SIBA Says This is Craft Beer

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While we were away SIBA announced a new certification scheme for British craft breweries – that is, a stamp of approval: ‘SIBA says this is Craft’. Having had chance now to get our heads round it a bit, here are some quick thoughts.

1. Our gut reactions to this are just on the positive side of neutral. Yes, it’s partly about SIBA attempting to seize control of the story and shore up its own status, which has seemed shaky in recent years, but they’re not doing anything evil, or that someone else (CAMRA, for example) couldn’t have done if they’d been bothered; and there are distinct benefits for both retailers and consumers.

2. As with the failed United Craft Brewers project, though, a lot will depend on whether anyone actually signs up. Many brewers who are, by almost any definition, ‘craft’ will not be able to afford the fee for accreditation. Others, meanwhile, have beef with SIBA over, for example, their middle-man wholesaler role. If a situation arises where certain outlets are inaccessible to breweries — we can imagine big pub/bar chains agreeing to sell only SIBA accredited craft, for example – then, yes, some holdouts might feel compelled to join, but others would feel even more resentful. SIBA will want to avoid the perception that it’s a way of bullying people to join.

Thornbridge, 2013.

3. SIBA’s definition of ‘craft’ is as valid as any other. We’ve long said that we’re quite happy with multiple overlapping definitions, and with working definitions designed for particular contexts. As it is SIBA’s definition…

* ‘Has agreed to abide by SIBA’s Manual of Good Brewing Practice’
* ‘Is truly independent of any larger controlling brewing interest’
* And brewing no more than 200,000hl per year.

…chimes very substantially with our own fairly broad Definition 1. That is, it allows for many traditional British brewers specialising in cask and isn’t just about the hip post-2005 keg-friendly scene. (Definition 2, same link.)

For confused licensees and retailers keen to do the right thing this may well be helpful, even if all they do is use SIBA’s definition, or react against it, to inform their buying decisions.

4. The flipside of the problem of some small brewers feeling financially excluded is that for once, the biggest multi-national brewers, however much money they have, cannot buy their way in. Independence and smallness are both blunt measures of ‘craft’-ness but they are something, and one that someone who doesn’t think about the politics of beer 24-7 might stand a chance of getting their head round. In fact, one of the best things about SIBA’s definition is that it reflects what the public think ‘craft’ means based on market research rather than attempting to dictate it to them:

46% of beer drinkers, by far the biggest group, regard craft beer as ‘made by small brewers rather than large corporations’, although one in ten beer drinkers are unsure what the term means. 35% regard craft breweries as ‘artisanal’ with 22% associating the term with ‘small’ and 14% with ‘local’.

5. It certainly moves the conversation forward – one that has been stuck in a loop since about 2009 – and, most importantly from our selfish perspective, gives us a solid answer to the question, ‘What is craft beer exactly?’ Being able to say, ‘Well, SIBA defines it as…’ will be much easier than the rambling and inconclusive lecture we’re currently obliged to give, and far more helpful than a baffled shrug.

19 thoughts on “SIBA Says This is Craft Beer”

  1. Do brewers have to pay a fee for this over and above the membership subs for SIBA?

    I thought it was quite funny, actually, imagining the spluttering in some quarters over the inclusion of brewers such as Arkells and Felinfoel 😉

  2. Discussion here includes some thoughts from SIBA folks: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10153899203905838&id=673310837

    I’m not for this, not convinced. Website makes it look like a BeerFlex marketing drive veiled with a SIBA membership drive. SIBA folks say it has to highlight BeerFlex or their membership will be unhappy. Which says it all for me, really. (And funnily enough most SIBA member breweries I know shit talk a about DDS/BeerFlex and don’t use it. Who wants to use a system to “crack” the PubCo market when all it does really it undervalue your product to shift it to dubious-on-average pubs? The desperate.)

    But this, combined with it being a membership-only scheme, make it all a bit daft IMO.

    And is a “this is craft beer” sticker on practically every SIBA member brewery going to do achieve much?

    I think to myself: OK, how is this going to drive “craft beer” sales? And more selfishly: how does it help me sell “craft beer”? I don’t see it doing much in either case.

    The threat to “craft beer” does not seem to be “non-craft beer”. Is there a credible threat yet? The sector is still in phenomenal growth, from my PoV. The threat to individual “craft breweries” floppin’ about panicing about their sales is actually other “craft” breweries. Bit they all get the same silly sticker, right? (Most breweries are SIBA members, even the dodgier ones.)

    The one positive note I have is that it is brewery based. None of this craft=keg BS. It could perhaps help legitimise cask as a form of “craft”?

    1. “OK, how is this going to drive “craft beer” sales?”

      From out here where we’re 2 hrs on the train from a proper city (sorry, Truro) we can see it being helpful, if it’s done right, and if it works. We find pubs and shops that are obviously keen to have some kind of ‘craft offer’ but don’t have the time or inclination to become beer experts and just want to be told what to buy. A SIBA package (either bought from them or inspired by their list) is likely to be more interesting than what we get at the moment which is stuff off the AB-InBev list, those Carlsberg beers in cans that *look* a bit ‘craft’, and maybe some Brooklyn, BrewDog and Sierra Nevada if we’re lucky.

