Friday, 6 December 2013

Divided by a common language

The great craft beer debate rumbles inexorably on but never seems to get any closer to reaching any kind of definitive conclusion. One of the best things I’ve read on the subject recently is this blogpost from Pete Brown. He makes the important point that many of the problems we in the UK are experiencing with nailing down the concept is that it originated in the very different environment of the USA and doesn’t read directly across to our beer market. As he says,
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.
Britain, of course, still had an established tradition of small-scale, artisanal brewing which was what was championed by CAMRA in the first wave of the real ale movement. The term “craft beer” only really became commonplace in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, and it was deliberately adopted to set it apart from “real ale”. Partly this was to encompass small-scale, quality products that fell outside the definition, but it was also to distance itself from some of the baggage that “real ale” had accumulated – the beer bellies, twigs in beards, Morris dancing, dodgy puns and Dungeons and Dragons. Craft beer was young, trendy and urban; real ale was middle-aged, fuddy-duddy and rustic. Craft beer was brewed under railway arches, real ale was brewed in farm outhouses. Of course much craft beer is real ale, but the two concepts carry very different connotations.

All American craft beer was by definition innovative, because it was a reaction against bland industrial lagers, even if it was actually aiming to recreate established British, Belgian and German styles. And innovation was key to British craft beer too, most notably in the lavish use of New World hops. It was different from the old “boring brown beer”. So it wasn’t just a matter of scale, but also of approach. This raises the question of whether small, newly-established breweries, which are undoubtedly “artisanal”, but make beer in the traditional British style, such our local Ringway Brewery, are really felt to belong in the craft fold.

The term has of course now become so widely used and debased that it finds itself being applied to anything that isn’t a mass-market beer produced by the international brewers. For example, all of the recently repackaged Ringwood beers, some of which go back to the first wave of microbrewing, now describe themselves as “craft beers”. But I would say that amongst those with some interest in beer the original intention of the term is still broadly understood. Whether it conveys anything useful to the drinker apart from image is another matter, of course.

6 comments:

  1. Artisanal - is that one word or three?

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  2. @RedNev, cheers mate, that gave me a right good laugh

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  3. Starting to find this whole debate more than a little tedious!

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  4. This is a very clear description of how things came about and it's a shame that CAMRA has tries to say that "Cask ale is also craft ale" because that's just muddied the water. Couldn't we have just accepted that "Real ale" was a sort of made-up term to define one style of beer and that "Craft beer" was just another term very much in the vein of the US use of the term.

    I'm going to start saying "Non-cask craft beer" ;-)

    But yes, it's getting tedious but considering how many column inches the debate is generating, it's obviously still a hot potato. Not supporting non-real ale *is* further confining cask ale (and therefore CAMRA) to the very appropriate wording used in the main article. Maybe we're happy with that?

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  5. This is the most stupid "debate" since Baxter asked how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. Why care whether it is called craft or real or even keg provided it is good to drink?

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  6. I think we need a craft council to sit in judgement and let us all know what is and isn't acceptable to drink.

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