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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 25 November 2013

Another long post about craft beer.


                                       

I did a pub industry conference the other week where I asserted that 2013 will be remembered as the year craft beer went mainstream.

I based this on everything from stats (37% of adults are aware of craft beer; 40% of pubs would like to stock a craft beer, the word 'craft', when applied to beer, stands for quality, flavour, and a beer that's worth paying more for) to personal experience (every major global brewer, or one of their agencies, has approached me to have a chat about craft beer and whether they should be doing something about it) to anecdotal (more of my non-beer friends know their hops and ask to be guided to some interesting craft beers).

Most entertainingly, Hollywood has made a craft beer RomCom, out in the UK any day now, which from the trailer doesn't look entirely shit, and seems to capture an appropriately indie aesthetic for craft beer.


In my speech I used the analogy - as I always do - of music. This particularly instance was inspired by a conversation I had with Richard King, author of the definitive history of indie music, in which he told me that you could look at blogs discussing the definition and direction of craft beer, substitute the phrase 'craft beer' for 'indie music', and ten years ago EXACTLY THE SAME blogs were being written, the same arguments, the same factions. 

Of course since then indie music has all but died. The process that began with Oasis breaking through, becoming chart-toppers, tabloid front page regulars, and playing to a third of a million people at Knebworth, ended with the majors cashing in, and indie becoming a debased, meaningless term, divorced from its roots, and applied to any band that had a noticeable amount of hops - sorry, guitars - in it. 

So will the same thing inevitably happen to craft beer? Well, some people think so. I personally think it's not about the size of the brewery, or its ownership, but the intent of the people who will inevitably jump the bandwagon. Do they want to help craft beer grow while retaining its integrity, to provide a business that has long term profitability and sustainability? Or do they want to cash in and make a quick buck from this trend while keeping an eye out for the next one that will come after it? 

A clear example of the latter is there for anyone travelling through Paddington or Waterloo stations. 


Last year, The Beer House launched in both locations, and there are surely more to follow. The Beer House is owned by SSP, the same company that owns all the other retail franchises on UK train station platforms. If you have ever visited an Upper Crust or a Pumpkin, I'm guessing that sentence has caused chilled dread to start creeping down your spine.

The launch press release says, "This brand was developed to capitalise on the growing trend in the market of consumers looking for something interesting and different as the craft beer movement continues to gain momentum."

You can just feel the passion for beer bursting from the page can't you?

The Beer House does not have a website.  There's a Twitter account that posts scheduled broadcasts of the kind of 'Hey, what's everyone doing for the weekend?' type tweets you get from big corporates and rarely, if ever, talks about beer. It doesn't do tap takeovers or meet the brewer events. It boasts of 'over fifty' craft beers, and then releases a publicity shot with two of the world's biggest mainstream lager brands in the foreground:


Anyone can ask James Clay to supply them a bunch of interesting beers and stick the word 'craft' everywhere on chalk boards. And someone just did. 

Hopefully such places will die out when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot attract people who actually care about beer, or flavour, or integrity, and they realise they're selling more Heineken than anything else, and they close or rebrand. Hopefully.

So should the major labels of brewing be allowed anywhere near craft beer at all? Are they destined to be rubbish, by definition, if they do? 

I've been hugely impressed over the last year or two with craft beer offerings from brewers such as Thwaites and Brain's. Many of their beers are as good as any from a typical micro - in some cases better, as these are breweries with technical expertise, laboratory facilities and so on. They may not push the boundaries as much as a Brew Dog or a Wild Beer Co, but craft beer doesn't always have to push the boundaries. (Indie label Creation Records may have broken new ground with the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, but their biggest ever band simply copied the Beatles, and were no less exciting for that - at least at first.)

If a large UK regional brewery is making good, interesting, flavourful beer, then any debate as to whether it is 'craft' or not is political rather than being about the beer itself. So what are we to make of Greene King's foray into craft?

