Sunday, 13 October 2019

Declaration of independence

Writing in the Morning Advertiser, Pete Brown wonders whether this is the last time he will have to drop the c-bomb? It is certainly true that the term “craft beer” has proved confusing and impossible to define in the UK context. The key to the problem is that its advocates tried to read it across directly from the USA, but that just doesn’t work as the markets are very different. In the US, the established stratum of medium-sized independent breweries had largely disappeared, so it was easy to pitch craft as anything that wasn’t Big Beer.

But, in this country, there was a long-standing group of independent brewers, mostly majoring on cask beer, who had in more recent years been joined by a growing number of new microbreweries. By the definition in general usage, “craft” would have encompassed pretty much all of these. But the British craft movement deliberately chose to ignore them, and indeed pitched itself as being in contrast to “real ale culture”.

Thus we have arrived at the situation I described here, where “cask” and “craft” are polar opposites, and I wrote:

...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.
Or, as Cooking Lager said in the comments, “Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff.” In British terms, “craft beer” has become just another market segment, and one increasingly dominated, to a greater extent than real ale, by the products of the international brewers or their offshoots. Something similar has happened in European countries with a long-established brewing tradition, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, where “craft beer” is often seem as a hoppy, US-style IPA in contrast to their indigenous styles.

To avoid these issues, Pete is proposing a move to defining craft beer as that produced by independent companies rather than the industry giants, which indeed is what already is accepted in the USA. However, this cuts across how the concept is viewed in this country, as he writes:

Applied to the UK, every single beer from one of our traditional family-owned breweries would count as a craft beer. I would have no problem with that, but I know a lot of craft drinkers who would.
There is much to be said for championing independent producers – it encourages both competition and a more heterogenous beer market. It’s also a good idea to promote transparency in terms of who owns what. But it’s a lazy assumption that independent beer and good beer are synonymous. Many of the world’s great beer brands, such as Pilsner Urquell, are owned by multinational brewers, and Fuller’s ESB didn’t become any less worth drinking when it was acquired by Asahi. In contrast, plenty of unbalanced, low-quality homebrew comes out of inexperienced brewers’ garages.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation made great play of promoting the independent brewers in preference to the “Big Six”. After all, it had been their commitment (or inertia) that had been largely responsible for keeping real ale in existence in this country. But it always recognised that the major brewers could, and did, produce good real ales, and indeed one of them was responsible for Ind Coope Burton Ale, one of the poster boys of the initial real ale revolution. CAMRA always recognised that the product was distinct from the corporate ownership: it never sought to claim that the only beer worth drinking came from independent brewers.

The concept of independence is also very hard to define. The US definition from the Brewers’ Association sets a figure of 6 million barrels a year, but scaled down to the size of the British market that would comfortably encompass Marston’s. Yet I doubt whether many craft beer enthusiasts would accept Marston’s as craft brewers. They’d even feel uncomfortable about Palmer’s and Holt’s. How how much of a stake are multinationals allowed to hold in breweries such as Beavertown before they no longer qualify? The Brewer’s Association says no more than 25%. And how big would BrewDog have to become before it turns from a minnow into a shark? In some people’s eyes, it already has.

It’s questionable to what extent ownership really matters to most drinkers anyway. People judge beer, or indeed any other product, by what it tastes like, not who owns it. They recognise that most of the products they buy are made by multinational companies – who ever heard of an independent smartphone, or toilet paper? Indeed, the person who strives as far as possible to eliminate anything “corporate” from their lifestyle comes across as an obsessive bore. The traction this will gain amongst the great majority of drinkers is exaggerated.

So allowing “craft” to be reborn as “independent beer” isn’t going to solve the issue of definition, and is fraught with problems of its own. “Craft”, ultimately, has become established as a cultural concept, not a specific type of beer or a size of brewer. Maybe it would be best to call time on all these attempts to sort the beer world into sheep and goats.

9 comments:

  1. Why not seek to define craft in terms of actual craftsmanship?

    In other fields a craftsman will have had formal and informal training, an apprenticeship and possibly some form of recognised institute or guild membership requiring qualification?

    People that set up independent bespoke tailor shops learn a trade before setting up their own shop. Likewise carpenters and other fields that are much rarer than they once were due to mass production still maintain the idea that the term craftsperson has value because it is hard earned.

    A bored middle aged man seeking escape from an unsatisfactory career in IT and enjoying a homebrewing hobby and having the money to take a risk and afford to kit out and rent an industrial unit and pay for a week long brewing course may be something to admire and respect but it does not earn the term craftsman. Even if turning that into a viable business requires enough customers to be willing to pay over the odds for his product.

    A person with a chemistry degree and a post grad in brewing working at a national brewer overseeing an automated plant has more claim to that recognition.

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    1. Hear hear. Too many of these 'done a week at Brewlab' brewers are actually crap at what they do but their lack of craftsmanship is often disguised (or maybe revealed) by excessive hopping and fruit flavouring.

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    2. As someone who was once on the end of the SIBA technical helpline it was a bit of an eye opener to discover that those who have done a week long course at Brewlab are a minority. Most microbrewers have no formal training at all.

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    3. Now you mention it I'm not that surprised. Brewing is a surprisingly complicated science if it's done properly and that applies just as much to a tiny micro as it does to a multi million hecto operation, and the daft thing is that it's the inexperienced amateurs that go on about the quality of their beer when quality is the last thing they deliver. Rant over!

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    4. What about someone with a degree in Microbiology, a Ph.D in Microbiology (biochemistry and physiology of fermentation, post doc in biotechnology, 6 years in food industry as chief microbiologist followed by a lot of healthcare experience who then set up a microbrewery, experimented for several months and then started selling beer that had conditioned for 3 weeks plus passed a taste test before release. Does this person count as a craft brewer?

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    5. In my eyes, absolutely. That's not just throwing some stuff together after reading a beer recipe, it's brewing.

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  2. Gonna submit a second thought.

    If you are going to define independence as the USP, then it’s basically about ownership not size. You run an independent business so long as you not obligated to do things you don’t want. It’s about control. Being able to say no to things.

    You can still be independent and be publicly quoted with many private and institutional equity owners. Timbo seems to have free reign to do as he pleases despite answering to shareholders. A small private company may have a significant minority private investor that places an obligation on the company.

    Further, how do you define obligation? If 20% of a brewery is owned by Carlsberg, then you could say they are still independent. They owe Carlberg 20% of the dividends, but they don’t have the votes to alter things. But what if Carlsberg, protecting their investment, offer the small partner access to a supply chain, international logistics and preferable ingredients supplies? No obligation to take it, but you’d be crazy not to, still independent?

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  3. "Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff.”

    Cookie was right the first time. As per.

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