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?

Our wish list for a beer consumer organisation

With various embryonic entities popping up to answer the call for a body to champion all good beer, regardless of whether it’s ‘real ale’ or not, here are a few things that we would like to see in a British beer consumer organisation.

1. We want it to be serious, measured and perhaps even a little boring. We think even the venerable CAMRA fails on this front sometimes, allowing passion to spill over into bad temper. UPDATE: Beior.org in Ireland seems to get this right.

2. To work constructively alongside CAMRA. That doesn’t mean necessarily always agreeing with them, but at least getting along well enough to manage joint events or campaigns. It certainly means that cheap jibes about beards and sandals are out.

3. A focus on quality, taste and the certification of ‘good beer’, probably through blind taste test panels. We wouldn’t care if that meant some beers from big breweries got the stamp of approval, or if it meant that some small breweries get some harsh feedback.

4. Avoid distracting, divisive side-campaigns — e.g. “drink British craft beer” — and stay out of politics. As the beer blogoshire shows, people who love beer, when they get off that topic, can turn out to have very little in common. Trying to get them to agree on anything other than that well-made beer is where it’s at would spell disaster. Promote good beer and leave it at that.

5. Achievable objectives. Here’s an example: reduce the number of pubs in the UK where there is no beer a member of said organisation would want to drink. That might mean more cask ale; or it might just mean a bottle or two of good beer in the fridge.

We still think, with a bit of creative thinking, CAMRA could take this on this without compromising its core values but there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to do so, leaving a gap in the market for something else to emerge.

American Craft Beer Week

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The gentlemen at Hop Talk have kindly reminded us that it’s American Craft Beer Week.

This set me thinking about (a) how much I’d like to be able to get hold of more American beer in the UK and (b) what a nice term “craft beer” is.

There’s something a bit sanctimonious about the term “real ale”. And it’s also a very vague term – you need to know a lot more to understand what qualifies a beer as “real”. “Craft beer”, on the otherhand, is a quieter term, and also tells you something specific about the beers it’s applied to – that they’re “crafted”. In other words, some care has gone into their design and manufacture.

I’m not bothered, especially, whether my beer comes from a cask; whether it’s bottle-conditioned; or even whether it’s ale.

All I ask is that it shows evidence of someone having thought about it, tasted it, and changed the recipe to make it taste nice or at least taste interesting. I’ve had plenty of “real ale” which didn’t have much craft in it (a load of pale malt, a ton of fuggles hops, hand-drawn label) and some which was, as a result, barely drinkable. Equally, I’ve had beers from very big breweries which indicate that someone, somewhere in the organisation, still cares about their craft.