You’re Dead to us Now

Someone who reads the blog and follows us on Twitter wrote to us last week. His email began: “Your definition of Craft Beer/Breweries I feel is the best I’ve seen in an attempt to clarify a confusing situation.”

“Do go on,” we said smugly, sitting in noxious clouds of our own self-satisfaction.

“At what point is a Craft Brewer no longer a Craft Brewer? Can that happen?”

The blood drained from our faces. That is a very awkward question.

It helps if, like us, you don’t think of this as binary, but a question of degrees. And, as the definition of ‘craft beer’ in the UK isn’t (yet) fixed or externally validated, and if you think it’s a worthwhile idea, you need to have your own criteria.

The more boxes they tick, they more likely we are to think they’re a craft brewery. By extension, if those ticks are rubbed out, our thinking goes into reverse.

If Thornbridge start using clear bottles, or ditch cask ale, or start describing Jaipur only as “a premium beer made with the best malt and hops”, we’d begin to have doubts. Brewdog, for all their attempts to monopolise this territory, do lots of things that don’t sound very much like craft brewing to us: a few more steps in that direction, and they’re out, at least in our minds.

Finally, does it matter if a brewery stops being ‘craft’? No. It doesn’t necessarily mean their beer suddenly tastes bad, or that we hate them, just that our relationship changes. ‘Craft’ is not synonymous with ‘worthy’.


32 replies on “You’re Dead to us Now”

I’m not sure why people are getting so hung up on how to define “craft”. Its pretty much undefinable as a term, much like the phrase “gourmet’ in food. For example very big breweries are able use it as a descriptor of their products but no-one within the smaller micro brewing sector takes it as read. Just like McDonalds can tell us their food is “gourmet” when clearly it isn’t it. The term ‘craft’ in the UK is only as valid as the person using it, the audience its meant for and the context its used in. Defining the term and attempting to give it strict boundaries is pretty much pointless.

I went to that Heston fellas fat duck wassit for a gourmet meal with the squeeze. Had to send it back. I said to them “if it’s not got bacon and cheese sauce on it’s not a gourmet meal, pal. I’ve eaten gourmet food. I know what it is, I have my burger gourmeted up most times I go to the Spoons”

Sure enough when it came back out it has the bacon and cheese sauce on. Don’t ask don’t get is what I say. Don’t let the bastards rip you off.

A couple of posts on John Smith’s on the way which might help (us, at least) get our heads round that, but we know what is isn’t when we, er, don’t see it.

If it tastes gooood, it’s a winner.

People need to start focusing on flavour and refreshment – who cares if chilling a beer on a hot day causes a haze – I’d still take it every day over a teppid pint. Keg can also be more awesome than any cask. A good beer doesn’t necessarily turn bad just because of its format, temperature or scale of production.

There’s far too much snobbery in the craft beer industry in the UK, which is making the recruitment of younger drinkers a much slower process than it should be.

The US have got it spot on. UK marketing has got better but still needs to step up a notch to start turning heads, and opinion formers need to take their heads out of their arses and start focusing on the product, rather than blindly supporting the underdog and constantly feeling the need to but beers into a ‘box’.

I’m all for craft beer by the way 🙂

I am sorry but I am not sure you can claim that there is too much snobbery in the UK brewing scene and then that the US has got it spot on – the American craft scene is riddled with snobbery, the difference being that it is a snobbery based on being trendy, gimmicky and hipsterish (not sure that’s a proper word but you get the drift). Not to mention the whole “Sam Adams aren’t craft any more brigade”, which basically translates as being “you are a successful company therefore you must be evil”.

Al — we’re beginning to suspect that snobbery is the wrong word for talking about beer, full stop. Elitism, exclusiveness, snottiness, but perhaps not snobbery.

DapperT — we blindly support underdogs (for a while, anyway); and most commentators, as far as we can see, list beers from big producers among their favourites. Considering some beers craft and some not, as per our last para above, doesn’t mean writing off everything’s that’s outside that box.

