Published on May 6th, 2015 | by Alastair Gilmour


Just what is craft beer?


Another correspondent maintains the term “craft beer” is being used as a con trick. “Fosters lager now bears the logo ‘crafted to refresh’,” he writes. “God help us. Camra should ditch any association with ‘craft beer’ or be condemned, like politicians, for not listening to what the people are saying.”

It’s my turn to say “God help us”. Brewers involved in what could be termed craft are doing just that – listening.

But what is craft beer? Where does it differ from real ale or old-fashioned keg? Is craft the sole territory of guys with big beards, check shirts and pipes? Swallowing this is taking a similar line to Mr Cack of What’s Brewing.

To be honest, I don’t think craft beer needs a definition. That would be painting the sector into a corner, leaving it hamstrung when envelopes are pushed further, as indeed they will be. The Campaign For Real Ale is in a quandary with its strict rulings: “Beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”. Much as I admire and support the organisation’s supreme efforts over the last 40-odd years to uphold a very British tradition, it has been very short-sighted over beer’s continued development and renewed appeal.

If it really does need a definition or some sort of constitution, according to the Brewers Association in America (where it all started, of course), craft beer is the following:

“An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional, producing no more than six million barrels of beer a year (approximately 3% of US annual sales).

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavour derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavoured malt beverages are not considered beers.”

Six million barrels is an awful lot of beer, so one could argue that if the US rules are to be followed every brewery in the UK could call itself a craft producer – and Foster’s Lager could be perfectly entitled to use a craft allusion on its labelling.

Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, blends craft, local and quality together, rather than separating the distinctions.

“These days you see places that put ‘local’ well ahead of quality,” he told Esquire magazine. “And you also see people who put ‘rare’ ahead of beauty.

“If your pale ale is different every time you brew it, and your beer is unreliable, that’s not ‘craft’, that just means you can’t brew. Period. Lots of new local brewers can brew, and quite well. But not all of them. I was in Edinburgh last year at a bloggers’ conference and heard a lot of people saying that Sierra Nevada was too big and too available to be ‘craft beer’. I told them – from the stage – that my message for people who believe that is pretty simple: ‘F#$% you. You have no idea what you’re talking about’.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. Without beers like Saison Dupont, we wouldn’t have nice American beers like Boulevard Saison-Brett, Sly Fox Saison Grisette, or our (Brooklyn) Sorachi Ace.”

Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones also gets it right. Sort of. He calls the best brewers – whether they call themselves craft or not – curious and driven by a sense of what would happen if they used a new hop variety, a different yeast strain, or put their beer into wooden barrels.

“Anyone can push a boundary, but you need to make a beer drinkable,” he wrote in Original Gravity magazine recently. “Breweries like Kernel, Wild Beer, Beavertown and Burning Sky are looking backwards, sideways and forwards to produce stunning beers and it’s not just a shed-load of hops, either. Whether we have a definition or not of craft beer, I believe we are in one of the most creative periods of British brewing, though I do know that there will be those who will wish to conjure up a time machine that would whiz us all back to the age of porter or when IPAs ruled the earth.”

Oh dear Adrian. While I agree wholeheartedly with you, have you seen the tide of IPAs available and those newly-defined porters? At at last month’s Newcastle Beer Festival Hop & Cleaver Quayside Porter won the annual battle of the Beers and the Craft Brewing Conference in Portland, Oregon, reported that IPA is the biggest category style in the US, taking 46.9% of total beer sales.

So, it seems craft beer does have a definition. It’s about creativity and exploration, innovation and honesty. Can I mention pleasure too?
For Craft Beer Calling (Newcastle, Oct 23-25) tickets and information visit www.craftbeercalling.com

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Alastair Gilmour

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