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”

Comments are closed.