Generalisations about beer culture

These Craft Ales We’ve Heard About

While geeks and industry types have been bickering over how to define ‘craft beer’, and whether to use the term at all, an alternative seems to have come out of nowhere:

Gone are the days when going for a pint meant a musty ale or a tasteless lager. There are now over 800 breweries in the UK and the production of small scale craft ale is big business.

So said Michel Roux Jr. on last night’s edition of the BBC’s Food & Drink (iPlayer), but he’s not the only one. Here’s a line from a recent column by Pete Brown for London Loves Business:

Eight quid these days gets you quite an average bottle of wine. It could get you an amazing bottle of craft ale.

The other day, one of our non-beer-geek friends from London texted us to say: ‘There’s a new pub near us with loads of craft ales — you’ll love it!’

When satirical news website The Daily Mash ran a beer story last week, its headline was CRAFT ALE PUB HAS 998 VERY SIMILAR TYPES OF BEER.

But those are anecdotes and bits and pieces: what does our old friend Google Trends say? Here’s a graph showing UK searches for ‘craft ale’ (blue) along with ’boutique beer’ for comparison (red):

Graph: UK searches for 'craft ale' and 'boutique beer'.

Both trail a looooong way behind ‘craft beer’, but there is a fairly obvious increase in their use during 2013.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see ‘craft ale’ really take off, despite the grumblings of beer geeks (‘This is actually bottom-fermented, so it’s not technically an ale…’) for some of the same reasons ‘real ale’ proved so appealing in the 1970s: it sounds more British than ‘craft beer’ and recognises tradition and nostalgia. It also bridges the gap between the dominant Campaign for Real Ale rhetoric and Brewdog’s cult-like chanting.

‘Can’t they just call it “beer”?’ some will say, wearily rolling their eyes. The fact is, people find categories helpful when making consumer choices, which is why Waterstones don’t just call them ‘books’ and bung them in a big skip, why there are ‘budget’ and ’boutique’ hotels, and how the ‘gourmet burger’ has come to exist.

39 replies on “These Craft Ales We’ve Heard About”

Your graph also shows that use of both of these phrases is about to stop completely; I’ll look forward to that.

The new Food & Drink is generally pretty awful, and the beer feature was really bad – it was as if they’d delegated the selection of beers to somebody who knew something, but not let that person write the actual copy. We were strongly reminded of Philomena Cunk.

Waterstones don’t just call them ‘books’

They don’t classify them by hipness, originality or unusual contents, either, or by how passionate the author is. The closest thing I can think of to a ‘craft’ section in any other shop is the bit behind the counter in record or comics shops where they put the limited editions on display.

‘Craft’ falls apart if you try to define it; it has nothing to do with conveying information about the beer and everything to do with suggesting it’s something cool and different for which you won’t mind paying more. Unless you’re Pete Brown, in which case it’s kind of like ‘real ale’ only more inclusive – although it sounds like he’s going down the ‘reassuringly expensive’ route as well.

I’ve long thought that ‘gourmet’ is to food as ‘craft’ now is to beer. Lofty ideals, an original core of people with a firm belief that what they were doing counted, and since then a long line of others defining themselves under the same term until we now have Ryanair gourmet paninis…

Surely this is just all semantics and a casual cross-dressing in the use of the words beer and ale, in the same way as drinkers often say they’re having a pint of ale without thinking of the fermentation process or the conditioning time or the dispensation? However, if we do see a bipolar style of branding in beer shops, ie craft beer here, craft ale there (btw where does that leave lambic, stout, gueuze, gose, Helles etc), then it does seem to me that craft ‘whatever’ has finally vanished up its own alimentary canal (or should that be Risen?).

In a way Waterstones do classify some of their stock by ‘coolness’ or an appreciation of the ‘craft’ involved by the use of its staff recommendations shelf notes. You never see them on Dan Brown (?fosters!) but instead on Thomas Pynchon (insert obscure complex craft brewery here).

