Craft: The Lost Word

Graffiti illustration: CRAFT BEER?

There was a little flare up on Twitter yesterday over this post by Richard Coldwell in which he argues that Früh Kölsch is not ‘craft’.

A few years ago, when this debate was at its frankly tedious height, we were pretty happy with the meaning of the phrase as derived from Michael Jackson and other early beer writers: it was a catch-all term referring to any interesting, distinctive beer, as opposed to the uninteresting, homogeneous products of larger (often international) brewers. (Definition 1.) Sure, you could pick holes in it, but it was a broad, inclusive buzz-phrase that had room for cask ale, lager, Belgian beer, and for breweries founded 100 or more years ago.

But people who had the influence to shore up this definition opted out. They didn’t like the term and wanted nothing to do with it, which is fair enough, except rather than making it go away, that left it undefended.

Sometime around 2014-2015 it became obvious that the meaning had changed: to most people in the UK, ‘craft beer’, insofar as it meant anything, meant beer that wasn’t real ale, that wasn’t a pint of bitter, that wasn’t from an old brewery, and that looked something like this:

Samples of craft beer branding.

(That is, definition 2.)

Yes, this situation is messed up, and superficial, and especially baffling to people from outside Europe for whom our old brewing traditions are the epitome of craft. But it’s reality.

We like Richard’s blog — he writes regularly, interestingly, and tells us things we don’t already know, based on his own explorations — and we’re going to stick up for him here. Sure, we might have made the point a little more tentatively than he did but we don’t think, seen in context (he’s a bit disappointed with his craft beer advent calendar) that what he’s saying is especially outrageous, or even incorrect.

The fact is, in 2016, people ordering a mixed mystery box of CRAFT BEER probably don’t expect to find Belgian, British or German standards in the mix — the kind of things that appeared in Michael Jackson’s various beer guides between the 1970s and the 1990s. He certainly considered Früh Kölsch a craft, artisanal, boutique beer (all words he used at one point or another to mean essentially the same thing) but, again, that broad definition has slipped away from us. Someone who got into beer in the last year or two, or who is just learning their way, would probably find it baffling: to them ‘craft’ means, quite specifically, ‘A bit like BrewDog’ (or Stone, or Cloudwater — you get the idea).

The term got released into the wild, it evolved, and now it doesn’t care what you think it means even though you reared it from a cub. Or, to put that another way, you can’t reject and ridicule a term and then expect to police how it is used.

We blew it, chaps. Now we’ve got to live with it.

46 thoughts on “Craft: The Lost Word”

  1. But of course now anything that isn’t mass-market lager is described as “craft” anyway…

    I can see where Richard is coming from, but it would be all too easy to buy a gift pack of “beers described as craft” and find it contained nothing that matched his perception, even though they all said “craft” on the bottle.

  2. Well I’ve been at this beer communicator lark for 40 years, man and boy. Hardest game in the world I tell you. Makes me weep to see the young ‘uns make a mockery of craft beer. Something we fought for and split blood for back in the day. Someone should make Craft Great Again. Someone like Pete Brown, I reckon. Or that Turny-Wurly fella. Not Curtis though. Not until he’s done his apprenticeship at the coal face of beer writing and won a Golden Protz. Brown could lead us to the promised land.

    Make Craft Great Again!

  3. “‘A bit like BrewDog’ (or Stone, or Cloudwater — you get the idea).”

    Oh, you mean ‘hipster beer’?

  4. As I said back in 2012, the problem is that the people who imported the phrase ‘craft beer’ from the US didn’t import the US concept (which wouldn’t have worked over here anyway), just the words. So it was defined – to the extent that it was defined at all – by the way it was used:

    ‘Craft beer’ drinkers are the people who see themselves as drinkers of craft beer. ‘Craft beer’ is the kind of beer craft beer drinkers like, and ‘craft brewers’ are the brewers who cater to them.

    Not sure that the broader definition could ever have worked – Pete Brown pushed it for a while, but what immediately struck me about his definition is that it would have included quite a lot of really mediocre beer produced on quite a large scale. And we’ve got “real ale” for that.

    1. > Not sure that the broader definition could ever have worked

      It seems like defining craft brewers to be “breweries more influenced (directly or indirectly) by US beer culture than by traditional British breweries” roughly works. It’s a bit subjective and there are grey areas and in-betweeners but it _ought_ to be relatively uncontroversial.

