Craft: The Lost Word

Graffiti illustration: CRAFT BEER?

There was a little flare up on Twitter yesterday over this post by Richard Coldwell in which he argues that Früh Kölsch is not ‘craft’.

A few years ago, when this debate was at its frankly tedious height, we were pret­ty hap­py with the mean­ing of the phrase as derived from Michael Jack­son and oth­er ear­ly beer writ­ers: it was a catch-all term refer­ring to any inter­est­ing, dis­tinc­tive beer, as opposed to the unin­ter­est­ing, homo­ge­neous prod­ucts of larg­er (often inter­na­tion­al) brew­ers. (Def­i­n­i­tion 1.) Sure, you could pick holes in it, but it was a broad, inclu­sive buzz-phrase that had room for cask ale, lager, Bel­gian beer, and for brew­eries found­ed 100 or more years ago.

But peo­ple who had the influ­ence to shore up this def­i­n­i­tion opt­ed out. They didn’t like the term and want­ed noth­ing to do with it, which is fair enough, except rather than mak­ing it go away, that left it unde­fend­ed.

Some­time around 2014–2015 it became obvi­ous that the mean­ing had changed: to most peo­ple in the UK, ‘craft beer’, inso­far as it meant any­thing, meant beer that wasn’t real ale, that wasn’t a pint of bit­ter, that wasn’t from an old brew­ery, and that looked some­thing like this:

Samples of craft beer branding.

(That is, def­i­n­i­tion 2.)

Yes, this sit­u­a­tion is messed up, and super­fi­cial, and espe­cial­ly baf­fling to peo­ple from out­side Europe for whom our old brew­ing tra­di­tions are the epit­o­me of craft. But it’s real­i­ty.

We like Richard’s blog – he writes reg­u­lar­ly, inter­est­ing­ly, and tells us things we don’t already know, based on his own explo­rations – and we’re going to stick up for him here. Sure, we might have made the point a lit­tle more ten­ta­tive­ly than he did but we don’t think, seen in con­text (he’s a bit dis­ap­point­ed with his craft beer advent cal­en­dar) that what he’s say­ing is espe­cial­ly out­ra­geous, or even incor­rect.

The fact is, in 2016, peo­ple order­ing a mixed mys­tery box of CRAFT BEER prob­a­bly don’t expect to find Bel­gian, British or Ger­man stan­dards in the mix – the kind of things that appeared in Michael Jackson’s var­i­ous beer guides between the 1970s and the 1990s. He cer­tain­ly con­sid­ered Früh Kölsch a craft, arti­sanal, bou­tique beer (all words he used at one point or anoth­er to mean essen­tial­ly the same thing) but, again, that broad def­i­n­i­tion has slipped away from us. Some­one who got into beer in the last year or two, or who is just learn­ing their way, would prob­a­bly find it baf­fling: to them ‘craft’ means, quite specif­i­cal­ly, ‘A bit like Brew­Dog’ (or Stone, or Cloud­wa­ter – you get the idea).

The term got released into the wild, it evolved, and now it doesn’t care what you think it means even though you reared it from a cub. Or, to put that anoth­er way, you can’t reject and ridicule a term and then expect to police how it is used.

We blew it, chaps. Now we’ve got to live with it.

46 thoughts on “Craft: The Lost Word”

  1. But of course now any­thing that isn’t mass-mar­ket lager is described as “craft” any­way…

    I can see where Richard is com­ing from, but it would be all too easy to buy a gift pack of “beers described as craft” and find it con­tained noth­ing that matched his per­cep­tion, even though they all said “craft” on the bot­tle.

  2. Well I’ve been at this beer com­mu­ni­ca­tor lark for 40 years, man and boy. Hard­est game in the world I tell you. Makes me weep to see the young ‘uns make a mock­ery of craft beer. Some­thing we fought for and split blood for back in the day. Some­one should make Craft Great Again. Some­one like Pete Brown, I reck­on. Or that Turny-Wurly fel­la. Not Cur­tis though. Not until he’s done his appren­tice­ship at the coal face of beer writ­ing and won a Gold­en Protz. Brown could lead us to the promised land.