True, but you also see them on the latest from Ian McEwan (Bateman’s), Alexander McCall Smith (Innis & Gunn), Bret Easton Ellis (Goose Island) or P. D. James (Marston’s) – basically anyone they might want to push and who isn’t quite at the level where they don’t need pushing. Which would correspond to ‘craft’ in the Pete Brown sense, so maybe you’re on to something.

Pynchon would be Weird Beard, I think.

ATJ — don’t think we’ll see ‘craft beer’ and ‘craft ale’ together describing different things, just more pubs and shops targeting more general markets (i.e. not geeks) using ‘craft ale’ on signage and marketing materials, without much regard for semantic debates among geeks, or whether beer writers and bloggers think it’s up its own arse. It just sounds nice.

Phil is right, there are far more useful and helpful ways of categorising beers than whether it is “craft” or “real” or “boutique” or “artisan” or whatever other made up word the marketers thought would justify a price hike.

I actually think designating a beer as “craft” adds absolutely no value to it whatsoever. If people are interested enough in beer to be willing to pay more for good or interesting examples, they will already know which breweries they are willing to pay more for and which they’re not.

And then there are a load of people who approach it like I approach buying pasta: ‘Basics’ or ‘Taste the Betterness’? That second one has to be worth an extra quid, right?

While we geeks are deciding on a more useful and helpful way of categorising, by arguing for ten years, consumers are just getting on with using what’s already there, probably guided by marketing people and mainstream journalists.

(DISCLAIMER: I sometimes buy Basics anyway.)

You know supermarkets deliberately make the packaging of their basics range look as ugly and unappealing as possible to try and put you off from buying it, right?

Its often the exact same food from the exact same production line, but by persuading you to pay an extra £2 for the same item in a prettier box they are able to obtain more of your consumer surplus for themselves. Its 2nd degree price discrimination.

The “Craft” is of course an attempt to do the same thing. The same beer, but with the “craft” label, allows the mugs in the audience the chance to voluntarily pay more for the same product.

Yeah, but it’s probably better (bigger?) than the other burger on the same menu that costs two quid less.

Or else you get a bit of bacon and some onion rings. “Gourmet” = “a bit dearer, but you get more stuff” is a linguistic innovation Spoons can be proud of – I wish it would catch on more widely.

I’ve got no time for anyone trying to define craft as “good” or “brewed with passion” or, fundamentally “worth paying more for” – that’s obvious marketing balls.

But surely people have noticed that on the one hand there are quite a lot of pubs where you can be 95% sure you won’t find a highly hopped IPA and 100% sure you won’t find a saison, an imperial stout, a black IPA or anything from a small brewery on keg, and that on the other hand there are a number of pubs where you can more-or-less guarantee that you’ll find most of those things but you’re unlikely to get a pint of Landlord.

It’s a spectrum rather than an absolute either/or thing, and stuff seems to be getting more mixed all the time (which is a Good Thing all round), but for the moment it’s quite useful to be able to describe the latter sort of pub in a couple of words. And if there’s a less loaded term than “craft” that does that then I’d be happy to use it, but at the moment there doesn’t seem to be…

I would just tend to say “a pub with a good/interesting/unusual beer selection”. I would never say “craft beer pub”, my mates would look at me like I was some kind of pretentious twat.

But there are pubs with good/interesting/unusual selections of traditional bitters, milds and stouts, so that doesn’t help. It’s also still more of a mouthful than “craft beer pub / bar” which, like it or not, lets a lot of people know pretty much exactly what you’re talking about. I don’t really see how expressing yourself clearly and concisely makes you a pretentious twat, but there you go.

Not often I agree with py, but he is right in principle when he says “The “Craft” is of course an attempt to do the same thing. The same beer, but with the “craft” label, allows the mugs in the audience the chance to voluntarily pay more for the same product.

He does not go far enough though. A grim railway arch and murky beer is worth another few bob and allows you to sell just over a half pint for the equivalent of £8 a pint.