      The problem being that in practice the word – both in itself and in the way that it got hyped – sounded like such an obviously Good Thing that everyone from Greene King to AB InBev to Hook Norton wanted a piece of it.

      I have a vague thing of using “new-wave craft” to mean this sort of thing, although I’m not that consistent about it.

    2. I’ll stick with my catch all definition;
      1, Craft Beer is brewed in a Craft Brewery by a Craft Brewer
      2, Craft Brewers brew Craft Beer in a Craft Brewery
      3, A Craft Brewery is where Craft Brewers brew Craft Beer.

    3. In both the US and the UK, craft beer is defined in opposition to what went before. Craft beer is simply any beer that is better than the same old shite.

      In the US, it is defined in opposition to the selection of 10 types of sweet watery lagers made by huge multinational corporations seen in the majority of US bars prior to the last 10-15 years. To define “craft” as a beer not made by these multinationals made perfect sense.

      In the UK, it is defined in opposition to the selection of sweet watery lagers, Guinness and poor quality muddy brown bitter seen in the majority of UK pubs until 10 years ago. Some of these beers are made by multinationals, but some also by relatively smaller operations, and the distinction between craft and non-craft is a little blurrier, so the same definition doesn’t necessarily apply so straightforwardly.

    1. Ordering mystery boxes is a mug’s game, full stop — 30 per cent OK beers, 50 per cent weird stuff they couldn’t shift, 20 per cent stuff you can get in the local corner shop. (To generalise rudely.)

    2. “A craft beer prescriptivist who orders a mixed mystery box of craft beer is asking for it.”

      Truly. It has become painfully obvious that a lot of ‘craft’ beer being sold t For every example of great ‘craft’ beer, there seems to be an equal amount of beer calling itself ‘craft’ these which displays a sad lack of craft in it’s manufacture.
      It has been observed (in the USA anyway) that the term ‘craft’ has devolved somewhat; what began as an implied promise of better quality later became nothing more than a marketing term, and now, some people (including a lot of avid ‘good beer’ lovers) regard it as a consumer warning.
      With the explosion of new brewers in the USA, it has become painfully obvious that where breweries are concerned, “smaller” and “local” are clearly not always “better”…in many cases, it is quite the opposite. 🙁

  5. By the way, has anyone else spotted the neat symmetry that while people worry that the lack of a single objective definition of craft leads to the term getting abused to the point where it’s meaningless, CAMRA do have a watertight objective definition for Real Ale with almost equally counterintuitive consequences like having to prefer real-ale-inna-keykeg or real-ale-inna-can over traditional ale kept with a cask breather.

  6. This post doesn’t address what was originally baffling – which was the description that Tiny Rebel can’t be “craft” because they won a Best Bitter award

    1. It’s an extreme position — I’d have thought Tiny Rebel were square in the middle of ‘craft’, whatever it is — but, again, I wouldn’t say Richard is *barmy* for reacting that way. BrewDog and its disciples have, to a large extent, defined the parameters of ‘craft’ as it is perceived by many, and that includes:

      1. No bitter, and if you must brew one, it has to be called ‘amber’, ‘pale ale’, etc.
      2. A vague sense of antagonism towards, or distance from, CAMRA.

      Personally, I find both rather risible, but that’s where we are.

      Without wanting to put words in Richard’s mouth I guess what he’s getting at there is that (a) he was instinctively disappointed or confused by the inclusion of Tiny Rebel in this box of beers and (b) when he tried to unpack why, came up with a feeling that they’d become too ‘establishment’ — a trad. brewery in the making.

      Again, we wouldn’t draw the line there ourselves, or react how Richard did, but I’m not sure why everyone’s so ANGRY at him for merely expressing that thought. I daresay there are lots of others thinking it but not saying it.

    2. That wasn’t exactly what I said Mark, and certainly not what I intended to say. I’d love to know what the brewer themselves think – something I will be asking brewers as I go forward, not necessarily to post about but purely for my own curiosity.

      1. It is exactly what you said, I’m afraid:

        if they are a craft brewer how come their Welsh red ale Cwtch won the Champion Beer of Britain 2015, in the Best Bitter category? Best Bitter isn’t craft beer is it?

