You Can’t Declare Yourself to be Cool

Detail from the cover of Tony [Bennett] Sings the Great Hits of Today (1970)
Detail from the cov­er of Tony [Ben­nett] 1970 ‘psy­che­del­ic’ album.

We find these and other Tweets from James Clarke at Hook Norton brewery fascinating:

(Mr Clarke is far from being the only brew­er we’ve seen noticed mak­ing points like this.)

On the one hand, we agree with the sen­ti­ment: if it was up to us, in the UK, ‘craft beer’ would be inclu­sive of regional/family brew­ers of cask-con­di­tioned beer.

On the oth­er hand, we won­der why he and oth­er well-estab­lished and well-respect­ed brew­ers are even both­er­ing to stake a claim to the term ‘craft’. If they’re con­fi­dent that they are mak­ing good beer, and have sur­vived a hun­dred years or more in the busi­ness, it seems odd that they’re con­cerned about how they’re described. (Or, rather, how they’re not.)

At any rate, it is counter-pro­duc­tive – is there any clear­er sign of being square than insist­ing you’re hip?

Note: the Tony Ben­nett album is sur­pris­ing­ly good, though he is said to have hat­ed it…

35 thoughts on “You Can’t Declare Yourself to be Cool”

  1. Maybe: brew­ers have feel­ings too.

    Per­haps some of them are grumpy about the idea that there is this “craft” good beer and every­thing else is non-craft “crap beer”. If they’re not “craft” then they’re “crap”… in the eyes of a grow­ing army of hip­ster beer nerds. If I was a brew­er and a beer lover, in the big ol’ fam­i­ly brew­ing busi­ness, who was proud of my his­to­ry and my skills as a brew­er, and loved the beers I made… and was being told by beer lovers that there was “good beer” (craft) and “not good beer” (non-craft) I know where I, per­son­al­ly, would pre­fer to be seen to stand.

    I’d also say that being emo­tion­al­ly involved in brew­ing to the degree that you’ll put your­self for­ward as being a brew­er of *good* beer is get­ting to be about as “craft” as brew­ing can get.

    Of course how do you tell when the plea is in earnest – and hasn’t been inject­ed by the mar­ket­ing depart­ment? In James’s case I think this is gen­uine at least. Although whether or not stak­ing the claim is advis­able or not is anoth­er ques­tion – had he con­sult­ed a mar­ket­ing depart­ment I’m sure it would have come out dif­fer­ent­ly. (Maybe unless they were a rather good mar­ket­ing depart­ment;)

    1. I should add that I see James’s posi­tion here as being much stronger than that of Greene King, SA Brains, or Thwait­es who come across as entire­ly marketing/business led. When Hook Nor­ton cre­ate a “craft” brand­ed side-pro­jec­t/brew­ery then I’ll start giv­ing them fun­ny looks. (They haven’t… have they?!)

  2. Maybe: brew­ers have feel­ings too.’

    Think you’re absolute­ly right, and actu­al­ly had some­thing along those lines in the first draft of this post.

    Try­ing to stake a claim to the term, though, is more-or-less an admis­sion that ‘craft’ does equal ‘good’, isn’t it?

    As you sug­gest, though, per­haps the brew­ers being most vocal about this on Twit­ter are also those being most hon­est, with­out the medi­a­tion of mar­ket­ing depart­ments, and maybe haven’t over-though it as a ‘strat­e­gy’.

  3. I think a lot of the new­er, more pro­gres­sive brew­eries have moved past using the say­ing as it just doesn’t mean as much in the UK as it does to the US. It how­ev­er is a pow­er­ful mar­ket­ing word, and defines for the casu­al drinker an easy way into the new world of “cool­er” beers.

    All big brew­eries have to move with the times, and this is a very easy way for the mar­ket­ing depart­ment to make things rel­e­vant and hop on the band­wag­on. It’s a growth mar­ket that I am sure they want to be a part of.