      Which I think answers another of your points: ‘The threat to “craft beer” does not seem to be “non-craft beer”.’ Again, down here and out in the ‘burbs of other towns and cities, it seems to be a corporate version of craft beer which can sometimes be solid but is rarely varied or interesting.

      1. Two drive-by thoughts.

        One: One of my points is that if all SIBA members are “craft” and craft is just a synonym for SIBA-member then what’s this achieving? Great, you’ll get some cheap bottles of craft Bateman’s and Ye Olde Steam Train Ales… whilst I have no real issue with the idea of all micros of all types being “craft” I don’t see what enshrining this with a logo does (but perhaps prove “craft” is just another daft synonym for micro).

        Two: For most venues it’ll be craft-at-a-price-point. So I’m not sure subbing a Carlsberg beer with something from a micro that is willing to match their price point is going to do much for the drinker. The Carlsberg beer would probably be better most of the time. And if they’re credulous enough to take these things as “craft” in the first place then there’s probably little saving them.

        Bonus vaguely positive thought: It might open a bit of a crack into the PubCo market for microbrewery formats other than cask. There could be a positive there. If you’re willing to sell cheap enough. Positive: increased market for micros & more exposure to non-mainstream keg and smallpack in more “normal” pubs.

        Who’s going to support SIBA beers on must-buy-must-sell tied up keg lines? I hear SIBA can access these… but hear from brewers this is easier said than done. Oh, and brewers foot the bill for support via Innserve then I presume.

        1. “I’m not sure subbing a Carlsberg beer with something from a micro that is willing to match their price point is going to do much for the drinker. The Carlsberg beer would probably be better most of the time.”

          Seriously? You must be thinking of a different Carlsberg to the one served in the UK, its what Fosters drinkers begrudgingly drink when the Fosters is off.

          1. Actual Carlsberg as quaffed in the UK is borderline on fitting the tasting notes: innocuous fizzy liquid. Or maybe: lager with a soda-water-top.

            Anyway – I wasn’t talking about actual Carlsberg the beer, but Carlsberg Group the big beer company who’re producing some other beers which they’re positioning as “craft”. And I’m sure these beers are brewed/manufactured just fine, but lack any real character whatsoever.

            Microbreweries on the other hand are often producing beer-flaw-soup and I’d be happier drinking Fosters than something that could be described as carbonated TCP redolent of rancid butter sandwich.

  3. Nice piece.

    As you say “It certainly moves the conversation forward”, but – as you also identify – SIBA itself is a problem. Too many breweries mistrust it and claim to get no value from membership, with several resigning that I’m aware of, some of them the very breweries that would clearly be “craft”.

    The antipathy towards SIBA should not be underestimated.

    I can’t help but feel though, that SIBA is both doing this out of self interest and – IMO – that it’s a bit late.

    Aren’t we past/Post Craft now?

    1. We — as in, beer nerds and obsessives — might be post-craft but this is all still new and exciting to people in the real world, and to mainstream retailers and outlets.

  4. The point about taking a stand against corporate ‘craft’ is an interesting one, but I suspect it’s too little too late; nobody who goes looking for Craft Beer is going to be happy with a pint of Bombardier, or Landlord for that matter.

    The fact is, ‘craft’ as a style is very corporate-friendly. I’m not about to mount the ‘keg is keg’ barricades, but I think it’s worth considering that (craft) keg may be involved in some of the same movements towards consolidation, uniformity and corporate profit that we saw the first time round. Robinson’s have recently launched a ‘craft keg’ scheme in their pubs. Quote: “The six month programme will see beers such as Beavertown Neck Oil, Shed Head American Pale Ale, Sharp’s Wolf Rock and Camden Pale Ale find their way onto the bar of a Robinsons’ pub for the very first time.” So that’s one beer from a (very well-capitalised) independent and one each from AB-InBev, Molson Coors and Carlsberg.

    My local Sainsbury’s, incidentally, has recently moved Sharp’s beers out of the main beer section and into the ‘craft’ section, alongside BD, Meantime, Brooklyn & Goose Island – God knows why, none of the Sharp’s beers are anywhere near that ‘American pale’ style. In that store manager’s mind, at least, ‘craft’ seems to mean ‘contemporary independent breweries that are either really heavily capitalised or have recently been bought out’. (Are Bath Ales now craft?)

    1. Bath, one of those breweries so cagey about craft they had to create a whole other brewery with a silly name to have a go at it whilst keeping firmly at arms length. (Beerd.)

      You know Bath Ales has been bought by St Austel now anyway?

      I don’t know if St Austel are SIBA-craft or not. Do they brew more than 200k hl?

      Wait. If Bath are owned by them doesn’t that make Bath *not* independent?