Last week I went to the opening of the brand-new £750,000 St Edmunds Brewery. "Greene King’s long tradition of crafting quality ales enters an exciting new phase as the company throws the doors open on its new innovation brewhouse," says the press release. They are careful not to call themselves a craft brewer, but have unashamedly launched a new range of what they call craft beers.


From an objective point of view, there was good and bad on display. But it definitely felt as though the intent was genuine. 

Among the bad is Noble Craft Lager. While it is brewed with Tettnang hops (a lager hop) and lager malt, it is fermented with Greene King's usual ale yeast and is not lagered (stored for maturation) for any significant period, so according to either of the two separate but often interrelated definitions of lager, it's not a lager at all, but a pale ale that's a bit sweetish for my palate. I'm sure that sweetness (and the masquerade as a lager) will mean it does very well. But it's cheeky to call it a lager - and taking the piss to call it a craft lager. 

I'm also a bit dubious about repackaging established Greene King beers as part of this new craft range. Strong Suffolk Ale is one of my favourite Greene King beers, and if it were a new brew I wouldn't have thought it unusual that it's here. St Edmunds Golden Ale, launched a few years ago, belongs in the mainstream GK range by any defintion. Simply rebadging these sends out the wrong message, making the whole thing feel a bit too marketing-led (and one of the defining characteristics of craft beer is that it is led by brewers, not marketers, even though the latter have an important role to play).

On positive side, it was a joy to be introduced to beers such as the new Suffolk Porter, Twisted Thistle IPA and St Edmunds Anniversary Ale. Yardbird is a solid pale ale in the style of Camden or Meantime Pale. And while I wasn't quite convinced by the new Hop Monster IPA - yes, people, Greene King now makes a 'proper' IPA! - many of my press colleagues really enjoyed it. I'd be perfectly happy to drink any of these beers, and to refer to them as craft beers while doing so.

After the tasting, we did get the obligatory marketing spiel - "The Greene King of the last few years is going to look very different in the future" - and surprisingly, for me this was just about the most valuable part of the day. Because I think Greene King are helping us get to a place where craft beer UK can mature properly.

I love microbrewers because they act on instinct and intuition. I like larger regional brewers because they can afford to do market research, and when it's done well, and reveals new insights that can be shared, it's incredibly valuable.

When Greene King went out to talk to craft beer drinkers they found two groups: a more mainstream group of 'beer explorers', who have their favourite beers but like to try new ones, and a generally younger, more specialist group who buy into the core craft aesthetic. As the number of craft brewers grows, and the number of craft beer bars grows, the number of people who drink craft beer is growing. That's why nearly half of all pub landlords want to stock at least one craft beer. And as it grows, what the broad market thinks of as 'craft' is taking a new shape:


This chart (presented, refreshingly, without PowerPoint) is hugely important, as I think it unlocks the headache many British craft beer enthusiasts have been suffering from.

What confuses us about craft beer in the UK is familiarity.

We take our lead on craft beer from America, believing that US craft beer styles, and the flavours they represent, are the ones that matter. We frame any attempt to define craft beer in relation to the American definition. But we, and the Germans and Belgians, have something the American craft movement doesn't - an unbroken history of interesting, flavourful, small-scale brewing. You could argue - because it's true - that we have always had craft brewing, long before the Americans coined the phrase in its current context.

There was no discernible craft beer in America before the current microbrewery boom began. Craft in America reacted against the total lack of interesting beer. Every craft brewer in America is a relatively recent arrival. So if we take our cues from America, craft beer is all about novelty. But this is circumstantial rather than intrinsic - the word 'novelty' does not appear in the US definition of craft beer.

But the word 'traditional' does.

We have craft brewers that are hundreds of years old. There is no novelty there, and if we think novelty is important, then these brewers don't feel to us like craft brewers. What GK's market research shows (and I have seen other pieces of research that arrive at exactly the same point, albeit with slightly different labelling) is that the broader mass of people now getting into craft believe there are two types of craft beer - traditional, which includes pretty much any real ale, and speciality - which could be Belgian speciality, German wheat beer, America IPA or the next thing Evin O' Riordain dreams up.