  4. It comes back to def­i­n­i­tions, doesn’t it. If “craft beer” or “craft brew­er” has any intrin­sic mean­ing at all, it’s per­fect­ly legit for peo­ple to claim the labels for them­selves and their own beer – it would be like me claim­ing to have writ­ten a book or played in a ceilidh band (I can show you pic­tures). If “craft” means “recog­nised by the cool kids as being down with the cool kids”, clear­ly there’s no point claim­ing it for your­self. But if that *is* what it means, what’s the point any­one using it as if it did mean some­thing?

    I feel for peo­ple like James. Imag­ine you’re an archi­tect spe­cial­is­ing in tim­ber-framed hous­es – all the wood sourced from sus­tain­able forests, natch. You’re ambling along get­ting some nice con­tracts and a pret­ty good name for your­self, when all of a sud­den a bunch of young archi­tects start get­ting rave reviews for their Green Archi­tec­ture, fea­tur­ing kapok cav­i­ty wall insu­la­tion, hemp cur­tains and bam­boo win­dow frames. I think you could be for­giv­en for point­ing out that you were doing green archi­tec­ture already, actu­al­ly, and doing it with­out all the fuss and gim­mick­ry.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly this would miss the point that it’s the fuss and gim­mick­ry that sells – and it sells because it sig­ni­fies being down with the cool kids.

  5. Not that I’ve got any­thing against cool kids, you under­stand. Why, I was almost cool myself, once. But I put my cardie on, and I’m much more com­fort­able now.

  6. Same rea­son any­one else does it — because it sells beer.

    Think the Hook Nor­ton chap is being sar­cas­tic though.

    1. See, that might be what caught our atten­tion: he is being sarky, but also kind of means it. Can you have dis­dain for a term and those who use it, but also want to use it in ref­er­ence to your­self? As in, ‘It’s a load of old non­sense, but if it does have any mean­ing, then we’re hav­ing a bit of it!’

  7. He’s being snarky a bit but is also mak­ing a (salu­tary) point. He has to be right because his beer along with numer­ous oth­ers of sim­i­lar and dif­fer­ent type are what inspired the craft brew­ers of Amer­i­ca to begin with! If his beer was legion in 1978 Amer­i­ca, along with pale bar­ley wine a la Whit­bread Gold Label, dark and light milds as then across the coun­try, Wat­ney Stin­go, Thomas Hardy Ale and numer­ous oth­er olds and Bur­tons, bot­tle-con­di­tioned pale ale (White Shield), Federation’s brown ale and Dou­ble Max­im and so on, we nev­er would have need­ed a beer rev­o­lu­tion don’t you see?

    In attempt­ing to mim­ic British styles, Amer­i­ca end­ed by cre­at­ing some­thing often new, a par­al­lel beer world that attracts sim­ply by its nov­el­ty. All very well, a lot of it is very cred­itable (some isn’t). But don’t throw out the baby with the bath­wa­ter, he is say­ing and he is very right.

    Old Hooky may be the great­est bit­ter cur­rent­ly made any­where in the world, those who neglect it are los­ing much – is how I’d put it.


    1. But who’s neglect­ing any­thing? Maybe a hand­ful of peo­ple pre­fer one thing to anoth­er, but I’m sure Old Hooky’s sales haven’t plum­met­ed because every­one in Oxford­shire has sud­den­ly turned to new-fan­gled US-style IPA

  8. I have no doubts the local mar­ket is strong, and glad of it of course. But I’ve heard of those who con­sid­er “brown beer” bor­ing. I feel they would lose much by for­sak­ing this tra­di­tion at its cask best for the new­er style beers which, good as some are, are not the equal of England’s best IMO.


    1. There­in, per­haps, lies the crux of the mat­ter: does a broad­en­ing of choice and the explo­ration of influ­ences from ‘alien’ beer cul­tures nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that the native one will be ‘for­sak­en’?

      We like to think that both can exist along­side each oth­er, and, for our part, enjoy­ing the odd self-con­scious­ly ‘craft’ beer doesn’t alter the fact that the vast major­i­ty of what we drink is the best bit­ter pro­duced by our local 150-year-old fam­i­ly brew­ery.

      But if ‘exot­ic’ beer does threat­en the mar­ket for tra­di­tion­al ale… well, that can’t be helped by super­fi­cial­ly re-labelling tra­di­tion­al ale, can it?

