Generalisations about beer culture

When Boutique was the Beer Buzzword

Thirty years before everyone started getting annoyed about the term ‘craft beer’, the phrase that looked as if it might take hold was ’boutique beer’.

Here’s Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson in the introduction to a new edition of his World Guide to Beer in 1988:

The smaller the brewery, the more easily it can devote itself to speciality styles of beer… Not every brew-pub takes this opportunity, but many do. The best of the micro-breweries certainly do. A good few old-established independents have rediscovered the confidence to assert their heritage. Even on some of the national and international giants have found time to produce the odd speciality beer… In volume, sales of these ’boutique beers’ are tiny…

What we’ve found in recent months is that no-one hates the term ‘craft beer’ quite as much as some of the brewers to whose work it is applied. Mention it and they sigh, roll their eyes, and sometimes even groan, as if in pain.

There are various reasons for their antipathy: they’re bored of hearing people talk about it; they don’t like being labelled; they’re frustrated that a term they thought they understood has been undermined by excessive examination; and they feel it’s been devalued by bigger breweries slapping it on labels and pump-clips.

Jackson observed something similar in regard to ’boutique beer’ in the mid-eighties:

What the revivalists and new brewers offer is variety, not just of names and packages, but of classic beer-styles. That is why many of them dislike the term ’boutique beer’: it is descriptive, but perhaps suggests that their products might be ‘designer’ whims, fashionable but ephemeral.

To develop that thought, is it that brewers feel uneasy about being part of any ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ whose value may go down as well as up? Which might collapse when the ‘next big thing’ comes along?

8 replies on “When Boutique was the Beer Buzzword”

I can’t help feeling that “fashionable but ephemeral” could be quite fairly used to describe segments of the modern “craft beer” scene as much as last century’s “boutique beer”.

I don’t think it’s an issue of feeling uneasy about being part of a scene; it’s just that whatever term the “artisan brewer” uses (have we had that one yet, or will that take over from “craft” next?) will get seized and subverted by the big boys as nothing more than a marketing label.

So, using Jackson’s second passage, both craft brewers and boutique brewers on the scene now? Beers which are “‘designer’ whims, fashionable but ephemeral” describe a lot of things seen over the last two years.

What Michael Jackson may not have foreseen is the fact of a brewery itself becoming the brand. He focused, as a consumer writer, on the products, and this was the focus of the time due in part to the ubiquity of bottled and tinned beer. But today, many small breweries capitalize on their name as first and foremost to attract custom. I will try something from Brew Dog, say, or Flying Dog, or Indie Ale House here in Toronto, because I like the company’s approach to brewing and this by definition encourages production of one-offs. A lot of it is draft-only anyway which fits the ethos. Michael didn’t miss much but this side of things was nascent at the time of his passing (2007).


The term ‘Boutique beer’ lives on here. Average Joe public are far more likely to use the term ‘Boutique Beer’ here than craft beer, even though Craft is what the industry and engaged drinkers call it.

I hate ‘Boutique Beer’ with a passion. Does my beer smell of Pot Pourri and come in a Paua Shell bottle? (Actually that won’t translate will it? Paua = Abalone , glitzy shells often used to make twee designer jewellery) but anyway NO it doesn’t.

I hate ‘Boutique Beer’ almost as much as I hate being referred to as a “Beer Guru” , I don’t wear a white sheet, I don’t have cult followers. Well not yet anyway. 🙂

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