And that broad mass of people is right. If a brewer in Portland, Oregon were to set up shop tomorrow brewing exactly the same beers Greene King have been brewing for years, and grew to be exactly the same size as Greene King is now, no one would have any hesitation in calling them a craft brewer. You might think some of those beers are bland, but I've tasted bland from young micros too. Worse, I've tasted beers that are challenging for the sake of being challenging, and beers that exhibit a lack of brewing skill, but apparently these are still craft beers.

You might think Greene King are too big to be a craft brewer. Sure, the facsimile in Portland, Oregon would be a tiny drop in the US market, but you know what? GK's share of the UK market too, big as they might seem close up, is relatively tiny. If you're trying to be objective about craft beer, as opposed to trying to find a definition that includes the beers you like and excludes the beers you don't, then Greene King - and Marston's, and Fuller's, and Wells and Youngs - are craft brewers. But they are traditional (or familiar) craft rather than speciality (or novel, or experimental) craft. And that might be a helpful distinction to make.

When the Publican's Morning Advertiser tweeted the story about me saying craft has gone mainstream, two responses on Twitter struck me. One said that because the likes of Brooklyn Lager and Goose Island IPA were now relatively easy to find in pubs belonging to the big PubCos, they could no longer possibly be considered craft. The other effectively said that craft couldn't be considered mainstream because the big PubCos don't allow their licensees to sell craft beer brands. At least one of these statements has to be wrong.

There's still confusion and disagreement about what is and isn't craft, and there always will be. There will always be good and bad craft beer made by microbrewers, and increasingly there will be good and bland craft beer made by regional brewers. But I don't think the regionals are going to destroy craft beer by their intervention. They will help it grow and mature, which it needs to do, otherwise it will become a fad and recede.

Rooney Anand is not Simon Cowell. Importantly, unlike crafty brands such as Shocktop in the US, Greene King, Brain's and Thwaite's make no secret that they are the bigger, more familiar brands behind these new craft ranges. If you want to keep it real and avoid beer from any brewer over a certain size, that's your call, and the brewer makes it easy for you to do so. But occasionally, you'll be missing something special.

So long as bigger brewers remember that craft is about brewing before marketing, about flavour before packaging, about integrity and honesty before segmentation and exploitation, there is no reason I can see why they can't make 'craft' beer. In and of itself, this does not represent a dilution of the meaning of the term. They may occasionally need to be reminded of the this (as I have done here in the case of Noble Pale Ale) but on balance I believe the entry of brewers like Greene King to the craft sphere is a good thing.

I hope I'm not proved wrong.

46 comments:

Bailey said...

Although I have nothing much to add, I wanted to say that I am not at all bored of talking about what craft beer means, and am always happy to read about what is going on in the market.

That chart is good. Was that from Greene King's presentation?

Pete Brown said...

Yeah, they did this natty leaflet as part of the launch that also includes a useful beer styles wheel based on colour, advice to licensees who want to stock craft, and even - gulp - a bullet point definition of craft! You should ask them for a copy, it's really useful.

Bryan the Beerviking said...

Identifying trad craft and novelty craft is a very interesting idea, I'm going to have to have a think about it...

Mind you, I'm trying to remember who it was that last reminded me that there's nothing new under the beery sun, and whatever brewers today come up with will almost certainly have been done in some form somewhere before. Evin, probably!

Re. the Beer House, I think the first was the Charing Cross one, which opened a couple of years ago: http://blog.beerviking.net/2012/03/beer-house-charing-cross.html

As you say, a blatant bandwagon jump. By the by, there's no website, but the Beer House group does at least have a Twitter account @TheBeerHouse - and amazingly, it's active...

An Anonymous Boozer said...

The Beer House in Paddington seemed very 'faux-craft' to me when I've visited it, and this explains it. It was basically just 5am Saint and a bunch of mainstream beers. I can imagine Brewdog might be the go-to brand for this type of place. I wonder whether being associated with this type of 'faux-craft' bar might do Brewdog more harm than good in the long run.

