This is the first in what will undoubtedly become an occasional series of posts addressing some of the theoretical and policy debates currently besetting British beer culture. If your interest in beer is entirely in drinking and enjoying it, then I recommend you read no further. However for those that are interested, what follows isn’t just rabbinical hair-splitting. Such debates can, and have, had a major impact on the way beer is produced, marketed, consumed and appreciated.
What do we mean by craft beer and craft brewing? And more specifically, what do I mean by these terms, which I use regularly on this blog and in my other writing? The issue has arisen because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, in the British context, not everyone uses the terms in the same way.
When I write “craft beer” I’m thinking globally, across international brewing cultures and irrespective of particular brewing techniques. To me, a craft brewer is one who prioritises brewing as a craft, using quality ingredients, skill, experience and imagination to produce beers of character and distinctiveness, whether that’s by adhering to deep-rooted local brewing traditions or innovating with new and experimental recipes and styles.
This definition is inevitably fuzzy-edged and requires a certain amount of value judgement and insight into particular brewers’ intentions, and it’s easy to think up particular cases to test it. And of course brewery staff have to make a living, so commercial considerations enter into the decision making of even the most artisanal producers. But I do think there is an important and useful distinction to be made between this vision of craft brewing on the one hand, and large scale industrial brewing on the other, where decisions are primarily driven by the need to pay dividends to shareholders who otherwise have little interest in brewing, and branding and marketing techniques are at least as important as brewing skills.
I admit my definition doesn’t correspond with some of those used by bodies that are more authoritative and influential than me. The term ‘craft brewing’ originated in the United States in the 1980s to designate the emerging counterpoint to the prevailing dominance of large-scale monopolised national brewing, encompassing both new brewers producing more flavoursome beers and the handful of old-established local and regional brewers that had survived Prohibition and postwar consolidation.
Originally US brewers and drinkers used the term as fuzzily as I do, but the Brewers Association (BA), the trade organisation for smaller, independent brewers, needed a less disputable definition. The BA now defines a craft brewer primarily by size, as a brewer producing up to 6million US brewers’ barrels (just over 7million hl) – raised in 2011 from 2million barrels (2.35million hl) when some of the Association’s most successful members came within reach of the previous threshold. Volumes like these have little relevance to the UK where, for example, the three breweries owned by the world’s biggest brewer, AB InBev, produce barely 11million hl between them and a major independent like Fuller’s is unlikely to chalk up more than 500,000hl a year.
The BA definition does, however, go on to specify that a craft brewer must also be independent, with no more than 25% ownership by a non-craft alcohol producer, and either produce an all-malt flagship beer or dedicate at least half of its production to “either all malt beers or…beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor”. This last stipulation arose from the US context where industrial brewers took to using significant proportions of ingredients like maize (corn), rice and refined sugar to create blander mainstream beers. But within that context, it begins to address the issue of quality, and the significance of brewing tradition.
Given the differences in both scale and historical context, there’s little to be achieved in attempting to force the BA definition onto the UK brewing scene. But it’s notable that there’s nothing in the BA definition that specifies particular technical aspects of beer production, like fermentation, conditioning and dispense, and certainly nothing to preclude cask beer – the traditional British style of draught beer that is still fermenting in its container when dispensed without additional carbon dioxide pressure – from being counted as craft beer. Indeed while cask beer accounts for a tiny proportion of production in the US, interest in it is growing among craft brewers.
Yet in Britain there are growing signs the term is being used more narrowly, to exclude cask beer. This confusing new usage has arisen partly to fill a vacuum in terminology that’s been exposed by changes in the beer market. When CAMRA coined the term “real ale” in the early 1970s to distinguish traditional British cask ale from the new low quality, low alcohol, cheaply produced and overpriced pasteurised and artificially carbonated draught “keg” ales and lagers that were being foisted on the drinking public through the monopoly positions and marketing budgets commanded by the industrial brewing groups, the overlap between cask beer and beer worth fighting for was almost exact.
In the early 1970s, CAMRA publications such as the first Good Beer Guide (1974) defined “real ale” more broadly, including quality considerations such as adequate conditioning periods and the avoidance of cheap adjuncts, extracts and chemical additives, alongside cask conditioning and unpressurised dispense. But the messages were soon simplified, and generations of British beer drinkers grew up with the notion that whether a beer was “good” or not was somehow entirely determined by the presence of live yeast cells and the absence of extraneous CO2.
This oversimplification was always problematic, leaving out for example considerable numbers of British bottled beers that though filtered and sometimes pasteurised had a least as much tradition behind them as cask ales. In recent decades it’s become more and more unsustainable, challenged first by increasing awareness and availability of international beers of self-evident quality that don’t fit the definition of “real ale” and now by still small but growing and influential numbers of small and high principled British brewers producing beers that don’t fit the real ale parameters.
