‘When I was up north recently, I spoke to another brewer who said that beer had split into two worlds and that there’s a party to which regional brewers are not invited.’ — Roger Ryman, Head Brewer, St Austell
There aren’t many flashpoints in British brewing but the invisible, fuzzy line between traditional-family-regional brewers (TFRBs) and ‘craft beer’ is one.
From the perspective of small brewers struggling to establish themselves, and that of their fans, when a 100+ year old brewery swings the weight of its distribution network and pub estate behind a new ‘craft’ sub-brand, that looks like bandwagon-jumping and perhaps even an attempt at sabotage.
This clever hoax caused many to flip their lids precisely because it played into people’s fears and expectations — if it had been true, it might not have been that surprising in a world which has given us Charles Wells/Dogfish Head DNA New World IPA.
For their part, TFRBs seem to take it rather personally, sometimes dismissing craft beer as a lot of silly superficial nonsense on the one hand, while desperately angling to join the club on the other. This statement from Stuart Bateman, as quoted by Roger Protz, offers one expression of those conflicting instincts:
I’m fed up with being told I can’t call myself a craft brewer because I’ve been brewing for more than two years… People who say that are denigrating the industry. I haven’t got a pony tail, ear-rings or tattoos but I’m producing craft beer…
When we spoke to Mr Ryman, he also said, with some sadness, that the manager of a craft beer bar in one of our major cities had told him he could never stock St Austell beers, however good or interesting they might be, because no-one would buy them. For those venues, and the customers they target, it is certainly not ‘all about the beer’.
And Craft Beer Rising (London, 19-22 February) is arguably the least hip of the wave of new non-CAMRA festivals precisely because it is so welcoming to brewers such as Thwaites, St Austell, Belhaven and Sharp’s.
Once again, it all seems to come down to that least tangible of qualities — ‘cool’. It is decided by a hive mind, not always on the basis of consistent logic; you’ve either got it or you haven’t; and, even if your products are selling like billy-o without it, it’s quite natural to yearn for that badge of status.
UPDATE 30/01/2015 11:00: Some sharp responses on Twitter in re: Craft Beer Rising.
Disclosure: we were paid to write an article for Craft Beer Rising magazine last year; Roger Ryman made us a cup of coffee and shared some beers with us.