I agree with your comments about honesty and 'crafty' brands. As long as somebody like Greene King is honest, I don't see the problem in them bringing out a 'craft' range (whether or not they will be accepted as 'craft' is another matter). But then where does this leave somebody like Sharp's? If you visit their website you would think they are just a small independent brewery in Cornwall, but they are now nothing of the sort.

Peter Brissenden said...

Meantime have been on to this for a while, drawing the definition between the varieties of 'craft' by referring to themselves as 'modern craft'

Curmudgeon said...

One issue is whether "craft" continues to be perceived as something distinct from the mainstream of "real ale" as brewed by the smaller family brewers and most micros. Is Batham's craft? Is Joules or Weetwood?

I was also interested to see in a Sam Smith's pub yesterday a detailed 4-page beer menu (including quite a few beers not sold in that particular pub) which, while not positioning itself as craft, put great stress on the tradition and integrity of ingredients and process.

Cooking Lager said...

Carling is mainstream? It's one of the most beautifully crafted with passion beers on the market.

Bryan the Beerviking said...

Just a thought re. honesty - some of the regional brewers have not been honest about their beers' origins in the recent past. CAMRA has been effective here, insisting that beers are properly attributed.

In other countries - especially those such as Germany, which lack an equivalent of CAMRA - keeping all the brewers honest requires legislation. No legislation and no strong consumer voice, and it doesn't happen.

I recall my first meeting with Blue Moon for instance - there was nothing on the bottle to say it was Coors-owned. (The giveaway was that the bottle was in a glass case in the taproom at Golden, alongside a medal it had won - so no, they weren't hiding their ownership, but neither were they advertising it if they didn't have to.)

Ed said...

Twisted Thistle IPA is a Belhave brand that's been around for a few years, and has a stronger export version they sell in the US.

Michael McDonald said...

The inclusion of GK IPA and their Belhaven brand in this infographic (is that the word?) does raise the question of whether a nitrogenated beer can be 'craft'.

The core point behind this whole 'craft' label seems to be that a few of the newer breweries decided that it was a great marketing ploy to start yelling 'craft' from the rooftops. If there is a definition agreed upon amongst the older breweries, the younger ones will disagree just to be different and to further disassociate themselves from the traditional guys like Thwaites, St Austell and other makers of the supposedly flavourless brown stuff from casks.

The wonderful irony of the UK craft beer scene at the moment is that a certain marketing lead PLC (owned 20% by the company behind Skyy vodka) is now the incumbent, with its massively popular chain of bars being the gatekeepers to a large market for new 'craft' breweries.

Bryan the Beerviking said...

Michael - nitro is pretty common among craft breweries in the US & elsewhere. As far as I can tell, it's really just in the UK - with our 70s heritage of "keg=evil" - that nitro is seen as somehow beyond the pale.

Michael McDonald said...

Bryan, I find that really odd - I had always associated 'craft' with 'natural', so nitrogen wouldn't really fit for me. Probably another point that brewers would argue over!

John Medd said...

Your indie analogy is even closer to the mark than you think; when Creation signed Oasis, label boss, Alan McGee had already sold out to Sony, so Oasis were never really a Creation (or indeed an indie) band. Craft beer may well be the new rock'n'roll - but only for as long as a heartbeat: the mainstream beckons.

Pete Brown said...

John - I'm reading McGee's autobiography right now! (Same publisher publicist as me). The analogy is very top of mind right now!

Phil said...

In terms of definitions I'm afraid this new and improved version of 'craft' is just as confused as the old ones. Put it this way: if craft means "guaranteed to be a bit more interesting, because the brewer's been putting a bit of thought into it" (as in the new GK range, Thwaites' 'blackboard' range, Hyde's Beer Studio range, and so on) then we're drawing a line down the middle of the cask ale scene (and starting endless arguments about where it runs). But if, as you (and GK) are suggesting, 'craft' should be understood as including the whole 'traditional craft' scene - GK IPA, Spitfire, old uncle Hobgoblin and all - then the 'craft' label says nothing about quality, originality, passion or any of those good attributes usually associated with it: it simply means "everything that isn't Carling or John Smith's Smooth (and a couple of others)".

