Saturday, 13 April 2019

Never the twain

You often nowadays see “craft” and “cask” being treated as two entirely separate and mutually exclusive categories, both in discussion about beer and in publicity material. The pub advertising board shown at the right is a typical example. On the face of it, this seems nonsensical, as surely much cask beer ideally fits the textbook definition of craft production as small-scale and handcrafted.

However, the way it has arisen stems from the way the term “craft”, in a beer context, was borrowed from the USA. As I described here, in that country the existing tradition of small-scale, regional brewing had largely died out by the early 1970s, so what began as the microbrewery movement, and later metamorphosed into craft, was starting with a clean slate, and could concentrate all its efforts on differentiating itself from “big beer”.

The UK, though, was different, as it had preserved a substantial stratum of small and medium-sized breweries majoring on its own unique ale-brewing tradition, and had a further layer of newer microbreweries on top of this. But when the craft beer movement was transplanted from across the Atlantic in the 2000s, it decided to set out its stall in opposition to this existing tradition rather than the industry giants. Real ale, much more so than international lager, was what they were not.

Real ale culture was seen as fuddy-duddy, narrow-minded and inward-looking, whereas craft beer was modern, youthful, dynamic and international. This was most marked in BrewDog’s PR schtick, but it extended much more widely than that. And a key point of that differentiation was that craft brewers produced modern keg beers which, we were assured, were nothing like Red Barrel.

This division wasn’t entirely one-sided, and many real ale supporters have been critical of craft beer, but the initial impetus for it very much came from the craft side. This is underlined by the dimissive attitude many craft enthusiasts take towards the independent family brewers, who for many years were the principal standard-bearers of quality beer in this country.

Of course, many of what are considered as craft brewers do produce cask beers, and some major on it, but 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.

Although sections of the beer commentariat may rail against it, it must be recognised that many of the products regarded by the drinking public as “craft” are in fact owned by the international brewers, to a much greater extent than real ales, and this has only been intensified by the big brewers’ craft acquisitions of recent years. And, if the US definition of craft (which has more to do with company size and independence than type of product) was extrapolated across the Atlantic, the likes of Greene King and Marston’s would certainly quality. They are smaller in terms of market share than Boston Brewing and Sierra Nevada are the USA.

It’s also noticeable how, in other countries with long-established brewing traditions such as Belgium and Germany, craft beer is usually taken to mean something different from their own indigenous styles, and very often is an international-style, heavily hopped IPA. As I said in the article I linked to above, real ale, and other countries’ own individual styles, is beer from somewhere, craft is beer from anywhere.

21 comments:

  1. You are letting your inner beer geek do your thinking again. Too bad. Never go full CAMRA.

    To a regular none geek drinker the terms craft and cask communicate 2 different things. Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff. World beer means lager because Northamption is in the world isn't it? Good food mreans the microwave is clean and cocktails means they've bought some lurid mixers, juice, fruit and jugs for the vodka.

    It's like in a supermarket and my brother in law picks up a 4 pack of London Pride and describes it as real ale and remains uninterested in CAMRAs definition of real ale. To him real ale means bitter.

    Commercial signs are not written for pedants, they are written as shorthand communication for commerce.

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    1. That's pretty much exactly what I'm saying - "the terms craft and cask communicate 2 different things". I'm not getting outraged, just making an observation.

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  2. What Cookie said. Again.

    Craft to me, Mrs RM and my sis is the strong cool beers on the taps behind the bar. Hence craft beer bars. Real ale is handpumps.

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  3. What's really odd is that the US and UK definitions of 'craft' look to be diverging, even though the UK def started out as a carbon copy of the US one. That Morning Ad top 10 only includes four beers from Brewing Association 'craft brewers' - BrewDog, Marston's, Camden Town and Innis & Gunn; the rest are, in US terms, macro beers.

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    1. Camden Town is owned by AB InBev, so that only leaves three. And Marston's and Innis & Gunn aren't exactly what your average crafty would think of as "craft".

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie13 April 2019 at 13:19

    They aren't mutually exclusive but Craft Beer is for youngsters and Real Ale is for the oldies - isn't it as straightforward as that ?

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    1. No, that's oversimplifying things. It may represent a certain tendency but no more than that; there are far too many exceptions that I have observed in the dozens of pubs, micropubs and bars I visit every year to support your assertion.