      1. I agree. It is best to do what you do and avoid the blan­d­ish­ments of rebrand­ing.


  9. The trou­ble is that “craft” means sev­er­al dif­fer­ent things. At least:

    (1) Not pale lager.

    (2) Made by hand. Not indus­tri­al.

    (3) Inspired by US West Coast brew­ers.

    (4) Tastes good.

    Peo­ple munge all of these togeth­er in their minds when they use the term, and it makes for all sorts of con­fu­sion.

    Hook Nor­ton fits 2.5 out of 4, as opposed to, say, Fos­ters, which fits 0. So I guess it’s rea­son­able that some should feel they are craft while oth­ers don’t.

    1. But very few peo­ple who would score 3 or 4/4 would actu­al­ly call *them­selves* ‘craft’. In fact, some of the ‘craftest’ brew­ers cringe at the term, and go out of their way to avoid it. (See Stu’s Twit­ter bio.)

      Maybe call­ing your­self craft knocks a point off your score?

      1. If the term has any mean­ing at all it’s to do with how the brew­eries work and what they make. What peo­ple call them­selves and how they feel about the term seems like a dis­trac­tion to me.

        Any­way, whether coun­tries can main­tain their native beer cul­ture under the onslaught of craft beer (sense #3) is real­ly an impor­tant ques­tion. The Czech Repub­lic, the UK, and Lithua­nia are about to try that out for real. Bel­gium and Ger­many may fol­low. The big ones (UK and Ger­many) don’t wor­ry me that much, but the small­er ones real­ly do.

        All of this will depend, I guess, on how cus­tomers react, which is why I think it’s impor­tant to try to help peo­ple see that good beer is more than just US-style craft beer (sense #3). Some­times that’s an uphill strug­gle.

        It’s inter­est­ing that for exam­ple Lithua­ni­ans don’t seem to regard their local tra­di­tion­al beer as craft beer, because they inter­pret craft beer as sense #3. Which makes it all the more inter­est­ing that Max sees it so total­ly the oth­er way.

    2. Now we enter the murky world of “what is craft”. It would be inter­est­ing to ask 10,000 peo­ple “what is craft beer” today and see the answer – I sus­pect the results may be more along your lines than mine alas. How­ev­er, for me your own points of def­i­n­i­tion seem … almost com­plete­ly wrong.

      The trou­ble is that “craft” means sev­er­al dif­fer­ent things. At least: … [etc]”

      My take on the four points:

      1) Most big “craft” brands are mak­ing “craft” pale lagers (or ales with a lager­ish nature – if we want to get into tech­ni­cal­i­ties). “Real” lagers are becom­ing com­mon though, and helles is pop­u­lar as a “craft” style in the UK and also NZ/AU I think (not sure about US?).

      2) As for “made by hand” – what, with­out a brew­ery? At which point does a build­ing full of stain­less steel move from being “by hand” to “indus­tri­al”? Or is this some sort of touchy-feely unde­fin­able “by hand”? Is home­brew the only true “craft”? The US is strug­gling with this one of course, as their old­skool “craft” brew­eries grow and grow and they rede­fine their pro­duc­tion-based def­i­n­i­tion. Many of the best craft-type brew­ers I know of seem to be pret­ty damn hap­py when they grow/graduate to a big shiny semi-auto­mat­ed brewk­it. Ok, so we prob­a­bly want to draw the line at “con­tin­u­ous fer­men­ta­tion” though?

      3) “Inspired by US” … this is the only one that I can see as ring­ing true for many self-styled “craft” brew­eries. The most obvi­ous one is good ol’ Brew­Dog of course. But I’m not con­vinced it is all that uni­ver­sal… most of what seems to be good “craft” in the UK is cask ale done well. Admit­ted­ly often with a bit of US influ­ence, and def­i­nite­ly with US hops (but this isn’t such a new thing) – think Dark­star, Thorn­bridge, Oakham. Were they aping West Coast beers – are they now? Or do the roots of “hop­py” beers hark back deep­er on this side of the pond as well?