    Make Craft Great Again!

  3. I sus­pect those that expect craft to mean ‘like brew dog’ are going to be dis­ap­point­ed rather fre­quent­ly

  4. ‘A bit like Brew­Dog’ (or Stone, or Cloud­wa­ter — you get the idea).”

    Oh, you mean ‘hip­ster beer’?

  5. As I said back in 2012, the prob­lem is that the peo­ple who import­ed the phrase ‘craft beer’ from the US didn’t import the US con­cept (which wouldn’t have worked over here any­way), just the words. So it was defined – to the extent that it was defined at all – by the way it was used:

    Craft beer’ drinkers are the peo­ple who see them­selves as drinkers of craft beer. ‘Craft beer’ is the kind of beer craft beer drinkers like, and ‘craft brew­ers’ are the brew­ers who cater to them.

    Not sure that the broad­er def­i­n­i­tion could ever have worked – Pete Brown pushed it for a while, but what imme­di­ate­ly struck me about his def­i­n­i­tion is that it would have includ­ed quite a lot of real­ly mediocre beer pro­duced on quite a large scale. And we’ve got “real ale” for that.

    1. > Not sure that the broad­er def­i­n­i­tion could ever have worked

      It seems like defin­ing craft brew­ers to be “brew­eries more influ­enced (direct­ly or indi­rect­ly) by US beer cul­ture than by tra­di­tion­al British brew­eries” rough­ly works. It’s a bit sub­jec­tive and there are grey areas and in-between­ers but it _ought_ to be rel­a­tive­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial.

      The prob­lem being that in prac­tice the word – both in itself and in the way that it got hyped – sound­ed like such an obvi­ous­ly Good Thing that every­one from Greene King to AB InBev to Hook Nor­ton want­ed a piece of it.

      I have a vague thing of using “new-wave craft” to mean this sort of thing, although I’m not that con­sis­tent about it.

    2. I’ll stick with my catch all def­i­n­i­tion;
      1, Craft Beer is brewed in a Craft Brew­ery by a Craft Brew­er
      2, Craft Brew­ers brew Craft Beer in a Craft Brew­ery
      3, A Craft Brew­ery is where Craft Brew­ers brew Craft Beer.

    3. In both the US and the UK, craft beer is defined in oppo­si­tion to what went before. Craft beer is sim­ply any beer that is bet­ter than the same old shite.

      In the US, it is defined in oppo­si­tion to the selec­tion of 10 types of sweet watery lagers made by huge multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions seen in the major­i­ty of US bars pri­or to the last 10–15 years. To define “craft” as a beer not made by these multi­na­tion­als made per­fect sense.

      In the UK, it is defined in oppo­si­tion to the selec­tion of sweet watery lagers, Guin­ness and poor qual­i­ty mud­dy brown bit­ter seen in the major­i­ty of UK pubs until 10 years ago. Some of these beers are made by multi­na­tion­als, but some also by rel­a­tive­ly small­er oper­a­tions, and the dis­tinc­tion between craft and non-craft is a lit­tle blur­ri­er, so the same def­i­n­i­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly apply so straight­for­ward­ly.

    1. Order­ing mys­tery box­es is a mug’s game, full stop – 30 per cent OK beers, 50 per cent weird stuff they couldn’t shift, 20 per cent stuff you can get in the local cor­ner shop. (To gen­er­alise rude­ly.)

