Craft Beer: What actually is it?

Craft Beer: What actually is it?

Bottling line at Tempest Brewing Co

The craft beer revolution is now firmly on trend. We discover that definitions can be hard to pin down.

OK, put down that pint of flat lager and check this out. There’s a new type of beer experience out there. It involves something called craft beer. Which, to its champions, is shorthand for beer with flavour. Those who make craft beer will, it’s believed, scour land, sea and air to find the next great ingredient to achieve flavour. They will happily spend hours, days, weeks and months researching it, testing it, tasting and brewing it to get it just right.

As this phenomenon has grown, so have levels of consternation within the industry about the term ‘craft beer’. It came into general use without much consultation or agreement, and while it initially appears to be a fairly innocuous description, on closer inspection you’ll find confusion, misappropriation and downright opportunism. In the eyes of many, much of the problem stems from the industry’s collective initial failure to define what it does mean to be ’craft’ and most definitely what it doesn’t mean.

‘We’ve painted ourselves into a corner,’ suggests beer writer and blogger Melissa Cole. ‘We needed clearer communication within the industry early on.’ Her feeling is that an initial strong and concise message from brewers may have headed off those who might wish to appropriate the term for their own financial gain. Cole’s main concern is that, due to inaction, anyone can use it and those in the industry who disagree with the way it is used simply have to live with it.

Related to beer, the term ‘craft’ has its roots in America where it’s much more clearly understood as a backlash against large breweries. For centuries in Britain we’ve had a healthy independent brewing culture so the arrival of this term on our shores in the last decade has been met with suspicion and celebration in equal measure.

Before ‘craft’ came along there was, of course, ‘real ale’. A rallying call for true beer lovers in the latter decades of the 20th century, in more recent times real ale had undoubtedly been suffering from a mild image problem (think of John Major supping on a flat warm pint and you get the picture). Yet those who brewed real ale share similar objectives to those who now produce what we call craft beer and many are happy with the definition. ‘We brew beer in which flavour is the overriding consideration and that is true to itself,’ says Jamie Delap, director of Fyne Ales. ‘Craft beer as a term does mean something to our customers or else they wouldn’t be using it. Presently it’s the only term that makes sense.’

Brewers commonly use definitions such as ‘authentic’ or ‘honest’ when describing their processes and product which clearly suggests there are ethical considerations associated with the process. However, this doesn’t help the humble enthusiast much in understanding what the true essence of craft beer really is. Fortunately there are ways to navigate the lack of a true definition and, to an extent, there is a consensus in the industry as to what ‘craft’ should mean.

Daniel Rowntree of the Craft Beer Rising festivals maintains that ‘flavour is directly related to the human influence associated with the product’, and many agree that a mass-produced beer masquerading as ‘craft’ is easily identifiable through taste. What is also true is that we, the consumer, are driving this demand for higher quality. As we ask more about what we eat and where it comes from, so we are also asking more of our beer. The abundance of craft beer selections available is indicative of the change in consumer culture as does the fact that we insist on a ‘beer experience’ each time we purchase a beverage.

It’s impossible to have this discussion without mentioning Brewdog. Established less than ten years ago, and kicking rebelliously against complacent industry norms, they identify strongly as a craft brewer and their confidence in their product is unquestionably justified, aided by a formidable marketing strategy. Yet they are divisive and many are unsure where they stand. Does being arguably the biggest name in this craft beer revolution, with a turnover of £30m a year and rising, come with added responsibility? If ‘craft’ is not only a brewing technique but a philosophy of a kind, where do you draw the line on profit and scalability?

Brewdog’s scale of operation certainly doesn’t appear to interfere with the quality of their product and the process in which it’s made but their constant use of the term ‘punk’ and their claim to be ‘sticking two fingers up’ to what has come before does not sit well with the integrity associated with the craft beer philosophy. When you ruffle feathers in this way many will no doubt be waiting for you to slip up. For many of their ‘punk’ devotees (and individual investors), the revelation that Brewdog supplies to Tesco surely provoked similar reactions to those witnessing Iggy Pop’s foray into insurance sales.

If craft beer, as an entity, is simply clever marketing, then it can understandably leave the consumer somewhat bemused. What does it really stand for? Gavin Meiklejohn, director at Tempest Brewing Company, contends that pride in your creation is part of the overall process. ‘You need to be in complete control of your product,’ he states. ‘It should be small-batch and should have production and quality control right down to packaging and the best quality ingredients possible.’

What seems to concern brewers uniformly is the misappropriation of the term ‘craft’ by large companies attempting to cash in. Many consider it a substantial problem as organisations downgrade flavour in an effort to brew their beer to hit a certain price point. ‘What happened with the term is that as soon as it hit the mainstream it was co-opted by big companies,’ notes Scott Williams of Williams Bros Brewery. ‘But we have no ownership it so craft as a term has sailed.’

Content to promote cask beer, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has no real dog in this race, yet even they concede that an agreement on definition ‘needed to be done at the beginning to have any real effect’. That said, they acknowledge the larger picture, agreeing that ‘anything that gets people drinking quality beer is a good thing’.

As the obvious dichotomy present between passion and profit is unlikely to be resolved, it’s intriguing to see some are now considering alternative definitions such as ‘hands-on brewing’ or ‘hand-crafted beer’. Whether you’re carving – or crafting – out a niche or redefining the public’s understanding of what they drink, the name game is an on-going challenge.

Craft Beer Rising

Beer festivals have come a long way in the last few years. Among the most progressive is the Craft Beer Rising outfit, who are based in London but have been travelling up to Scotland for a couple of years.