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The Black Hole of Craft Beer

Black holes in space have yet to be directly observed, and their presence can only be inferred through their interaction with other matter and light.

Recent events in the world of beer suggest that ‘craft beer’ might operate in the same way. There’s no agreed definition in the UK, and yet we can all tell when the actions of breweries are being distorted by its mysterious presence.

First, locally, we’ve observed the recent roll-out of a rebranded St Austell ‘Proper Cool’ keg IPA. Does this design and copy remind you of anyone?

St Austell Proper Cool beer mat.

Though St Austell don’t use the C-word themselves, here’s how we heard a barman explain this beer to a customer: “You know Proper Job? Well it’s a craft version of that.”

St Austell can claim to have been doing ‘craft’ (US-hopped IPA, beers with spices) since before ‘craft’ was really a thing, so it’s weird to see them aping BrewDog so openly, especially as it’s a bit ‘Dad in a baseball cap’. (They have literally declared themselves cool.)

Then, further north, this fascinating blog post emerged from Thornbridge’s head brewer, Rob Lovatt, announcing the arrival of a Parma Violet porter, and explaining its place in their new ‘Left Field Beer Project’. It seems to us that his teeth are gritted:

All of my brewing team will tell you that I’m very style-oriented and I take some persuading to even put the slightest twist on a classic beer style. 

When we visited Thornbridge last year, we detected a (good natured and probably healthy) tension between a conservative lobby focused on tradition, and those who wanted to be more playful and experimental. Parma Violet is, we think, is driven by the latter, and an attempt to do something a bit more ‘craft’, whatever exactly that means. Others made the same suggestion on Twitter:

Disclosure: we have had various dealings with both St Austell and Thornbridge, and are speaking at a Thornbridge pub next week, on 21 May. We’re not scientists — sorry if we got black holes wrong in our attempt at a rhetorical flourish.

17 replies on “The Black Hole of Craft Beer”

Plenty of money in it. While the Crafties are relatively few in number, they spend and spend big. All you need to get them to do so is mention “hops*, put weird stuff in the beer and distressed fonts on the label.

Aiming for the Crafty Pound. Niche marketing at its finest.

I thought the real “craft pound” was in relatively large number of Peroni drinking punters who’ve heard that Craft Beer is the new trendy thing but aren’t quite sure what it is? Hence all the generic pilsner sold as “English Craft Lager” and regular seasonal golden ales rebadged as “pOstMoDern PaLe aLe”. Craft beer as the new Premium Continental Lager.

No wonder a lot of people are keeping their distance from the C word…

Interesting that St Austell are trying to resurrect the “schooner” which – while I thought it was a good idea for stronger beers – never seems to have taken off. What’s the strength of this, btw?

That’s far too vague a definition. It’d be much simpler to use something clear and uncontroversial like “awesome beers brewed with passion.”

Seriously, though, I’d agree that yours is about the most useful meaning that the word has had – insofar as it’s relatively neutral and objective and describes a thing that it’s sometimes useful to be able to talk about – and it’s a bit annoying that various lots of competing marketing blather have obfuscated it and attached other meanings to it until it’s essentially useless…

Well, the difficulty is, a good number of beers in the American microbrewing tradition are, er, English or Scots or Irish, or Belgian. For instance, barley wines (modeled after Bass No. 1 or Thomas Hardy Ale), Imperial Stout (modeled after or inspired by Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which lasted into the mid-90’s and is now revived, or Samuel Smith Imperial Stout), most brown ales. Many of these still taste English or Belgian, most Imperial Stout can’t be said really to be even a subset of the English type, ditto the barley wines.

Craft beer is really partly a revival of older beer styles, quite internal to the U.K. and Ireland in some cases, and partly the adoption of beers that frankly taste of American-grown (and now Antipodean) hops. It encompasses the most traditional-tasting of the English cask beers because these were and are still made to taste full of flavour and mostly from traditional ingredients.

Gray

Craft beer, in the UK at least, is simply any beer or beer style that you wouldn’t have normally found in a bog standard estate pub at the turn of the millennium.

Craft beer in the US was a reaction against the ubiquity of macrolager, whereas craft beer in the UK is a reaction against a slightly wider stylistic range from Guinness to Greene King. Hence the ongoing love/hate relationship between real ale and craft beer in the UK.

New beer is always a reaction against old beer. The reaction in the UK was extremely overdue, hence the reason that it is more effervescent than most reactions.

Almost all of what was new was old or almost lapsed English, is all I am saying, mediated via America, yes, and changed – only partly – by use of American hops.

Gary

Very nice summary of the “craft” thing. The kids over at ratebeer are working on a definition that excludes traditional brewers, i.e., Westvleteren, St. Georgenbräu or Robinsons, which is hilarious. A Yank brews Kellerbier or bitter, it’s craft. A German or Briton brews them though, it ain’t.

The cultural or genetic makeup of the brewer is more important than ingredients, passion or whatever.

Surely that’s only hilarious if you take “craft” as meaning “good” or “not lowest common denominator lager”, rather than something like “US inspired” (GG’s point about US brewers being indebted to European styles notwithstanding) or “more interested in stylistic diversity than the local traditional brewers are”?

Again, the latter two made sense in the UK a few years ago – there really was clear water between what, say, Brewdog were doing and Hook Norton were doing, and it was useful to be able to say whether a brewery or a bar was more Brewdog, more Hook Norton, or somewhere in between, and “craft” was a way of doing that.

The problem comes when Brewdog et al also import the US rhetoric to the effect that craft beer is the only decent beer out there and everything else is flavourless mass-produced swill, and a lot of peope (particularly journalists) buy it uncritically, and you end up with Hook Norton wondering whether they aren’t “craft” as well…

“New wave” was arguably a better term for that, mind – same basic idea, more descriptive, less loaded, interesting musical analogy – but never really took off.

It’s all a bit follow the bear. I can imagine an episode of The Office where David Brent calls it “quality shit” and how we need to “look beyond to engage the future customer”.

the artwork’s very much like the recent ‘DNA’ beer brewed by Wells and Dogfish Head, isn’t it? At least with this there’s a little backstory – the Eden Project angle. I agree with Mudgie about the use of the schnooner though; seems a little arbitrary. Not that I’m against it; I can imagine after a morning walking round Eden and sweating profusely in the Mediterranean dome that a glass of this would be the good stuff indeed…

Certain customers expect us to always be bringing out new beers, but I am not happy with just putting a ‘twist’ on existing styles and producing something mediocre.

Rather than just making a black IPA or using US hops on an lager, I decided I’d go the whole hog and give our customers a range of beers that was totally off the wall but still very drinkable.

I can assure you though as always we have put a lot of effort into developing these beers; it wasn’t a case of emptying the spice cupboard into the stockpot, boiling it up and hoping for the best!

All of the beers in the range are beers I have wanted to brew for a few years now and I have enjoyed the challenge of getting them right. I think the fact we brew beers like this alongside Bayern, Chiron, Tzara etc, will slake the thirst of all our customers.

I’m pretty sure we will have the Parma violet porter on tap on at the Hallamshire, so you can let me know what you think then!

Cheers

Rob

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