How about using newsletters and meetings from an organization based on a hierarchy of committees with an incredibly complex set of procedural rules and regulations that both encourages and deters interest propped up by a discount card system? Naah… that’ll never work.

Recently I’ve heard a few people round these parts claim that Thornbridge are not “craft” (or not a proper brewery at the very least) due to their heavily computerised, starship enterprise style brewery. Not “hand crafted” you see.

Mind you, a lot of those people appear to have a grudge against Thornbridge, or at the very least a clear grudge against the wife of the man who owns Thornbridge brewery.

Anyway, back on topic, since “craft” is a vapid term that essentially means little more then “beer I like” you could quite easily argue that all it takes for a beer not to be considered “craft” is for you to dislike it.

Yes, Thornbridge seem to be the victims of some prejudice based on factors other than their beer and the way they make it. We can see them turning into something other than a craft brewery at some point — getting a bit more faceless, less experimental.

Tempted as I am to respond in detail to your final para, I haven’t got the energy to repeat the same arguments for the Nth time. Suffice to say, if you think craft beer is a useless term, you’re not alone. We do find it useful, though, and we’re not alone either.

Some of the anti-Thornbridge stuff is from people who don’t like their beer. Thornbridge beer is for the most part pale & heavily hopped and this does not appeal to all palates.

This is not helped by most Thornbridge pubs having little or no guest beer. So if you don’t like very hoppy beer and Thornbridge take over your local you might well bear a bit of a grudge. I’ve come across other local brewers who despise Thornbridge as monopolists who are keen to get others to take their beer but won’t return the favour.

The keg thing annoys some people, although I still maintain that the price is the main problem, not the quality.

Then there is the pretentiousness of some of their marketing, best exemplified by Dada Bar in Sheffield (well worth a visit, despite the dreadful decor)

And then there’s the scandals that have hit Emma Harrison this year, even if A4E and Thornbridge brewery are unrelated.

A good beer doesn’t necessarily turn bad just because of its format, temperature or scale of production.

That ‘necessarily’ makes this a meaningless statement – a lead weight doesn’t necessarily fall to the ground when you drop it. But if you meant that a good beer is, generally speaking, just as good in whatever ‘format’ you find it, I have to say that in my experience that’s not true. I’ve had beers from a certain shy and retiring Scottish brewery in all three ‘formats’ – cask, keg and bottle – and the cask was in a different league from the brewery-conditioned versions; the keg was OK, the bottle was fine, the cask was superb. In fact it’s only because I’ve had their cask beer – although it looks as if I never will again – that I pay any attention to that brewery at all.

And I’ve had the reverse of that: favourite normally-keg beers which have totally lost their charms on cask. Even when properly conditioned and served fresh.

Dapper T said “Keg can also be more awesome than any cask.” Care to put a percentage on that – like for like – same beer – different formats?

I hate this new marketing term ‘craft beer’. I hate it as much as I hate the term ‘real ale.’ Craft beer could mean anything or be used by anybody to mean nothing. ‘Bottle Conditioned’ I understand and I know where ‘Cask Ale’ is stored.

It would very liberating to reclaim the term ‘beer’!

“It would very liberating to reclaim the term ‘beer’!”

Yes! I’ve said this for a long time. Call that other stuff “crap lager” or “crap ale” or something, what this stuff is is proper beer. Let the masses learn.

I won’t hazard an opinion on the definition of a UK craft brewery, but I will say this: the definitions are country-specific. Brewing traditions and cultures vary widely and they amount to apples and oranges for comparison’s sake. When the US got down to 80 breweries around 1980, every one of them was a behemoth. Almost none were smaller than million-barrel brewhouses, and they all, without exception, made light lagers. When craft brewing came to the US, it entered a world very different from the UK. In the US, we can contrast the two not only on size, but beer types and quality. But if you compare a Thornbridge Lord Marples to a bitter from a traditional brewery, you’re parsing things in infinitesimal degrees.