        Would it have been OK if it had won CBoB in the Celtic Red Ales category?

    1. Yes. Think we could probably copy and post a few comments over and save people the trouble of typing them out again.

  7. A lot of people think craft beer doesn’t include cask ale.

    Well frankly, a lot of people are fucking stupid and don’t know what they’re talking about. They are probably the same people who think real ale should be served at room temperature, that literally and metaphorically are synonyms, and that brexit will mean less red tape for businesses. Why should we listen to them?

  8. I was just a bit baffled by how he talked more about whether something was ‘craft’ than the beer itself. And in general I think people are past caring now. (And I think he may have kept banging on about it because it was at least generating some interest.)

    But he seems a good bloke all in all. We all have our oddities.

    1. But then maybe people aren’t past caring if he has produced such a reaction. Are people actually angry about it?? That’s bizarre.

  9. I think there was a good comment above, about how the description of ‘craft’ taken from the US couldn’t be used 100% over here, which is so true.

    It will never be truly defined and does it really need to be, it will always mean something different to someone else than it does to you or me. But I think what is important is that within the beer market or whatever anyone decides to call it, or call themselves, is that there are people offering good quality beer that appeals to everyone, and that there are those that are pushing boundarys to bring us something new and tasty each week.

    As for the original questioning of the inclusion of Fruh Kolsch in a ‘craft’ box/calendar, I’d be pretty disappointed to find that included myself, but to fair its a nice beer when in Cologne to drink. But the chance of finding such random beers or beer I’d not select in mixed cases is why I don’t order them, they are the perfect tool for clearing out dead wood beers and will always lead to disappointment.

  10. The tiny rebel review is hilarious. Craft definition now seemingly rules out any brewery that brews a best bitter. That rules out one heck of a lot of breweries. I’m happy working with various definitions of craft but this guy has an arrogant confidence in his own definition that I’m finding amusing. Probably a real nice bloke so I don’t want to go on the offensive. Craft as shorthand for “beer inspired by the US craft beer scene” seems to be an almost workable definition;it certainly beats the supermarket definition that seems to be “anything in 330ml bottles we can sell for same price as the individual 500ml bottles”

    1. Problem is, the us craft beer scene is itself directly inspired and strongly influenced by UK, Belgian and German traditional beer styles, so that definition becomes somewhat self contradictory.

  11. Could you use tank sizes as a guide (ie if a brewery doesn’t have any 10,000 litre tanks then it’s a craft brewery and anything that comes out of it is craft)?

    1. That’s more or less how the US Brewer’s Association judges it although your specific suggestion allows for huge breweries to dodge the rule by having 500 small tanks…

      1. besides which, the “craft” is in the making of the product and the quality, NOT the size of the brewery. There are plenty of brews made by the larger companies that show a LOT more ‘craft’ than the never ending wave of ‘homebrewers gone pro’, many of which should have clearly just kept brewing at home. There’ a lot of amateur tasting shite out there calling itself ‘craft’.

  12. I’ve always considered a “craft” brewery any one that brews with a passion and still regards brewing as a craft. Regardless of size. Rather than some company relying on marketing to pass off sickly pale bread-water to those that care more for the alcohol than drinking something good.

    1. How do you know whether they brew with a passion or not? As for ‘regardless of size’ – if they’re brewing on an industrial scale, how can they regard brewing as a craft?

      1. Because they take great care to ensure the requisite character in the drink. How can mere scale affect that, where do you draw the line?

        If they don’t take such care, it’s not craft, just as some “railway arch” unstable, ill-tasting IPA isn’t craft.

        Craft is a definition of the quality of the product, that’s where it all began when CAMRA and the U.S. craft beer movement started. They didn’t care how big the concern was, always a relative value anyway.

        (Should we disqualify all brewers today who use conical fermenters, which didn’t exist before the 1930s? Where does it end?).

        Don’t you think Pilsner Urquell is craft? If it’s not, the term is meaningless, IMO.

        Gary

        1. Some would say that treating brewing as a craft means working on a small scale – so that the brewing craftsperson can pay close personal attention to every batch. Some would say that ‘craft’ means variability, like unique hand-carved spoons or knobbly ‘artisan’ bread. If you think along those lines, Joe Railway-Arch with his sour yeast soup is Mr Craft.

