The “C” Word – Let Beer Be Beer

craft noun (SKILL)

(plural crafts) skill and experience, especially in relation to making objects; a job or activity that needs skill and experience, or something produced using skill and experience
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I’ve been drinking “beer” for nearly 35 years now. I think that that qualifies me as “old”, to some. My epiphany was in the venerable Manchester institution The Peveril Of The Peak. It came, in about 1982, when I was just about to go and watch the Bristol “Punk-Jazz” band Pigbag and it came, tyhanks to a dear old friend, Martin Murray. You see, I was a BIG BRAND LAGER drinker back then. And the beer in my hand that evening was Carlsberg lager.

Then Martin handed me a golden brown liquid. It was Wilsons Bitter. And it changed my life. It was creamy. It had flavour. And it was Mancunian. Thus began a journey.

Tempus Fugit. And tastes change. And mine most certainly have. And THAT journey started with Punk IPA, by Brewdog. A beer full of fruity flavour and a bracing bitterness.

From traditional to modern. Or – as some would have it said – to “Craft”.

Why do I enclose the word in quotation marks? Because that word means absolutely sod all to me. I just like beer.

Which brings me to a piece by London beer blogger Matt Curtis which highlighted (to my ignorant Northern focussed eyes) the formation of a body named the United Craft Brewers. (Click the hyperlinks to read/access)

Matt – to be fair – is a damn fine writer, with a viewpoint on beer formed from his own epiphanic (is that actually a word?) experiences via US beers. We differ on many things mind, including  one of his thoughts in the above piece

“For Craft Beer in the UK to remain viable and to continue to grow it needs an organisation that both defines and supports it, lest it become the fad that some consider it to be.”

“Craft Beer” isn’t a “thing”. It’s a label. And one that – to be quite frank – bores me rigid.

One of the things that Matt mentions refers to the size of a brewer “I don’t believe being ‘Craft’ has anything to do with the size of a brewery.” In so much as “C****” could be defined by size, I defer to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online definition of craft. If something is made with skill and passion, you can call it what you like, to me, that is a laudable thing.

However….the (US) Brewers Association DOES refer to size when defining what (to them) is a “Craft Brewery” and I quote ”

An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.  

Small  

Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.”

Compared to almost ALL the breweries that I know (obviously leaving the bland Marstons & Greene King out), Brewdog (one of the founders of UCB) can hardly be labelled “small”. Camden are probably stretching that definition a tad too. So, any definition that ignores size, could be regarded as convenient, one might say. And ignores the fundamental BA principle.

The UCB invites brewers to register with them – via the website – so they can enter the discussion and meet in September. I’ll be intrigued to see the take-up of that invitation. I’ve been very tired recently, what with ISBF taking up my spare time that the day job allows, but I woke up with a start on a recent visit to a brewery that I respect hugely. Small, hugely hop forward and the makers of the most consistently excellent beers. I jolted awake and to full attention when one of the owners/brewers said “We’re not a Craft Brewery. We’re a Micro Brewery”

The UCB strikes me as the big boys of Modern British Brewing setting out to take some form of control or leadership of this (if it can be described as a) movement. I could be (and hope that I am) wrong. I’m fairly thick and may have missed the point.

But on one thing I am really clear.

For F***s sake, just let beer be beer.

Full of flavour. Made by people who actually give a shit about what they are doing and do it with care. Consistently.

And let’s stop with the labels eh? What’s wrong with just brewing great beer?

12 comments on “The “C” Word – Let Beer Be Beer

  1. Very nicely said. I figure I’m about as old as you, and began drinking crap lager like you did, albeit in the US, not in Manchester. I discovered microbrewed beer in about 1992, back when it was still a very young thing in the US.

    Then the contract brewers like Pete’s Wicked Ale and Boston Brewing wanted in on the bandwagon, and because they couldn’t be called “microbreweries”, they started calling their beer “craft” beer. I’ve been rolling my eyes ever since. Some of us in the pre-WWW internet days argued that beer is just beer, regardless of “brewer’s intent”, recipe, or whatever.

    Although, TBH, a term to distinguishing post-1985 US beer like pale ale, porter, stout, IPA, proper lager, etc., from the sort of shite like Coors and what-not does have some practical utility in the US. I used to post about “GoodBeer” back when we were sticking words together like that in those days.

    But, please do me a favour, eh: stop capitalising it. Doing so just makes it more of a Thing!

  2. A lot of the problem stems from people trying to read the US situation across to the UK when the two are very different. Britain already had a “craft beer sector” in 1973 – the independent breweries CAMRA was aiming to champion. In the US there was no equivalent so they had to start from scratch.

    And I agree that Wilsons Bitter, when on form, could be an excellent pint that was on a par with the products of the local family brewers.

