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I’ve described before how the British craft beer movement, while taking most of its cues from its American counterparts, chose to direct most of its fire at the established real ale culture rather than at the international brewers. Inevitably, this was returned in kind to some extent, resulting in what came across as unseemly squabbling between “crafties” and “beardies”. To a large degree, this arose more from mutual misunderstanding than genuine enmity, with those who enjoyed raspberry sours in industrial-chic tap rooms simply failing to understand the appeal of twiggy brown beer in grotty old man pubs, and vice versa.
However, there are signs that this is changing, possibly sparked by the realisation that the apparently unstoppable surge of craft was reaching its peak. It is very significant that Matthew Curtis, once seen as a prime cheerleader for the craft movement, has written here of the need for modern and traditional to come together to assert their independent status.
According to data from firms such as CGA, small, independent brewers makes up about 8% of the British Beer Market by sales volume. For some strange reason this doesn’t include the independent “family owned” regionals (it absolutely should though). If it did that figure would be somewhere closer to about 13 to 14%.
This still means that at least 86% of beer sold within the UK is produced by the multinationals. As such I am eager to see the next step in the discussion of independence, and some real progress in terms of presenting this argument to a greater number of industry members and bringing them together to form a unified front against increasingly tough competition and unfair access to established routes to market.
It’s perhaps important not to make too much of this. The strands are not simply two sides of the same coin, and arise from very different wellsprings of sentiment. One is established, traditional and rooted in locality, the other modern, innovative and international in outlook. It is very much a case of Somewhere vs Anywhere made real in beery form. However, what they do share is being relatively small in scale, individual and distinctive, not bland and uniform. And, to that extent at least, there is a commonality of interest. You also don’t have to dislike everything you don’t personally care for; there can still be mutual respect and recognition.
Independence, of course, is by no means a perfect signifier of quality. Many small breweries make poor or dull beer, while some big ones produce excellent ones. In the USA, the Brewer’s Association sets an annual production level of 6 million barrels as the ceiling for what can be regarded as a craft brewer. Scale that down by the relative population of the UK, and it becomes 1.2 million barrels, which is well above the annual production of Marston’s, our largest brewer that isn’t owned by multinationals. It’s hard to see that many people in this country would really regard them as “craft”, but surely something as quirky and individual as the Burton Unions is the very epitome of the concept. And, having been round their Wolverhampton site, it’s hardly a gleaming cathedral of brewing, but instead a mishmash of plant and fermenting vessels of various types and ages squeezed into a collection of often venerable buildings.
It seems that my Twitter followers are still reluctant to recognise any commonality.
POLL: Should independent family brewers such as Brain's and Robinson's be considered "craft"?
— Pub Curmudgeon 🍻 (@oldmudgie) December 1, 2019
“Craft” is notoriously difficult to define, and it’s often used to mean whatever people choose it to mean. For many, though, it is more a cultural concept than one that relates to the actual characteristics of beer, and that is always going to be a stumbling block to bringing traditional and modern independent brewers together under the same umbrella.
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