Tuesday 3 November 2015

I remember when this were all craft

A small, artisanal craft brewery
Last month, Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale complained about lazy journalists making a connection between the Irish craft beer sector and “hipsters”. A very fair point, although perhaps they are just doing a read-across from the English craft beer scene, which in parts, especially in London, is distinctly hipsterish. This fails to recognise that Irish craft beer actually has much more in common with the USA.

Within the post, he also makes this important point:

Before the industrial revolution, all beer was craft beer. It was produced locally using local ingredients and sold to local people. After industrialisation and the amalgamation of most breweries in to large brewing conglomerates, craft beer persisted in a small regional way in some countries but was wiped out entirely in most. Ireland was one of those countries. By the 1980s, only the big three remained and it wasn't until the late 90s that we saw our first independent breweries start to open again.

Since big beer only started a few hundred years ago, but humans have been brewing beer for at least 5000 years and probably longer, which brewing process do you think is actually the fad? The 5000+ year old small scale, small batch, independent brewing or the 200 year old industrial scale brewing? Getting back to the infographic: Compressing the earth’s history in to 46 hours shows commercial beer is 1 minute old and craft beer is a few hours.

Actually, brewing was one of the earliest processes to be industrialised, as it doesn’t really need complex machinery or much mechanical power. You simply need to hoist malt and pump water up to the top, and then gravity will do the rest. The Great London Beer Flood of 1814 clearly shows that by then beer was being produced on a truly industrial scale.

Over the years, more and more beer was produced in big industrial plants, but small-scale brewing did linger on. The period from the end of the Second World War to 1970 saw a huge attrition of both home-brew pubs and small, independent commercial brewers, but there were still a fair number around at the birth of CAMRA. By any standards, the four surviving home-brew pubs and small operations like Paine’s, Donnington and Batham’s would surely qualify as “craft”.

The normal sense of the word “craft” in British English is reflected in the terms “handcrafted” and “craftsman”. It implies small-scale production, individual skill, an absence of automation and a high level of hands-on human involvement. It will probably use mostly locally-produced raw materials, with a minimum of intermediate processing. It doesn’t have to be rooted in tradition, although it may well be. It’s E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful in practice. It is artisanal in the proper sense of the word, although I hesitate to describe it as such, given that the term is generally used nowadays to describe “a job now done by a middle-class person that used to be done by a working-class person”.

But we now have a situation where “craft beer” is used to mean something entirely different – brewers who are knowing and self-aware, and who brew beer that is deliberately iconoclastic and innovative in terms of style, strength and ingredients. BrewDog has grown into a substantial industrial brewery, but it is still widely regarded as the acme of “craft”, whereas long-established micro-breweries like Cotleigh and Banks & Taylor, and the surviving small family breweries, are dismissed as old hat, boring and nothing to do with craft. And hops flown half-way around the world are seen as essential ingredients.

The term “craft beer” was only brought into general use because many new breweries in the US had become far too big to credibly call themselves “microbreweries”. Applied to the very different brewery scene here, it’s strange how its meaning has come to be pretty much entirely turned on its head. Maybe it would be more honest if it was called something else entirely, like “new-wave beer”.


  1. I like the link. Any beer blog that mentions the inevitable zombie apocalypse is blog of the month. We should all be prepping by stocking up on slabs of lout.

    As for your craft definition. Own it bro. Take it back from brewdog and apply it to whatever dreary brown bitter you like. Hell yes.

  2. I'm sure all the Yanks think Sam Smith's is proper craft, anyway :-)

  3. Indeed. Spoken to a few American Tourists in Sams pubs over the years surprised that here that the offering and pubs are in their words "blue collar" when it's a white collar import brand at home. But even yanks like a cheap OBB.

    Sams OBB is where all the cool kids are, like us.

  4. I actually really like "new wave" as a term - I've been trying to sneak it into things for a while. It clarifies whether a brewery is more like (say) Summer Wine or Acorn without having the attached baggage and inherent value judgement of "craft".

  5. I, also, like and use the term "new wave". It's how I explain UK "craft" as a concept that covers beer in any format when talking to publicans/etc who're trying to get their head around it. It's kind of about beer styles and diversity of styles. Different to industrial brewing, also different to traditional cask ales.

    Hell - Chris Mair called his distrib brand "A New Wave". That may actually be what started me using the phrase more regularly.

  6. A masterful post. Not sure if I'm more in love with you or the TAND now.

    I would, however, suggest that the term "craft" came into general use by contract or licence brewers like Sam Adams, who obviously couldn't call themselves "microbreweries". The growth of micro's beyond legal limits was very secondary; we still didn't call Sierra Nevada a "craft" brewery back then. That's my recollection, anyway.

    I think we also kicked around "new wave beer" in the USENET, I think various people objected to it, but can't remember or imagine why. I think it's quite apt.

  7. So will the next new wave be labelled "Post-Brewdog"?

  8. Thanks for the positive comments, folks. Contrary to popular belief I'm not in any sense against "new-wave" brewing and indeed on the quiet enjoy many of its products (...anticipates drinking can of Camden India Hells Lager...)

    But to call it "craft" is unhelpful - linguistically inaccurate and unnecessarily divisive. This is craft - this isn't. No, it's all beer. Some is good, some isn't.

  9. Or, more importantly: it's all beer. Some I like some I don't.

  10. I'm pretty sure that no commercial brewery is really 'craft' in the non-industrial sense. All that varies is the amount of kit that they have. Even homebrewers often seem to have a pretty big array of kit: temperature control, contraflow wort cooling etc etc.

  11. Timothy Goodacre8 November 2015 at 16:47

    Yes all beer ! Forget Craft !

  12. @Rob - that just makes the term even more meaningless.

  13. If you're taking it to mean non-industrial, then yes, it is meaningless. Smaller brewers often seem to go on about digging out the mash tun as if it makes the beer 'hand crafted', yet they are surrounded still by lots of shiny stainless steel vessels and other equipment. Brewing is an industrial process and has been pretty much from the industrial revolution. And that's a good thing imo.

  14. I think people are getting confused. Craft beer has never meant small or non-industrial. Its not a cottage industry, its a market segment.

    It just means a British brewery that brews beer in any of the modern American or European styles - ie something other than the ubiquitous British staples of lager, mild, stout and bitter.

  15. But in most other contexts it does mean "cottage industry". And in the US context it means an independently-owned brewery that produces less than 6 million barrels a year.

    That's your view, but many others see it differently. And does that make Greene King a craft brewery for producing East Coast IPA?

  16. If East Coast IPA didn't just taste like all of their other beers, then maybe they'd be on the far end of the sliding scale, yes.

    I find that all GK beer taste incredibly similar, it must be the yeast they use.


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