I think all we can really say in the way of defining 'craft beer' is that it's a marketing label which is about to make it big. Lots of people will cash in, some of them making good beer & being justifiably successful with it. Some of what sells under the 'craft' name will be recognisable as what the aficionados used to call craft beer, but most of it - particularly the most successful examples - probably won't.

Hopefully such places will die out when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot attract people who actually care about beer, or flavour, or integrity,

Hopefully Mumford and Sons will go broke when it becomes apparent that they cannot attract fans who actually care about music, or creativity, or tradition.

Lots of people are going to be attracted to 'craft beer' (and 'folk music') if they think it's the next big thing, including lots of people who aren't particularly into beer (or music) and just want something pleasant and undemanding. Anyone who can provide something pleasant and undemanding with the label of 'craft' (or 'folk') is going to clean up.

Pete Brown said...

Fair point Phil, but yes I think that is what I'm saying (though reserve the right to change my mind).

"Everything that isn't Carling or John Smith's Smooth (and a couple of others)" still accounts for less than 20% of the UK beer market. And GK IPA, Hobgoblin et al would be -and often are - considered craft beers in their export markets, where they are less familiar.

pyo said...

Interesting you should bring up music as an analogy.

Very few genuine music fans have long, drawn-out conversations about genres of music, they just talk about the bands they like, the albums they like, and the songs they like. No-one apart from wikipedia editors really cares about or even considers the distinctions between thrash metal, speed metal and metalcore etc etc.

Perhaps (please god) this could be the future of beer discussion?

Pivní Filosof said...

It seems to me from here that many a celebrated "craft brewery" is more about marketing and image, and following the hottest trend of the week (which they will perhaps call "experimentation") than about substance. Someone hits it big with a new hop cultivar, and everybody else follows suit and next thing you know, that cultivar becomes almost impossible to get. So, how can we know what comes first, if the marketing or the brewing. And if the beer turns out to be good, does it really matter? No, it doesn't really.

On the other hand, and more important yet, If one of those bona-fide craft breweries can still put objective rubbish out there without batting an eye, or fearing they will loose any of their craft credentials, why do we, the consumers, really need a definition? For marketing people, yeah, fair enough, "craft beer" is a really cool (and right now very hot) brand and it's important to properly appropriate it before it's too late. But at the end of the day, all those fairy tales, and attempts to define the undefinable won't go any further than the glass.

As I've said many times before. To me, a beer is "craft" when the person selling it tells me so, I frankly don't care as a consumer, as I don't buy brands, I buy, first and foremost, good beer.

Gary Gillman said...

All well put. American craft pioneers idolized British real ales and in fact they didn't care how big the brewers were, if anything that was often a plus since experience means something. Smallness was prized only where the big companies were abandoning cask conditioning and bottle conditioning. It was about the beer at bottom, as you said.

Courage Director's in 1985 was a superb cask ale, if it is as good now, it is still one of the best in the world IMO. Or Ind Coope Burton Ale, say. Or Boddington's (cask again). Or Old Hookey and where to stop...

It's all from the U.K. basically except some of the flavours changed due to using local ingredients. But the parentage is unquestionable.

It is important to say, and what proves the point, is that where the flavour profile did not change, e.g. (largely) Imperial Stout, there is no functional distinction between the two countries' respective takes on this style. In a representative blind tasting you couldn't pick out the American and British ones. Probably true as well with American versions of Munich helles, say.

This is why it is amusing for me to read of the debate in the U.K.: we were trying largely to copy great British (and sometimes German or Belgian) beers.

Gary

P.S. I am aware that some beers could be regarded as true innovations - chili beer perhaps, or DIPA - but when you look at the history of English brewing even that is not really true. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants and it is amusing when some commentators (I don't mean you, you get it right) reverse the equation. :)

CarsmileSteve said...

Oh, mate, you mustn't know the type of music fans I do! Over the years I've had endless on-going debates about genre, culminating in the Great Rockist/Poptimism schism of the early 00s...

Admittedly a lot of these people were those who wrote about music, either professionally or on their blogs (and the line became increasingly blurred in both directions) but it's a conversation that continues to this day...