Belgium, France, Czech Republic–the word “craft” will mean different things in each country.

Not to you, but it does to us.

EDIT: or, to be a bit more constructive, if we only wrote about things of great import, this blog wouldn’t exist…

Hmm, I see I left this screen open for the past hours and now there’s a new provocation.

One other thing that is very difficult to tease out is this. Greene King are widely despised in the UK’s craft-brewing community–if the comments I heard from fans and brewers were any indication. And yet, GK has one of the most traditional, hand-crafty brewery in England. It’s WAY less automated than Thornbridge, which looks identical to every brewery I’ve seen in the US (I visited both).

In the UK, business models and size seem to be the central factors in deciding whether a brewery is craft or not. We can’t conceive of breweries like GK in the US, so it’s not part of the equation.

Jeff — GK fascinate us. Though we don’t really like any of their beers, though they use clear bottles for everything, though they are purveyors of much marketing bullshit, we can’t write them off. They age beer in vats and blend it! They cask condition! It wouldn’t take much for them to be a very admirable brewery indeed.

Size not such an issue for us, though it’s a working definition we could live with.

Craft beer is “beer with a distinctive flavour brewed by artisans”.

So says the CAMRA AGM.

And who’s to argue with CAMRA 😉

And, to have my twopennethworth on the Thornbridge Example: they still brew on the small kit for the experimental beers. And just because one brewery plant involves less manual labour than the other doesn’t make it any lesser.

I wanted to tell a freind about places like Sheffield Tap, North Bar and Port Street Beer House, and I found myself using the phrase “craft beer bars”. I did so because none of the 3 are really what my friend, with his somewhat traditional ale drinking outlook, would describe as pubs. They are too modern in concept and crucially have too wide a range of none cask products to fit a traditional pub definition. To me, they are one of a “newer” type of beer drinking venue…

So perhaps , subconciously, craft only means new in my mind, which is a subjective assessment. So maybe, in applying my own criteria as above, I have managed to arrive at precisely the same definition of craft as yourselves B&B?

Except that, since there is nothing new about doing any of the things that “Craft brewers” (apparrently) do, for instance keg, brewing beer influenced by European or American beer style, or expensive bottles; using craft to mean new renders the term disinsgenuous.

It would seem therefore that Craft’s failing as a term is its very flexibility – as demonstrated by the 35 definitions posted thus far. Maybe cask, keg, bottle and brewery are best in the end….

too wide a range of none cask products to fit a traditional pub definition

I’ve been in pubs with a very wide range of non-cask products – Carling, Carlsberg, San Miguel, John Smith’s, Guinness, Guinness Extra Cold…


I meant in the context of my ale loving freind though. He wouldn’t want to go in a cask free pub, but I concede that my choice of phrase made it look like only pubs selling real ale are traditional, which the Duke of York at Leysters and thousands more disprove.

I would be too ashamed to tell you how long I laboured over my response, and tried not to mention real ale pubs (more absurd given that I then removed the reason for not using the term). And I spelt disingenuous wrong.

Most disappointing.

It’s an excellent question, because I fluffily had a concept in my mind of what craft meant, but I could not in any way define it.

As you say, it doesn’t seem to hang on any one item. My favourite Aussie beer is Little Creatures and many would describe them as a craft brewer yet they are building a A$60 million brewery in Melbourne. They will still bottle condition and I do believe the beer will continue to taste excellent but if craft meant small, you would rule them out.

Personally, I would not sweat over a dictionary definition. If someone I know talks about a craft beer, it gives me an indication that I am going to drink something that has possibly been given a little bit of thought and given some care in the preparation. I am happy to leave it as a wafty (originally autocorrect to warty, god help us), undefined term. Doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is an important marker, but I do think it’s too much of a will-o-the wisp to pin down.

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