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  5. Craft beer for me is grapefruit tasting, overpriced, and often comes out of a keg.
    Cask ale is a living product brewed using English hops and quality malt. As brewed by the likes of Bathams, Holdens, Joules, Timothy Taylor, Sam Smiths, Wadworth etc it is a great pleasure to drink and makes life beautiful.

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  6. I think this debate encapsulates the curse of getting old. Back in the day, the movement for real, cask ale was started by young folk rebelling against the established order and, by and large, CAMRA succeeded in saving and reinvigorating traditionally brewed and served English/British style cask beer.

    Now, 40 (or so) years on, another group of young folk are rebelling against this 'old order' to produce beers with different and interesting new tastes. As Stafford Mudgie so succinctly puts it, they're not mutually exclusive, but there is a clear divide.

    As an 'oldie', I never really liked real ale, but I do like some of the over hopped, citrussy type new beers. (However, I still prefer proper old pubs rather than bench seating in an industrial unit!)

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    1. Massive difference, though - the initial real ale movement was seeking to preserve something that was seen as being endangered, whereas the modern craft beer movement is championing something new.

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    2. To me, the emergence of CRAFT and the REAL ALE debate in the UK is so similar to the emergence of PUNK music in the 70s. The oldies, “YES" with Rick Wakeman and his capes, “ELP” and “NICE” and a myriad others etc met something they couldn’t handle and neither could their ageing fans. PUNK might not have been better musically (debate ?) BUT it was the breath of fresh air and angst SO needed by the consumers and the kick up the ar*e that the music industry needed.
      Ditto CRAFT beer. Some of it is shit. Some of it is brilliant. But it is different. IT also fulfills a consumer need and is/was a kick up the ar*e to the established complacent UK brewers - AND complacent CAMRA.

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  7. Spot on Mudgie �� maybe Pete has a point...there is no angst rock music any more so maybe kids are venting their spleen through beer to piss their parents off!! ��
    Britain Beermat

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    1. They piss their parents off far more by not drinking at all.

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    2. My point was more to do with (some of us) becoming old enough to have seen 'history' happen and then for some young upstarts to come along and try to create their own 'destiny'.

      Without the years of effort by CAMRA and its members there probably wouldn't 'craft revolution'. Now is the time for the 'old guard' to stand aside and let the new revolution take its course. Safeguard your legacy, sip your BBB in the corner (of a nice old pub) and let the young 'uns have their fun knowing that (secretly), if you were their age, you'd probably be doing something similar!

      There'll be another revolution along in 40 years or so (which many of us won't see) but for now it's a case of accepting that yesterday I was the future, however the future has been and gone (but it was a great ride along the way!).

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie14 April 2019 at 08:31

      Pete,
      I don't quite agree with "let the new revolution take its course".
      In the 1970s the 'revolution', was "the Watneys Red Revolution" intended to totally remove cask beers from Watneys pubs.
      CAMRA might now be looked back on as revolutionary but its overriding aim was "real ale - every pub should have one" which was alongside, rather than replacing, keg beers. We accepted that if "the young 'uns" chose over gassed and over priced Worthington E or Double Diamond that was their prerogative although we hoped that they might have a bit more common sense when they grew up !

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    4. Yes, early CAMRA was a counter-revolution. It is not at all analogous with the craft beer movement.

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  8. I agree wholeheartedly with what PetesQuiz says above.

    From my point of view it is certainly good to know I played a role not just in saving cask beer, back in the seventies, but in generating an interest in beer which has allowed a new generation to elevate the world's greatest long drink to new heights .

    I'm content with that and so should you be Mudge .

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie14 April 2019 at 09:27

      T'other Paul,
      I didn't think I had suggested that I wasn't content with what I had done since 1973.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie14 April 2019 at 17:22

      And I'm content with doing, within reason, and thinking as I choose.

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  9. It is a stunning paradox, an older family brewery like Yuengling or Shiner is considered a "craft" brewery in the USA but similarly situated brewers in the UK are not. Another thing is for many American craft brewers "real ale" is considered the Holy Grail of brewing (the early American micro or craft movement was inspired by traditional British styles), there are just a lot of things structually in the market here that keeps it from taking off.

    I think craft brewers in the UK are adopting a substyle of Ale. Keg Ale brewed with American Hops. American Ale.

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