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Didn’t Gertrude Stein have it sussed with ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ before Percy Thrower buggered it up with his craft roses?

Julie Johnson said...

From my seat across the Pond, I found this statement about US craft very insightful: "Every craft brewer in America is a relatively recent arrival. So if we take our cues from America, craft beer is all about novelty."
There are some wonderful things going on in American brewing, but we're not the right model for everyone, or the inevitable model for anyone.

unclepuble said...

I find your analogy of craft Beer mirroring the indie scene refreshing, however I dont agree with Greene King etc being craft or your definition of craft for that matter, Craft has been defined quite clearly its definition is "An occupation or Trade requiring Manual dexterity or Artistic Skill" this in tern means something the Crafter has a lot of manual input into. Therefore Size is very important! as is the touch, feel & decision making of the person doing the craft, to make the crafted product. When Craft is added to beer I see a muddled definition of craft, that is no more than a throw away term. Craft should not define style, flavour, or quality it should however define the production method, as a craftsman or woman does their craft by sight touch smell & intuition not by automation, & a crafts person (I'll go PC now) turns out fantastic items most of the time be it a table or a beer (depends on their craft) but the Big brewers have no right to craft, as automation takes away the craft of the brewer, & also adds anonymity.

To be Craft what ever it is beer, furniture, clay pots, you have to know the name of the person how has made the item and be sure it has been made by hand & with the skill required to make that bespoke item by hand. you can then talk about the master crafts persons who can make that same item again and again at will by hand!

pyo said...

When we talk about craft beer, are we talking about making beer, or are we talking about marketing beer?

I think we're talking about marketing beer. That is no bad thing, marketing is an endlessly fascinating topic, but lets not confuse it for a minute with talking about the beer itself.

Pete Brown said...

Uncle Puble, fair point - but you can only differentiate between brewers on such criteria if you've been round the breweries and seen how they brew... have you?

kaiserhog said...

Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada used to be craft beer. They are approaching macro-beer production and distribution.

Some don't consider them craft even though it is good. Craft to means well-made good tasting beer using malt, wheat, rye, yeast, hops, and water that tastes good. Much like whisky/whiskey.

TomsonBeer said...

Unclepuble makes a valid point but raises another important question in my mind.

If the dictionary definition of 'craft' is ultimately integral to a definition of 'craft beer' then it would be difficult to accredit any brewer being craft or otherwise purely on the assumption of their size, and thus manual or automated production techniques being deployed.

It is my understanding that many of the large/super regional brewers are taking a different (manual?) production approach in their 'craft' breweries to create the 'feel' and 'touch' associated with crafting. So perhaps it's not always just a marketing exercise.

I agree with Pete, that some of those breweries referenced are making superb 'craft' beers with this approach. So you'd really have to segment breweries into two constituent parts to avoid stereotyping one way or the other.

The solution has to be taking each beer on its own merit and judging it accordingly. How we, or the consumer judge and define it will no doubt continue to be debated but no doubt quality of product (and, if we're honest) marketing will both win out.

Thomas said...

Budweiser is a traditional craft and always has been as it is exactly the same now as how I was drinking it a long time ago. Doombar is the same but it is one of the biggest selling cask ales in the country. Therefore it is mainstream. Old S H used to be craft traditional until they were bought out by Greene King and changed. Greene king IPA is not craft and completely mainstream. Goose Island Lager is Craft Traditional as it is brewed by a mainstream brewery. I agree with other entries.

Phil said...

Are craft beers identifiable (in the glass?), or is it breweries that we can identify as craft or not? Or is it just a marketing label which sometimes gets attached to certain beers (and brewers) and sometimes doesn't?

I don't always agree with James Watt, to put it mildly, but the more I think about this the more I think he was right to throw a strop about Blue Moon. It's hard to say that BM isn't craft; apart from anything else, if we ruled out BM (because it's a megacorp beer dressed up as an indie), where would that leave Sharp's? But if BM is craft, then craft has no meaning other than as a marketing proposition: "if you like the kind of thing that's sold as craft beer, this is the kind of thing you'll like". I don't think we should necessarily celebrate Greene King adopting that marketing proposition, given how empty it is; tomorrow it could be AB-Inbev who take it up.

