Ten signs of a craft brewery

Stained glass pub window reading "Stout"

We were pondering the hard-to-define, much-loathed term “craft beer” again this morning and decided that, rather than a firm definition, it makes much more sense to think about indicators or signs.

The following list, off the top of our head, is not exhaustive and, clearly, we’re not suggesting that any brewery needs to be able to tick all ten to be considered to be making craft beer. Equally, some of these apply to breweries that, instinctively, we wouldn’t consider craft brewers.

So, this is just more food for thought, really.

1. They use malts like Maris Otter or even Plumage Archer because they want a particular flavour in their beer, rather than higher-yielding, cheaper varieties. This fact is mentioned on the packaging or on the website.

2. They might well produce single-hop beers or beers which prominently feature specific hops. Their choice of hops is driven by something other than the market. It is possible/easy to find out which varieties are used.

3. It is easy to find out where the beer is made — ideally because it is mentioned on the packaging. It does not pretend to be from somewhere else. (I.e. Belgium, Denmark, Newcastle.)

4. The brewers have their names and/or faces on the website or packaging. There are identifiable individuals making the beer. They might even be contactable on Twitter or through their own blogs.

5. They lager or age beer for extended periods even though it’s expensive to do so.

6. Their beers have vintages and change from year to year: they are not entirely focused on consistency.

7. There are signs of innovation led by the brewers rather than marketers or management.

8. The brewers are the management.

9. They make beer that makes you say “wow”, not “meh”. (A beer can be 3.8% abv, brown and hopped with Goldings and still make you go “wow”, by the way.)

10. They make a dark beer: they haven’t ceded this ground to Guinness.

Any others?

33 thoughts on “Ten signs of a craft brewery”

  1. TBN — their pump clip has sans-serif type and a drawing of a monkey from a really cool up-and-coming illustrator, etc. etc. etc.

  2. Tandleman — if I didn’t hate smileys, I’d do one now.

    Although I should mention that Beer Nut’s got a head start and the mob of angry brewers is gaining on you fast.

  3. They feed you information that you wish you could claim was subliminel, but in fact you knowingly lap it up and at times it renders you incapable of knowing how wrong it is to raid your childrens piggybanks to afford each and every new brew (trys to run away but a new beer catches my attention).

  4. a) It takes me at least a year to find one of their beers on sale.

    b) It’s suddenly on sale in ferociously trendy bars which previously only sold Venezuelan lager at £4 per 33ml (change comes on a small silver tray with reciept).

  5. Even these somewhat pisstaking responses are telling, though, cos, actually, several of our original 10 might apply to, for example, our local brewery St Austell, which isn’t trendy (Sorry, St Austell, you’re not), expensive or prone to saying “awesome” in their marketing. (Although they do like to use “crafted”.)

  6. Their packaging/naming often conveys a droll sense of humor, although this sometimes comes across as trying too hard or just plain lame.

  7. I don’t know that this is the same on your side of the pond, but “over here” craft brewers are not afraid of high ABV and IBU’s.

  8. Zac — it probably is true over here, too, especially as new legislation is taxing strong beers higher while beers below 2.8% get tax breaks.

  9. Their choice of hops is driven by something other than the market.

    They’re making beer without any consideration of whether it’s going to be possible to sell it to anyone? There’s a Mr H. Knott* I’d like to introduce you to, and there’s a Mr Watt on the white courtesy phone.

    (I think you meant “other than the mass market”, although that’s definitionally true of all small brewers – except those who are trying to break into the mass market. Oh, Mr Watt seems to have rung off. Never mind.)

    *I know that’s not his name, but referring to “Mr Bailey” on this blog would be confusing.

  10. Phil — I guess we mean specifically that they could choose hop varieties based on price, but instead choose them because of their flavour/arom instead/as well. (Although US hops are both cheap and fashionable, I’m told.) So, the market in terms of buying, rather than selling.

  11. Oh, OK. But it’s still harder to pin down than it looks – essentially you’re saying “they don’t go for the cheapest hops”, but does anyone? I think even the corporates brew with a particular flavour in mind, even if the flavour in question strikes us as bland and/or disgusting. (Professional tasters will wax lyrical about the faint, delicate hints of flavour colouring the blandness of Carlsberg – and how cleverly the brewer keeps the flavour in the background.)

    “Craft brewer” means something relatively precise in the American context, because it’s defined mostly by size. Those criteria don’t work well over here, so you get people trying to fill in the gap in the definition by essentially saying that craft brewers are brewers who care enough to do it properly – it becomes a subjective badge of quality rather than anything you can measure.

    Unless you can say either “all beer which has features A and B is craft beer, all other beer isn’t” – or “all beer produced by craft brewers is craft beer; all brewers who do X and Y are craft brewers, all the others aren’t” – I don’t think you’re going to make things any clearer. The definition of “real ale” is a partial, restrictive and perhaps even outdated one, but at least it is a definition.

  12. Oh God, are people still discussing this? “Craft beer” as a useful term is dead and the brewers who try to use it for marketing already look quite foolish. Let it go.

  13. Barm — er, yeah, cos if you don’t think “real ale” captures every beer worth being excited about, “craft beer”, however compromised and crap, is the current best alternative.