  3. I dunno, man. I think the label “craft beer” has done a lot of good for the beer landscape in this country. It’s got a whole new generation excited about pushing boundaries with beer. Yes, the UK had an artisan brewing scene for many decades before this movement happened but, let’s face it, it was boring. “Fine Cask Ales” became synonymous with “selection of 4% pale ales, all of which are warm, flat and taste the same”. It was stagnant.

    When the wave of American-inspired artisan brewing started to come through, it needed something to separate itself from that fusty old CAMRA scene. “Craft Beer” was interesting; most hadn’t heard the term before so didn’t instantly associate it with boring, stuffy beer the same as they may have done with “real ale”.

    Real beer geeks like us might not like it, but the “craft beer” label serves a purpose. It raises awareness and increases the popularity of vibrant modern beer and as a result new breweries are popping up all the time, giving us more choice and exposing us to new and exciting things.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I’m unconvinced that the label serves a purpose any more, if it ever did. I’ve been really quite surprised by the number of people (Some of whom – or so I thought – would have been fine with the term) who are in broad agreement with me. I honestly thought that this would have been more controversial (although it wasn’t written with that in mind)

      If the “craft beer scene” – by which I mean the US – has given us in the UK anything, it is a love of new world hop varieties and a passion for flavour and consistent excellence. Those hops, when used judiciously, can result in some truly exceptional beer. But that beer doesn’t – in my view – need a generic label. It is simply good beer.

      I am – to be clear – a CAMRA member. However, CAMRA can be like any other democratic body, a bit like a super tanker in its manoeuvrability, ponderous and slow. That said, it IS a democratic organisation that can be changed. If the will is there from below.

      I have my doubts about the UCB. If many brewers sign up, I truly hope I am wrong and that it works well for those who join.

  4. I might add ‘damn fine writer’ to my CV – thanks!

    I think it’s important to criticise the motives of the UCB – I’ve been lucky enough to talk to three of the founders about it now and their enthusiasm is infectious which has clearly rubbed off in my own piece. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them and they are going to come in for a lot more hard flak. They need this criticism to ensure their efforts are as good as they can be.

    I think we should be able to let beer be beer and just get on with drinking it an enjoying it. In fact 99.9% of people do just that. We are able to do this though, because of the hard work of brewers, distributors, farmers, writers, broadcasters, CAMRA, SIBA… you name it. A small few need to be evangelical so that the many can enjoy their beer without a second thought.

    The BA is a good example of what can be achieved – their own definition is very outdated though and many of their members who would be classed as ‘Craft’ now fall outside this e.g. Founders and Firestone Walker. Brewdog can in no way be classed as a small brewer, but they are also much, much smaller than an operation such as Sierra Nevada or the Boston Beer Co who in turn are considerably smaller than an operation such as MillerCoors or AB-InBev.

    • Matt. Whilst I am fairly self-deprecating, I rarely day something I don’t mean, whilst I may not agree with many things you say, you are a bloody fine advocate for the things you believe in.

      I will watch UCB developments from the sidelines as an interested observer and will be fascinated to see who joins – as I know a few who won’t.

      Also, if you see the founders, just give them a nudge. If they put something on the website saying there’ll be news or more info in July, they really should have more than the founding letter!

      J

  5. Great article. I think, as everyone knows, the problem lies in hijacking an American term-which is strictly defined-and then trying to superglue it onto the British model where it becomes meaningless. The obvious answer is to have a meaning here based on similar specs as the American model but scaled for our market. That’s not going to happen is it, though, so we’re stuck in a bit of no-man’s land.

    Matt, am I missing something here? AFAIK the BA definition is very much up to date. Wasn’t it updated not that long ago? It says 6 million barrels a year or less. Founders announced plans last year to double production to 900,000 a year which would, I think, overtake Firestone Walker. They’re big producers by our standard but still confortably within the USA guidelines.

    • The reason why Founder’s exist outside the rules is the fact that they sold a 30% stake of their company to Mahou late last year – the rules state ‘Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer’, so it’s falling out of guidelines due to ownership regs rather than volume.

  6. Real ale, craft, beer, ale, porter, stout? I used to normally differentiate by colour!
    I was corrected myself recently, for using the “CRAFT” word, inappropriately, by a CAMRA member? I am exceptionally lucky as my drinking “mentors” are a fine bunch of scallywags. Language is constantly changing, and its a little bit pedantic to be overly concerned about it. As Groucho, would say, ” I resign, I dont want to belong to any club that would except me as a member”.

    • Bob. What can I say. I’m a pedant! There is more to this setup than meets the eye, I’m sure. I find it disturbing. It’s about control and the likelihood of an evolving clique. I could go on, but we’ll chat when we next meet.

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