opinion real ale

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

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;)

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?!)

‘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’.

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.

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.

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.

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!’

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.


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…

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.


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?

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


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.

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?

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.

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”:

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.)

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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?”

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.

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.

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…

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.

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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