  14. I had a minor epiphany half an hour after leaving my last comment, while drinking a bottle of Dunham Massey porter: I don’t care whether something’s called a craft beer/brewery or not, and (more interestingly) I can’t see any reason why I should care. If someone raved about Dunham as a ‘craft brewery’, would that make me like them any more? If they denounced them as not a craft brewery, would that make me like them any less? More to the point, if someone described a brewery I didn’t know as either Craft or Not Craft, would that make any difference to me? I really can’t see that it would; I would still want to find out for myself whether the beer was any good.

    If you think it’s going to be useful to be able to talk about craft beer, I think the question is who you’re going to be talking to. A list of ‘craft brewers’ could be useful if you’re doing a Hey Wow New Wave Of New Exciting Brewers Not Like The Boring Old Brewers story for an audience of non-enthusiasts, but in that situation you don’t need to have precise criteria for who goes on the list – you can include whowever you like.

    Obviously it’s interesting that some brewers are going madder with hops than others, or that some brewers are on Twitter, or whatever. But it’s not as interesting as the quality of the beer.

  15. Phil — we don’t really care whether it’s called craft beer either — it’s a just a term we use because (a) we don’t want every post to have footnotes and (b) it’s the best of a bad bunch.

    This post isn’t “what does craft beer mean”; it’s supposed to be 10 signs of (trying to find alternative words) a brewery we can respect. You’ll note that number 9 is, to paraphrase, amazing beer!

    And we’re not writing a motion for an AGM or a manifesto here. It’s just what we reckon about some stuff…

  16. Interesting post, but I still can’t help but feel that the ten points could be reduce to ‘they make beer that I like’. Though come to think of it using the term ‘craft beer’ for beer you like works quite well, and lots of people use the term ‘real ale’ like this already.

  17. Ed — sort of agree, but then there are some breweries whose beer we don’t like (we’ll name names: Otter, Skinners) who are still “a good thing” in our minds for some of the reasons listed above.

    When I’m feeling grumpy about it, I sometimes wonder if one of the real objections to the term “craft beer” is that it enables people who aren’t solely interested in “real ale” to talk about what they *are* interested in. Stamp out the language, stamp out the conversation.

    But of course that’s paranoia.

  18. Hmm- I think I’m with Barm and Phil on this. Who cares whether beer is “craft” or not (and by the way most of your ten indicators could apply to good old Robinsons up here in Stockport*) or whether a brewer is “craft” or not. Surely what matters is “is this good beer”? A question which itself probably has as many different answers as there are readers of this blog.

    * and certainly will if all of the plans they have for the next 18 months come to fruition

    PS – yes, it is paranoia

  19. John — it has eight answers? (Ha.)

    Again, try to ignore that we stupidly used the annoying word craft. It’s a red herring in this conversation.

    What we’re saying is that there might be some breweries (e.g. Robinsons) that deserve a bit more respect than they get — who aren’t John Smith’s, though they seem sometimes to want to be.

    Greene King are bang on the borderline. They tick several of the boxes above (although their aged and dark beers are so hard to find they might as well not exist) but we still can’t find a lot of love for them in our hearts, unlike Jeff Alworth, whose recent posts prompted this one.

    Personally, we have a lot more respect for breweries that do the kinds of things on this list, and the more of them they do, they more we *like* them. Liking the beer is, of course, a bonus…

  20. I still don’t quite see the point of the exercise. At the SIBA Great Northern Beer Festival the other week, there were lots of breweries represented whose entire range seemed to consist of an amber session bitter, a brown best bitter and, er, that’s it; very few dark beers, very few golden ales and hardly any IPAs. (I wasn’t there on the first day, on the other hand, so some of the more fashionable stuff may have run out.) But they weren’t bad beers or dull beers – the quality was good and the individual beers were quite different from one another.

    There are brewers out there who are recognisably specialising in certain styles – the pale and hoppy, the dark and strong, those new ‘red’ ales that taste like winter mixture – and they often do it very well. But I’m very wary of saying that Dark Star and Stringers and Buxton are a Good Thing in a way that Dent and Bradfield and York aren’t (or Thwaites and Hydes and Holt’s, for that matter). I see all of those breweries as Good Things and to be supported, even if I personally would rather be drinking the latest from Marble or Hardknott.

  21. Had a pint of the GK Mild, which Bailey comments on in the linked post in their last comment, at a pub in Ely where it is, according to the Good Beer Guide a rare permanent beer. Never seen it anywhere since, which is a shame as it was bloody nice.

  22. GK mild is a great beer. Only certain pubs tend to put it onas it doesn’t sell very well. We had a few outlets in south hants, the best being the junction, st denys, Southampton

  23. Steve and Jonathan — I know it irritates some people, but I can see why breweries rebadge their milds as “Darks”. A lot of people like dark beer but don’t realise that’s what they’re going to get if they order mild. (Thinking of a couple of non-beer-obsessed mates of mine who always order dark lager if it’s available cos they think it looks cool.)

  24. There is a story about the day they brewed it or what they named it after on the bottle. Inversely: they don’t make up fake processes like “triple hopped” or “cold filtered”

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