    2. A craft beer pre­scrip­tivist who orders a mixed mys­tery box of craft beer is ask­ing for it.”

      Tru­ly. It has become painful­ly obvi­ous that a lot of ‘craft’ beer being sold t For every exam­ple of great ‘craft’ beer, there seems to be an equal amount of beer call­ing itself ‘craft’ these which dis­plays a sad lack of craft in it’s man­u­fac­ture.
      It has been observed (in the USA any­way) that the term ‘craft’ has devolved some­what; what began as an implied promise of bet­ter qual­i­ty lat­er became noth­ing more than a mar­ket­ing term, and now, some peo­ple (includ­ing a lot of avid ‘good beer’ lovers) regard it as a con­sumer warn­ing.
      With the explo­sion of new brew­ers in the USA, it has become painful­ly obvi­ous that where brew­eries are con­cerned, “small­er” and “local” are clear­ly not always “better”…in many cas­es, it is quite the oppo­site. 🙁

  6. By the way, has any­one else spot­ted the neat sym­me­try that while peo­ple wor­ry that the lack of a sin­gle objec­tive def­i­n­i­tion of craft leads to the term get­ting abused to the point where it’s mean­ing­less, CAMRA do have a water­tight objec­tive def­i­n­i­tion for Real Ale with almost equal­ly coun­ter­in­tu­itive con­se­quences like hav­ing to pre­fer real-ale-inna-keykeg or real-ale-inna-can over tra­di­tion­al ale kept with a cask breather.

  7. This post doesn’t address what was orig­i­nal­ly baf­fling – which was the descrip­tion that Tiny Rebel can’t be “craft” because they won a Best Bit­ter award

    1. It’s an extreme posi­tion – I’d have thought Tiny Rebel were square in the mid­dle of ‘craft’, what­ev­er it is – but, again, I wouldn’t say Richard is *barmy* for react­ing that way. Brew­Dog and its dis­ci­ples have, to a large extent, defined the para­me­ters of ‘craft’ as it is per­ceived by many, and that includes:

      1. No bit­ter, and if you must brew one, it has to be called ‘amber’, ‘pale ale’, etc.
      2. A vague sense of antag­o­nism towards, or dis­tance from, CAMRA.

      Per­son­al­ly, I find both rather ris­i­ble, but that’s where we are.

      With­out want­i­ng to put words in Richard’s mouth I guess what he’s get­ting at there is that (a) he was instinc­tive­ly dis­ap­point­ed or con­fused by the inclu­sion of Tiny Rebel in this box of beers and (b) when he tried to unpack why, came up with a feel­ing that they’d become too ‘estab­lish­ment’ – a trad. brew­ery in the mak­ing.

      Again, we wouldn’t draw the line there our­selves, or react how Richard did, but I’m not sure why everyone’s so ANGRY at him for mere­ly express­ing that thought. I dare­say there are lots of oth­ers think­ing it but not say­ing it.

    2. That wasn’t exact­ly what I said Mark, and cer­tain­ly not what I intend­ed to say. I’d love to know what the brew­er them­selves think – some­thing I will be ask­ing brew­ers as I go for­ward, not nec­es­sar­i­ly to post about but pure­ly for my own curios­i­ty.

      1. It is exact­ly what you said, I’m afraid:

        if they are a craft brew­er how come their Welsh red ale Cwtch won the Cham­pi­on Beer of Britain 2015, in the Best Bit­ter cat­e­go­ry? Best Bit­ter isn’t craft beer is it?

        Would it have been OK if it had won CBoB in the Celtic Red Ales cat­e­go­ry?

    1. Yes. Think we could prob­a­bly copy and post a few com­ments over and save peo­ple the trou­ble of typ­ing them out again.

  8. A lot of peo­ple think craft beer doesn’t include cask ale.

    Well frankly, a lot of peo­ple are fuck­ing stu­pid and don’t know what they’re talk­ing about. They are prob­a­bly the same peo­ple who think real ale should be served at room tem­per­a­ture, that lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly are syn­onyms, and that brex­it will mean less red tape for busi­ness­es. Why should we lis­ten to them?

  9. I was just a bit baf­fled by how he talked more about whether some­thing was ‘craft’ than the beer itself. And in gen­er­al I think peo­ple are past car­ing now. (And I think he may have kept bang­ing on about it because it was at least gen­er­at­ing some inter­est.)

    But he seems a good bloke all in all. We all have our odd­i­ties.

    1. But then maybe peo­ple aren’t past car­ing if he has pro­duced such a reac­tion. Are peo­ple actu­al­ly angry about it?? That’s bizarre.