Martyn Cornell said...

"Are craft beers identifiable (in the glass?)"

If you can't drink it and identify it as an excellent, tasty, well-made beer, it doesn't matter whether it's called craft or not. Really, I know it's a cliche, but it's a cliche because it's true: the only criterion for judging beer is not who makes it, but how good it tastes.

StringersBeer said...

the only criterion for judging beer - how it tastes?
If it was made by forced child labourers boiling kittens in a unicorn?

Pivní Filosof said...

@StringersBeer.

If we speak about the beer, and nothing but the beer. Yes. It's all about taste.

The company that makes it, on the other hand, that's another thing. If there's something you don't like about the company, you may choose not to buy their products or give them any kind of support, but if the beer is good, then it's good.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Isn’t this whole thing about craft covering everyone and their mother a bit like the way Speciality Beers went from being genuinely interesting beers coming in from abroad to one-dimensional holiday beers such as Peroni or Estrella?

StringersBeer said...

That is a very narrow use of the term "good". Which used to be quite a big word. The idea that products are ever truly considered, by anyone, free of their setting, seems odd to me. It's part of a rather solipsistic view of the consumer/product/producer interaction. Which rejects the "Craft" thing, not so much because the term is hijacked and devalued by marketeers, but having more to do with some sort of fetishism of the product. It's all (all of it) in the liquid? Utter nonsense.

Pivní Filosof said...

It all depends on how you see things, and when you see them.

Say you are given a beer from a brewery you know nothing about and you like it (or dislike it). Later you learn that the brewery is owned by a bunch of c*nts (or by people who donate all the profits to an orphanage, whatever). Will that change in anyway the opinion you've given about the beer? It will sure affect your willingness to support that brewery, to give them your money (which, at the end of the day, for a company is the most important thing), but the quality beer itself, its flavour and the effect it had in your senses will not have changed.

I don't want to accuse them of being c*nts, but I have a somewhat similar problem with BrewDog. Their marketing and childish rhetoric makes me not want to buy their beers, even though I believe some of them are pretty good.

Chris said...

"everything that isn't Carling or John Smith's Smooth (and a couple of others)"

This is by far the best definition of "craft" I've ever heard and I propose that everyone start using it.

StringersBeer said...

@Pivní Filosof: I'll grant you that in your entirely hypothetical, totally blind beer tasting the liquid will stand on its own. In reality the drinker has access to a great deal more than that. This is, after all, what marketeers do. They create a setting for the beer which does indeed influence subjective valuation of the product. It's the whole point of beer marketing. Anyone who claims to be able to evaluate beer outside this umbra is, I'd suggest, deluding themselves. We're all (unless we're some kind of sociopath) influenced by this kind of stuff.

It would be an ignorant, arrogant form of egotism to assert that 'I find the beer good, therefore it is a good thing.' With the corollary, 'that's all you need to know'.

That "Craft" may be inchoate, or ambiguous, or disintegrating doesn't mean that the term is useless. It's clearly being used. A good student of the beer market won't dismiss it as meaningless.

Laura Race said...

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JamesH said...

Another interesting piece Pete and one that definitely adds something to the debate around defining craft beer.

The points I'd make here are around GK, Brains et al bringing out their craft ranges. For me, this is merely a case of marketeers leading the process, and in these instances therefore craft beer is merely a marketing term, nothing else.

The question for me really is why they bother to do this - why have GK installed a £750k microbrewery on site in order to produce a range of beers that will sell probably less than 1% of their core range and so add nothing much to their revenue. They package them with contemporary labels in 330ml bottles so that they can proudly sit alongside other craft beers in specialist shops (although many specialist shops may reject them precisely because they are made by GK). The only reason therefore is one of brand image, marketing and wanting to be down with the new kids on the block, or up with the latest trends in marketing speak. GK will never stop making bland IPA and it will continue to be their best selling beer for many years after this 'craft' experiment has been quietly ditched.

