from the Brewers’ Association sets a figure of 6 million barrels a year, but scaled down to the size of the British market that would comfortably encompass Marston’s. Yet I doubt whether many craft beer enthusiasts would accept Marston’s as craft brewers. They’d even feel uncomfortable about Palmer’s and Holt’s. How how much of a stake are multinationals allowed to hold in breweries such as Beavertown before they no longer qualify? The Brewer’s Association says no more than 25%. And how big would BrewDog have to become before it turns from a minnow into a shark? In some people’s eyes, it already has.
It’s questionable to what extent ownership really matters to most drinkers anyway. People judge beer, or indeed any other product, by what it tastes like, not who owns it. They recognise that most of the products they buy are made by multinational companies – who ever heard of an independent smartphone, or toilet paper? Indeed, the person who strives as far as possible to eliminate anything “corporate” from their lifestyle comes across as an obsessive bore. The traction this will gain amongst the great majority of drinkers is exaggerated.
So allowing “craft” to be reborn as “independent beer” isn’t going to solve the issue of definition, and is fraught with problems of its own. “Craft”, ultimately, has become established as a cultural concept, not a specific type of beer or a size of brewer. Maybe it would be best to call time on all these attempts to sort the beer world into sheep and goats.