  10. I think there was a good com­ment above, about how the descrip­tion of ‘craft’ tak­en from the US couldn’t be used 100% over here, which is so true.

    It will nev­er be tru­ly defined and does it real­ly need to be, it will always mean some­thing dif­fer­ent to some­one else than it does to you or me. But I think what is impor­tant is that with­in the beer mar­ket or what­ev­er any­one decides to call it, or call them­selves, is that there are peo­ple offer­ing good qual­i­ty beer that appeals to every­one, and that there are those that are push­ing bound­arys to bring us some­thing new and tasty each week.

    As for the orig­i­nal ques­tion­ing of the inclu­sion of Fruh Kolsch in a ‘craft’ box/calendar, I’d be pret­ty dis­ap­point­ed to find that includ­ed myself, but to fair its a nice beer when in Cologne to drink. But the chance of find­ing such ran­dom beers or beer I’d not select in mixed cas­es is why I don’t order them, they are the per­fect tool for clear­ing out dead wood beers and will always lead to dis­ap­point­ment.

  11. The tiny rebel review is hilar­i­ous. Craft def­i­n­i­tion now seem­ing­ly rules out any brew­ery that brews a best bit­ter. That rules out one heck of a lot of brew­eries. I’m hap­py work­ing with var­i­ous def­i­n­i­tions of craft but this guy has an arro­gant con­fi­dence in his own def­i­n­i­tion that I’m find­ing amus­ing. Prob­a­bly a real nice bloke so I don’t want to go on the offen­sive. Craft as short­hand for “beer inspired by the US craft beer scene” seems to be an almost work­able definition;it cer­tain­ly beats the super­mar­ket def­i­n­i­tion that seems to be “any­thing in 330ml bot­tles we can sell for same price as the indi­vid­ual 500ml bot­tles”

    1. Prob­lem is, the us craft beer scene is itself direct­ly inspired and strong­ly influ­enced by UK, Bel­gian and Ger­man tra­di­tion­al beer styles, so that def­i­n­i­tion becomes some­what self con­tra­dic­to­ry.

  12. Could you use tank sizes as a guide (ie if a brew­ery doesn’t have any 10,000 litre tanks then it’s a craft brew­ery and any­thing that comes out of it is craft)?

    1. That’s more or less how the US Brewer’s Asso­ci­a­tion judges it although your spe­cif­ic sug­ges­tion allows for huge brew­eries to dodge the rule by hav­ing 500 small tanks…

      1. besides which, the “craft” is in the mak­ing of the prod­uct and the qual­i­ty, NOT the size of the brew­ery. There are plen­ty of brews made by the larg­er com­pa­nies that show a LOT more ‘craft’ than the nev­er end­ing wave of ‘home­brew­ers gone pro’, many of which should have clear­ly just kept brew­ing at home. There’ a lot of ama­teur tast­ing shite out there call­ing itself ‘craft’.

  13. I’ve always con­sid­ered a “craft” brew­ery any one that brews with a pas­sion and still regards brew­ing as a craft. Regard­less of size. Rather than some com­pa­ny rely­ing on mar­ket­ing to pass off sick­ly pale bread-water to those that care more for the alco­hol than drink­ing some­thing good.

    1. How do you know whether they brew with a pas­sion or not? As for ‘regard­less of size’ – if they’re brew­ing on an indus­tri­al scale, how can they regard brew­ing as a craft?

      1. Because they take great care to ensure the req­ui­site char­ac­ter in the drink. How can mere scale affect that, where do you draw the line?

        If they don’t take such care, it’s not craft, just as some “rail­way arch” unsta­ble, ill-tast­ing IPA isn’t craft.

        Craft is a def­i­n­i­tion of the qual­i­ty of the prod­uct, that’s where it all began when CAMRA and the U.S. craft beer move­ment start­ed. They didn’t care how big the con­cern was, always a rel­a­tive val­ue any­way.

        (Should we dis­qual­i­fy all brew­ers today who use con­i­cal fer­menters, which didn’t exist before the 1930s? Where does it end?).