      4) And “tastes good” – total­ly sub­jec­tive. And I’d say that I’ve had a FAR high­er % of “craft” brews that taste tech­ni­cal­ly “bad” than non-craft brews that do. Craft brew­ing is rife with brew­ing flaws and errors… though these can often be masked with enough hops, or a vari­ety of oth­er “hard­core” flavour­ings. How­ev­er in a way – the rough edges are part of the charm of the small/boutique/artisan brew­ing sec­tor.

      Any­way – rant done – sor­ry, head­ing off-top­ic a bit too… nobody will ever agree on a set of brew­ers being “craft” or not. The term itself is becom­ing more nasty and divi­sive by the day. This may be why some tra­di­tion­al brew­ers are becom­ing more snarky about it – if you want a good pile of craft snark go read Stu­art Howe’s blog. Total leg­end when it comes to trolling “craft”:

      1. The log­ic behind the four points is that in most coun­tries #3 implied the three oth­ers (and vice ver­sa), at least until a cou­ple of years ago. So you could use “craft” in any of these four sens­es with­out con­fu­sion. That’s nev­er been true in the UK, and increas­ing­ly it’s not true else­where, either. Hence con­fu­sion.

        I guess this has been more of an issue in the UK because the cross-impli­ca­tions did not hold here, and craft then becom­ing fash­ion­able with a lot off dubi­ous impli­ca­tions attached has pissed many peo­ple off.

        Obvi­ous­ly you won’t ever get every­one to agree on any­thing, whether it’s the def­i­n­i­tion of craft or not, but I think teas­ing apart the dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple use the term is use­ful, because it clears up a lot of con­fu­sion. (Just like dis­tin­guish­ing bot­tom-fer­ment­ed from lager does.)

    3. I think this is a point that can’t be made often enough.

      It’s fair enough to talk about craft beer as being specif­i­cal­ly US inspired stuff with trendy graph­ic design and iron­ic beards, or to talk about it as being pro­duced on a rel­a­tive­ly small scale by peo­ple who are pas­sion­ate about great beer, but there’s an occa­sion­al ten­den­cy to con­flate the two and hence imply that if you’re mak­ing good old fash­ioned bit­ter and pre­sent­ing it in a tra­di­tion­al sort of way then it must be because you’re soul­less cor­po­rate-indus­tri­al dullards who don’t give two figs about the qual­i­ty of your beer.

      This prob­a­bly isn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly com­mon atti­tude among peo­ple who are nerdy about craft beer, but it makes for excit­ing copy so it dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly makes it out into the pub­lic con­scious­ness – eg look at the way that any­thing in the main­stream press about Brew­dog tends to take what­ev­er they come out with at face val­ue. And I can see why some­one like James would get wound up by it.

      1. The only thing that went wrong IMO in Britain, that Amer­i­can ener­gy and inno­va­tion has helped part­ly to cor­rect, is a nar­row­ing of styles. Bit­ter became the main thing nation­al­ly at any rate, prob­a­bly assist­ed by the clos­ing of many local/regional con­cerns and the cor­po­ratis­ing of brew­ing. (Yet many big com­pa­nies made and still do fine bit­ter which is craft in its larg­er sense accept­ed by many). And indeed the risk is there in the larg­er Euro­pean coun­tries and e.g. I think of cer­tain things Ron P has writ­ten about changes in Czech Repub­lic. I myself am sat­is­fied for exam­ple that Stel­la Artois is not as good near­ly as 20 years ago… So the Amer­i­can boost is salu­tary too because it enables the locals hope­ful­ly, espe­cial­ly those inclined to drink what is hip or in, to under­stand what in a sense start­ed it all.


      2. And hav­ing just read Yvan’s reply – I think the point is less that any of these is a par­tic­u­lar­ly good or use­ful def­i­n­i­tion, more that there’s a range of dif­fer­ent and non­equiv­a­lent things that dif­fer­ent peo­ple have in mind when they say “craft” (keg is anoth­er one that lars­ga missed) and that things start get­ting _really_ stu­pid when peo­ple start con­flat­ing them all into one big all-or-noth­ing band­wag­gon.