          Others would say that treating brewing as a craft means getting the damn thing right and making sure it stays that way, in which case PU are much more entitled to the name than Joe is.

          But it’s hopeless to try and nail the meaning of the word down. Even saying “beer X is craft” can mean several different things – are you saying

          a) you’ve got a definition of ‘craft beer’ in mind and beer X ticks the right boxes
          b) beer X is the kind of thing that gets raved about by people who rave about craft beer
          or
          c) beer X is the kind of thing that gets sold as ‘craft beer’ ?

          a) could be Mikkeller, could be Tiny Rebel, could be Adnams’
          b) probably a style, not a brewery – a style with two or more qualifiers, and over 7%
          c) could be Innis & Gunn, could be Camden, could be Meantime

          (Me, I think it’s labelling all the way down – ‘craft beer’ is beer that’s being marketed to people who want to drink ‘craft beer’.)

          1. It’s true that there is a vagueness to the concept, but I would say we must focus on the beer, not the brewery as such, or its size, or ownership. The perfect example is Meantime after, Meantime before, Goose Island after, Goose Island before. It can’t stop being craft if the product is the same…

            Some may choose to follow small scale operations and define craft that way but I would have to disagree with them. CAMRA in the 70s for example promoted real ale whoever made it. While many makers were smaller regional firms not all were by any means, e.g., Courage’s beers – and Courage Imperial Russian Stout – Bass draft, Whitbread’s many good beers, etc.

            I would say I&G beers are craft because they have pronounced flavour and use many non-mass market techniques (even though they may not be my particular choice).

            Craft is quality. We have some newer breweries in Canada who make a mass market-styled product, I would say they aren’t craft, or borderline.

            As to whether that German kolsch was craft, I would say it is. It is all malt, probably unpasteurized, represents a classic style. I would say even Beck’s beer is too because all-malt and its real beer flavour. It doesn’t bother me that some people don’t agree but the reasons they apply I would often take exception to, hence this kind of discussion.

            Gary

    2. You need to define the beer first, and the brewer second.

      The beer is the interesting bit, the brewer is just the bloke who makes it. No-one gives a shit about the size of his tanks, how old the brewery is, who owns it, or how much “passion” he claims to have, the ONLY thing that matters is how the beer tastes. Everything else is irrelevant. If it tastes like craft beer, then it’s craft beer. If its made by a super-passionate hipster with a ridiculous beard under a railway arch, described as “postmodern session IPA” in a 330ml can with skulls on it, but tastes indistinguishable from Tesco value lager, then its not, sorry.

    3. I see what you’re saying, but just because someone has a passion for for the endeavor doesn’t mean that they will be good at it (and there’s plenty of proof of that on the store shelves these days).

  13. Craft brewers are easy to define. They are:

    1. Independent
    2. Forward-thinking
    3. High-quality

    Of course, all of these are open to a bit of interpretation. But like pornography, you know it when you see it.

  14. It’s interesting to see a lot of people asking “what” craft beer is but no one is asking “why” craft beer should be defined.

    In the US it was to protect and support a small but growing industry. That support has driven them to 5000 breweries and a near 15% market share. In short, it normalised microbreweries and made it something almost anyone can easily enjoy, all of the time.

    So maybe its time to stop asking what the parameters are and look at how we can protect and support one of the UK’s most important industries.

    1. I don’t think its the most important thing to move the beer on offer forward.

      It has to be about quality of beer most of all, the way its served or delivered, and then how/where its available.

      There are some shocking beers that call themselves ‘craft’, there are some poor brown water ‘real ales’ out there. Just as there are also some venues that get away with serving god awful beer and still get to call it beer.

      Get those things right and challenge those above what is and isn’t craft and every one would be drinking happily.

      A bigger challenge that we should envy from the US market is how most of their bars are indie, the non-tied bar/pub on every street, that is buying from various sources, this gives customers so much choice. Far too many of our pubs (outside of London) are tied to breweries and beers that fall into the poor quality or mass crap drinks, or sourcing from one place, thus preventing everyone to experience ‘quality/craft/real ale/beer’.

  15. There is no such thing as craft beer. There is beer and there is no beer. Beer is described as craft by those who want to/need to feel superior.

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