Nonetheless craft is still a valid term, though what it tells you depends on how gullible or cynical you are.

“The same beer, but with the “craft” label”
Oh right, yeah. London Pride and Wild Beer Epic Saison are pretty much indistinguishable apart from the word “craft” and the corresponding price increase. Gotcha. Do I ever feel like a mug now.

No, but, there are a lot of beers made over the past few years to show off Citra hops that all taste pretty similar. Some will set you back £3 and be marketed as golden hoppy real ale, some will set you back £8 and be marketed as artisan craft beer. In a blind taste test, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Fair enough paying £8 to try it once. But to do so repeatedly when there is a virtually identical beer on display for less than half the price is just stupid. That is my point.

I now have a vision of Tandleman in The Kernel of a Saturday morning, turning over the tables and chasing the punters out to the St James Tavern round the corner.

The gullible fools, thinking they were enjoying themselves…

Haha. Defending py again – I could get to enjoy this – I don’t think that is quite what he is saying. Rather, if you make a beer in a grim railway arch and make it murky – OK – he didn’t say that – I did – and (back to py) then market it as craft, then you can charge more for it than if you didn’t.

Kernel’s beer is fantastic, but is it really worth twice as much as something similar from Oakham?

I just don’t like the way the “craft beer revolution” is being turned from a wide ranging movement that improves beer quality and variety across the board and in all styles, methods of dispense and price brackets, into something elitist and pretentious and basically a marketing tool used to rip people off.

By whom? The Kernel doesn’t have a door policy on Saturdays. There’s no entrance exam and the prices are displayed on the blackboards. A similar policy operates in The Craft Beer Co chain of pubs. If you don’t want what’s on offer, you can go somewhere else and/or drink something else.

Any brewer who comes out with some bollocks about their beer being worth more than anyone elses and trying to justify charging a stupid amount of money for it because its artisan and brewed with passion or some other bullshit.

They can charge stupid money because at the moment there is a novelty factor and there are enough stupid people falling for their schtick. But once the hipsters move on, they’ll wish they had followed a more equitable and accomodating pricing structure and not price gouged with £8 pints.

I guess if you believe that ‘craft’ brewers are habitually *over* charging for their beer (i.e. making vastly more profit on it than, say, Adnams do from theirs); that most/all beer branded as ‘craft’ is somehow objectively bad; and that those who claim to enjoy it are in the grip of a collective mania, then it might be something to worry about.

Its interesting that a bottle of Kernel from the beer shop is generally quite a sensible price, but instead of paying twice the amount for it in a pub as you would with the majority of breweries, you pay four times the amount.

I think most craft keg is very nice, I just don’t see how it is justifiable to charge twice as much for it as a similar beer on cask. Keykegs don’t add *that* much expense.

Well I do see how, its because there are enough people willing to pay that amount so why not charge them. But although this strategy is good for the brewery’s short term profits, I don’t think this price gouging will be good for the beer and pub industry in the long run.

There’s more to craft than keg, though. From my experience, most places that have craft keg lines will also have stuff from a similar set of breweries on cask, and that’s not normally significantly more expensive than the draught beer in most other town centre type places.

Also, there’s a lot of stuff that gets called craft for which there just isn’t a directly comparable beer available that isn’t craft. You couldn’t really complain that they’re “just putting a fancy label on an ordinary barrel aged imperial coffee porter and charging twice as much for it”.

Also, if there’s really “gouging” going on (and I don’t know – have there been many private jets delivered to Bermondsey recently?) rather than people making a product in a small-scale, relatively uneconomical way and then selling it at a modest profit then, given the fairly low barriers to entry into either craft brewing and craft beer pub running then it shouldn’t take too long before the market does its thing and the magic of competition means that we can get equally good cold fizzy grapefruit juice at closer to cost price…

There’s a bar that opened near me less than a year ago, selling cask beer at between £3 and £3.50 a pint and keg at between £5 and £9. The cask currently costs between £3.20 and £4.20, and the keg costs between £4 and £6. Market forces are working. At the same time, some people are complaining that they’re not working fast enough – which, since ‘market forces’ don’t exist outside people’s heads, is a way of helping them to work a bit quicker.