  10. Can we all agree that every time we go to write “craft”, we stop and choose a more use­ful and spe­cif­ic descrip­tor instead? If its the new world hops, men­tion the hops. If its exper­i­men­tal, say its exper­i­men­tal. If its micro­brewed, say its micro­brewed. If its high­ly regard­ed, say its high­ly regard­ed. If its from a UK brew­ery set up in the past 10 years and heav­i­ly influ­enced by the US, say that.

    As far as I am con­cerned craft beer is any beer mar­ket­ed as being craft beer.

    1. Oh, good – then we can end­less­ly debate the mean­ing of ‘new world’ (UK Cas­cades?), ‘exper­i­men­tal’ (designed to test a hypoth­e­sis?), ‘micro­brewed’ (how many hec­tolitres?) and ‘high­ly regard­ed’. That’ll keep us in blog posts until 2024.

      1. Bit ungen­er­ous IMO. You can split hairs over any def­i­n­i­tion, but at least those terms actu­al­ly have a def­i­n­i­tion – mak­ing them a good replace­ment for ‘craft’, which doesn’t.

          1. Well, some of them do – from a UK brew­ery set up in the past 10 years and heav­i­ly influ­enced by the US in par­tic­u­lar. Oth­ers are a bit more fuzzy, admit­ted­ly. I guess what I real­ly like about py0’s sug­ges­tion isn’t so much the pre­ci­sion as that it’s an attempt to con­vey infor­ma­tion – you can actu­al­ly ask which ones those New World hops were & how short the brew length was. Ask­ing “how craft is it?” is basi­cal­ly like say­ing “how cool is it?”

    1. Ha ha, fair point. From now on, we will def­i­nite­ly use New World to refer to those bars where they only sell beer with hops from the New World.

      Of course we like to be spe­cif­ic where we can, but some­times you need a broad brush to dis­cuss trends and mar­kets, and the spe­cif­ic term employed isn’t, in our view, actu­al­ly all that impor­tant. We’ve lob­bied for Beers in Cat­e­go­ry X before, but it didn’t take off, so we’re hap­py just using whichev­er word will make us most read­i­ly under­stood by most peo­ple.

      1. The thing is, I’m not sure I like craft beer, because I’m not 100% sure whether that to most peo­ple that nec­es­sar­i­ly implies things I don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like, like sil­ly prices, an obses­sion with high strength beer, etc, or not.

        I def­i­nite­ly CAN say that I like beers made with new world hops, I like mod­ern brand­ing, I appre­ci­ate it when brew­eries have more expan­sive beer ranges than just three types of bit­ter, I like the choice of a decent beer on keg as well as on cask, and I like know­ing more about brew­eries and the per­son­al­i­ties and his­to­ry behind the beer, par­tic­u­lar­ly local ones.

  11. theres one aspect you might have missed in this so far which I think is very rel­e­vant, this is a con­ver­sa­tion the brew­er was broad­cast­ing via twit­ter. (and Ive seen a few sim­i­lar out­burst of late as well via twit­ter)

    95% of the peo­ple (and that was a stat gleaned from a craft brew­er who used twit­ter 😉 ) who drink that brew­eries beer do not use twit­ter full stop, let alone use it to glean infor­ma­tion about or debate the fin­er points of “craft” brew­ing, regard­less of what the cask report says, you walk into the aver­age UK pub, 47% of the peo­ple present will not under­stand the term “craft beer”.

    so who is he talk­ing to real­ly…

    1. The size of the audi­ence isn’t the issue. He’s talk­ing to the peo­ple who are engaged and inter­est­ed. Gen­er­al­ly they are the kind of peo­ple who are the beer blog­gers and evan­ge­lists. Of course, it reads more like an emo­tion­al response than a cal­cu­lat­ed effort but here we are talk­ing about it.

  12. How about this: if call­ing your­self ‘craft’ is just try­ing to call your­self cool, then call­ing some­body else or their beers ‘craft’ is just call­ing them cool. If you want to get into the busi­ness of What’s Hot and What’s Not, say ‘craft beer’. If you want to tell peo­ple stuff, say ‘New World hops’, ‘strong Amer­i­can influ­ence’, ‘keg dis­pense’, ‘ridicu­lous­ly strong’, ‘insane­ly expen­sive’, ‘actu­al­ly rather nice once in a while’…

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