And to be honest, what is wrong with that? They are a large regional brewer who make a range of very traditional real ales. God knows I hate most of their beers and their pubs and so would not defend them on their record.

BUT, my point is why try to be something they are not? This is actually what annoys me so much about regionals doing craft ranges. I think it lacks integrity and it actually lacks confidence in themselves. Innovation is certainly important to keep businesses moving and I wouldn't advocate standing still producing boring ales forever. But I would advocate making any innovation you embark on relevant to what you are, your history and ethos, rather than what you think the market wants. To me, the cases of Brains, Thwaites, GK etc. almost seem like a bunch of young marketeers who suddenly wish they worked for the likes of Brewdog or Camden Town and have pestered their bosses into giving them some new toys to play with. I think these craft ranges will be gone within a couple of years.
Is the GK core range craft? I wouldn't say so but that's mainly because I think the beer is terrible quality.

Incidentally, I have not tried the new GK craft range and this was never a comment on their quality. I have tried some of the Brains craft range and it was pretty decent. If it didn't have Brains on the label then I would've assumed it came from a hot new upstart brewery.

Pivní Filosof said...

It doesn't really have to be a blind tasting. I don't know about you but I, and I believe most people, do not do a background check on every new brewery I come across before making a purchase decision. I buy beer hoping, trusting that the people that make it aren't don't do anything I may find contrary to my values.

That said, I evaluate beer for the beer itself, naturally, what I know about the company, either by what they choose to tell me through their marketing, or what I can find out on my own, will affect my decision to give them my business and my support. So no, the product is never an entity independent of the producer (once again, I can give you the example of BrewDog, good beers in general, but sold with a marketing that does not create in me the desire to buy them).

Craft is not useless, it's a brand, which, as you say, is clearly being use to sell stuff. Like every brand, it has been invested with a series of values, and that is actually the meaningful thing about craft, not the word, but the values that have been attributed to it. You can theoretically substitute the word "craft" by another, invest it with the same values, and it will have the basically same meaning in the eyes of the consumer.

The point I want to make is that craft is not something tangible, and pretty much every definition I've seen is either arbitrary, a dogma of convenience or something that expects us to be able to get into the minds of the producers, which is impossible, or trust them blindly, which is not wise.

So, to wrap it up, if a (good) company makes good beer, how they choose to call it, it's largely irrelevant; if calling it "Craft" helps them sell a few more bottles, good for them.

Phil said...

Jon - it's true that we make buying decisions based partly on our perception of the brewery, which itself is sometimes based on very limited information. So, between apparently similar beers from unknown breweries, I'll probably choose the one whose label features white on black sans serif lettering over the one with a nice picture of an osprey in a roundel on a green background - and I'll take the osprey over the cartoon of a fat man sitting on the toilet. The first of these (imaginary) labels suggests 'craft beer', the second suggests 'nice but unadventurous', and the third says 'stay away'.

But even if the image of 'craft' is a reality, it is just that, an image. It's not something that can ever be defined.

Anonymous said...

Words like 'craft' and 'artisan' remind me at times of the
guff that supermarkets put on labels like 'from farmers who share our values'. Until there is a recognisable logo from a certifiable scheme like there is for Fair Trade products and Soil Association organic products, I suspect there will be producers who abuse the terminology in order to promote their product at a premium.

BobbyOrbit said...

I like the craft beer/indie music connection, but disagree that indie has all but died. It's thriving, but not widely popular. Oasis = Britpop ≠ Indie. Try Ariel Pink, Allo Darlin', Fossil Collective, Gliss, Staves and anything on KEXP.

Craft beer, craft food, craft pottery. They are all created by talented people, who are led by product quality and customer experience.

Loved the blog Pete, keep 'em comin'.

Anonymous said...

Very good.
Anyone would think you did this for a living...

Anonymous said...

A very interesting and thought provoking article. I sincerly hope that quality will out.
Ian Clay

Jenniffer said...

Love the craft..It is really cool. Keep it up