As for ‘gouging’, if I’d just opened a business and I had a choice whether to set my retail prices at a level which might recoup my investment in a couple of years, or at a level which might get me back in the black in five years if I was lucky, I’d take option A. I do believe that the novelty of craft keg is letting people (and not only brewers) peg prices that bit higher; that doesn’t mean I believe anyone’s getting rich, with the possible exception of Emma Harrison who’s rich already.

The problem with filling keykegs, as opposed to casks, is you need keg filling heads, filters – if filtering – pumps to pump it in ( or CO2 gas ) and the extra cost of the disposable keg. It does all add up.
They are not my favourite method of beer dispense either!

With regard to “ale” vs. “beer”, as I understand it there are two distinctions that – historically – it’s been used to make: (i) indigenous British unhopped “ale” vs. new-fangled hopped “beer” (from – I guess – 16th century on); (ii) higher gravity “ale” vs. weaker “beer” for everyday consumption (from 18th century onwards, I guess). Neither of those provides much in the way of justification for “craft ale” unless we think that the “craft” end of the market is intrinsically committed to a higher-gravity product.

Then again, nor does it offer much justification for CAMRA calling a 3.2% session bitter an example of “real ale” either. So no-one in the current beer scene gets to ride their high horse regarding ownership of the term.

With regard to py’s comments about keykeg vs. cask, I know enough to confirm that (a) breweries who go down the keykeg route do tend to charge more per pint at the supply side for beer in keykegs than their competitors do for cask; (b) the wastage is considerably higher in keykeg than cask. My local runs keykeg at a consdierably lower profit margin than cask and yet it’s still a fair bit more expensive at the tap!

the wastage is considerably higher in keykeg than cask.

Seriously? How so? Low wastage (and spoilage) was always supposed to be one of the great benefits of keg.

“the wastage is considerably higher in keykeg than cask.”

Really? I would have thought it would be the other way around, what with cask having a shelf life of 5 days or so but keykegs lasting 2-3 weeks if not longer.

Well, if you can’t shift ale it goes off and you throw it away – but that’s not what I meant by wastage in this context (I’m assuming that most places would aim to tap no more ale than they can sell in time): rather, I’m thinking of what you lose at the end of a barrel from overly cloudy yeast-filled pints or pulling through at changeover – i.e. how many pints can actually be served to punters vs. the nominal capacity of the vessel. Beyond that, I’m out of my depth and you’d need someone with a better handle on the technical side of things to explain why!

The fact that “craft” has become decoupled from “beer” and is being used as a descriptor on its own is just another step to it becoming a synonym for “premium”.

craft ale, craft cheese, craft bread, craft petrol for the discerning customer. Its the craft lifestyle (not to be confused with kraft).

From a nine of beer (cask) you should get around 66 -68 pints if you aren’t that careful and 70 or more if you are and you haven’t allowed the beer to go stale and you don’t spill lots, or have the staff drink it. That assumes the cask is filled to the very maximum.

Pulling straight through at changeover will cost you beer as will pulling through at the start of the session (advised) unless you are wise enough to cool to the point of dispense, when you’ll lose less. It isn’t an exact thing. CAMRA set the yield at only 60, but that allows for staff beer and we do tend to clear the lines and pull through properly, which sadly publicans don’t always.

Keykeg wastage comes from our old friends CO2 and fobbing. Poor filling will cause lots of fobbing due to overhigh pressure. Add to that CO2 settings, carelessness etc and you can lose a lot.

And don’t believe a two week old keg or keykeg can’t stale. They very much can for many reasons. Three weeks old or longer? Huh. Mabe if very dark and very strong, but once opened? No.

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