      Feck me, this is confusing. 🙂

      1. That was my point – if Sharp’s can (apparently) become craft by being bought up, why shouldn’t the same logic work for Bath?

  5. The value of SIBA membership is a conversation that we have here from time to time. We’ve always been members (and I was a trustee for a little while) but we’ve never used the DDS (or Beerflex as it is now). For some, if you’re making the right kind of beer at the right cost (and have the numbers of accessible outlets handy), then DDS (sorry, Beerflex) will be valuable. For others (like us), not. There’s a whole bunch of other member benefits – each brewer will decide if they’re worth the membership fees. Some might argue that the competitions alone are worth quite a lot.

    Me, I can’t see that the SIBA craft badge is worth much to me. Will any retailer move a 500ml PBA into their “Craft” section on SIBA’s say so? Will they delist shiny cans and little bottles which don’t have the marque?

  6. Have SIBA managed to define ‘craft’ and provide clarity? No. They’ve created a new subset, Assured Independent Craft, which requires membership of their organisation (which always implies to me in a tongue in cheek way a contradictory reduction in independence). OK so Marstons (for example) don’t get to use the badge because they fail the criteria. Does this mean the word Craft will suddenly disappear off their Revisionist range? Of course not. The market will still see plenty of other craft labels flooding the shelves and no doubt the extra marketing budgets and reach of the “Not Assured Independent” offerings will have more than enough presence. And any small brewery not wishing to join SIBA’s club are still equally free to describe themselves as Craft, or Independent for that matter.

    Whatever the intentions behind it, it really only seems to achieve a first step towards SIBA rebranding itself the Independent Craft Brewers Association and replacing one label that most consumers have little awareness of with one that masks its true nature behind the marketing language du jour.

    Just my humble opinion of course 🙂

  7. Just to reiterate what has been said elsewhere:

    – There’s no extra cost for this initiative.
    – SIBA subscription fees are based on production size, the smallest brewers only pay £115 a year.
    – The whole reason membership is important to the vailidity of the initiative is that it means SIBA can ensure the brewers are genuinely independent, are under 200k hl a year, and are adhering to the manual of good brewing practice.
    – BeerFlex is totally unlinked with Assured Independent Craft Brewers Initiative. BeerFlex is a totally optional service, designed to help get indie beer into big pubs. As an optional service… doesn’t work for your brewery? No worries!

    Also of course this initiative is going to develop over time, but what a starting point for the industry this could be.

    Yvan -I can understand how you would be against BeerFlex being linked (which is isn’t) to the assured initiative being that you run a Beer wholesale company yourself – so I totally get your worry on that. Honestly though that isn’t the point of the initiative.

    For transparency, I work for SIBA. Cheers, Neil

    1. I honestly don’t worry about BeerFlex at all. BeerFlex customers are not my customers and I don’t see that ever changing. That said, if BeerFlex isn’t linked you should make the website look less like an advertisement for BeerFlex perhaps.

      My interest in this is mainly of the “so, someone is defining craft… here we go again…” sort. I would say my input is driven from a perspective of being “for the good of the industry” – but I’m sure we all would, yet not agree on things 🙂 [What I’m trying to do is push better quality in the supply chain & at point of dispense… I don’t recommend it, it’s sadly the opposite of a competitive advantage. But I think it is where the most Good(TM) can be done for beer in the UK.]

      I cannot be positive about a membership-based definition. It’s like Brewers-Association “craft” done wrong whilst being couched as being a similar initiative to the BA approach. Anyway, I’ve said all this & more before as you know.

      If it could put a stop to the laughable Robinsons sort of “kraft klub” then that could be a good thing. But I don’t see that happening. It’s the punters you need to convince, and for the most part they’re even less aware of SIBA than they are of “craft beer”. I’ve likened it to the Real-Ale-In-A-Bottle marketing drive elsewhere… which appears to have achieved very little as it just don’t resonate with the vast majority of consumers. Maybe “Assured Independent Craft Brewer” will… but I find it pretty difficult to envisage. (I’m often wrong in life, so grain of salt, etc.) And will it stop Big Brewing “Kraft Klub” style brands, which are given legitimacy by being billed against “real” craft in the Robinson’s case.

      Whilst it seems a worthy cause in its way… it’s just not really “doing it for me”.

  8. The assurance does currently cost money SIBA FSQ is £300 extra a Year on top of membership, & is a must if you supply Beerflex unless you currently have SALSA accreditation.

    So can you use the label without Holding SIBA FSQ or Salsa?

    Shane

  9. One significant problem with this is that the SIBA executive have acted in direct contravention of members’ expressed wishes. At the SIBA AGM 2015 a motion “SIBA endorses member’s beers are Craft Beers” was soundly rejected – i.e. SIBA members do not want SIBA to define and endorse “craft”. Yet in 2016, SIBA launches Assured Independent British Craft Brewers.

    The SIBA executive does not necessarily speak for SIBA members – the distinction is important, especially when executive goes directly against the expressed wishes of its members.

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