The rather clunky term “craft keg” is in relatively common use to describe such beers in draught form, encompassing both domestic and imported brews. The techniques used in producing and dispensing some of these beers challenge easy categorisation. Unlike industrial keg beers they are not necessarily pasteurised and artificially carbonated – many are unpasteurised, some are conditioned in the keg and with some the natural carbonation produced during fermentation is captured and added back in later to aid a sparkling dispense. Their brewers can make a good case that, for some beer styles, the additional sparkle and the generally lower serving temperatures enhances the taste experience rather than compensating for the lack of it, as with industrial keg beers. But they still don’t count as real ale.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that people reach for the simple term “craft” to designate non-cask beers of this kind. Here’s Robin Walton, author of The Search For The Perfect Pub: Looking For The Moon Under Water, writing on the Huffington Post website on 9 January 2012:
Craft beer isn’t real ale. In fact, in some ways it’s the antithesis of real ale. Where real ale might be (fairly) represented by scenes of beer festivals populated by lovable old Gandalfs, craft beer might be two demented blokes driving a tank up Camden High Street to promote a bar launch…Where real ale is cask and handpull, craft beer will proudly pour from the keg or the bottle.
Admittedly the tone of the article is lighthearted, and Robin later admits he is making “huge, sweeping generalisations”. His reference to real ale drinkers as “lovable old Gandalfs”, and, later in the article, to young people and women drinking craft beer, suggests he’s talking about cultural perceptions as much as about technical definitions. Nonetheless a newly minted beer enthusiast reading the article might at best end up confused, and at worst be prompted to avoid cask beer, which Robin implies, perhaps unintentionally but nevertheless completely mistakenly, is less flavourful than “craft” beer from keg or bottle.
Yet this confusing usage is in danger of spreading even to brewers. Soon after the above article was published, US-born Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibonds in Henley-on-Thames, one of the small breweries now specialising in “craft keg” beers, caused a stir on Twitter by stating that what he brewed was craft beer, as distinct from real ale. “You have craft beer,” tweeted Jeff, “and you have real ale (cask). Including real ale as craft beer just confuses things…real ale is bedded in, people know it. Why does real ale get included?” Jeff seemed to be saying that beers like his deserve a category of their own, and “craft” is that category.
While I’m sympathetic to brewers like Jeff wanting to boast about their excellent beers in their own right and not just as a subcategory of something else, I disagree strongly that the way to do this is by attempting to claim exclusive rights to the term “craft beer”. Education of the consumer matters, and terms like “real ale”, far from being “bedded in”, are widely misunderstood – they may be familiar to people like Jeff, myself and other members of the beer twitterati that participated in the exchange, but what about those new beer drinkers potentially excited by the flavour potential of both cask and non-cask craft-brewed beer?
Exempting cask beer from the craft category would send out the unhelpful implication that cask beer isn’t crafted, which is patently untrue. Although there are a handful of high volume bland brews out there from bigger brewers that might stretch our generosity a little, by and large cask beer is crafted by definition, given the greater levels of care and skill required to brew and serve it compared to industrial pasteurised beer.
More importantly, anyone constructing a definition of craft beer around the question of whether it is or is not cask will fall into precisely the same trap that has ensnared CAMRA ever since it attempted to define the value of beer according to the technicalities of conditioning and dispense. While it’s undeniable that CAMRA’s approach has brought great success, which brewers and drinkers of both cask and non-cask craft beers should be grateful for, that success came at a price.
For forty years since, rather than focusing on beer quality and integrity, CAMRA has been riven by divisive, destructive and ultimately rather pointless debates about detailed technical issues that mean nothing to the average drinker, from an early furore about air pressure dispense that almost split the organisation, through endless hours of anguish about cask breathers and “fast cask” yeast, to the current craft keg debate and its resulting terminological impasse.
Surely, as several contributors to the Twitter discussion suggested, we should be concentrating on the things that really matter when deciding whether or not a beer is worth drinking or celebrating – its quality, flavour, distinctiveness, provenance, appropriateness to occasion, its sense of tradition or indeed of imagination, and other factors that speak to whether or not it was brewed with pride, and craft.
We can be sure the categories will come – they’ll be foisted upon us by marketing people, most of whom know little and care less about the technicalities and traditions of brewing, not to inform the public but to help “grow the category” and assist supermarket staff in deciding which shelves to put the bottles on. And doubtless those of us who care about such things will fulminate online about how inaccurate and unhelpful they are, just as we do when we see Leffe Blonde and Erdinger Weissbier labelled as lagers or read that a beer has been brewed to the same recipe for a thousand years. But please let’s not give such confusion and misinformation a head start.