        Don’t you think Pil­sner Urquell is craft? If it’s not, the term is mean­ing­less, IMO.


        1. Some would say that treat­ing brew­ing as a craft means work­ing on a small scale – so that the brew­ing craftsper­son can pay close per­son­al atten­tion to every batch. Some would say that ‘craft’ means vari­abil­i­ty, like unique hand-carved spoons or knob­bly ‘arti­san’ bread. If you think along those lines, Joe Rail­way-Arch with his sour yeast soup is Mr Craft.

          Oth­ers would say that treat­ing brew­ing as a craft means get­ting the damn thing right and mak­ing sure it stays that way, in which case PU are much more enti­tled to the name than Joe is.

          But it’s hope­less to try and nail the mean­ing of the word down. Even say­ing “beer X is craft” can mean sev­er­al dif­fer­ent things – are you say­ing

          a) you’ve got a def­i­n­i­tion of ‘craft beer’ in mind and beer X ticks the right box­es
          b) beer X is the kind of thing that gets raved about by peo­ple who rave about craft beer
          c) beer X is the kind of thing that gets sold as ‘craft beer’ ?

          a) could be Mikkeller, could be Tiny Rebel, could be Adnams’
          b) prob­a­bly a style, not a brew­ery – a style with two or more qual­i­fiers, and over 7%
          c) could be Innis & Gunn, could be Cam­den, could be Mean­time

          (Me, I think it’s labelling all the way down – ‘craft beer’ is beer that’s being mar­ket­ed to peo­ple who want to drink ‘craft beer’.)

          1. It’s true that there is a vague­ness to the con­cept, but I would say we must focus on the beer, not the brew­ery as such, or its size, or own­er­ship. The per­fect exam­ple is Mean­time after, Mean­time before, Goose Island after, Goose Island before. It can’t stop being craft if the prod­uct is the same…

            Some may choose to fol­low small scale oper­a­tions and define craft that way but I would have to dis­agree with them. CAMRA in the 70s for exam­ple pro­mot­ed real ale who­ev­er made it. While many mak­ers were small­er region­al firms not all were by any means, e.g., Courage’s beers – and Courage Impe­r­i­al Russ­ian Stout – Bass draft, Whitbread’s many good beers, etc.

            I would say I&G beers are craft because they have pro­nounced flavour and use many non-mass mar­ket tech­niques (even though they may not be my par­tic­u­lar choice).

            Craft is qual­i­ty. We have some new­er brew­eries in Cana­da who make a mass mar­ket-styled prod­uct, I would say they aren’t craft, or bor­der­line.

            As to whether that Ger­man kolsch was craft, I would say it is. It is all malt, prob­a­bly unpas­teur­ized, rep­re­sents a clas­sic style. I would say even Beck’s beer is too because all-malt and its real beer flavour. It doesn’t both­er me that some peo­ple don’t agree but the rea­sons they apply I would often take excep­tion to, hence this kind of dis­cus­sion.


    2. You need to define the beer first, and the brew­er sec­ond.

      The beer is the inter­est­ing bit, the brew­er is just the bloke who makes it. No-one gives a shit about the size of his tanks, how old the brew­ery is, who owns it, or how much “pas­sion” he claims to have, the ONLY thing that mat­ters is how the beer tastes. Every­thing else is irrel­e­vant. If it tastes like craft beer, then it’s craft beer. If its made by a super-pas­sion­ate hip­ster with a ridicu­lous beard under a rail­way arch, described as “post­mod­ern ses­sion IPA” in a 330ml can with skulls on it, but tastes indis­tin­guish­able from Tesco val­ue lager, then its not, sor­ry.

    3. I see what you’re say­ing, but just because some­one has a pas­sion for for the endeav­or doesn’t mean that they will be good at it (and there’s plen­ty of proof of that on the store shelves these days).

  14. Craft brew­ers are easy to define. They are:

    1. Inde­pen­dent
    2. For­ward-think­ing
    3. High-qual­i­ty

    Of course, all of these are open to a bit of inter­pre­ta­tion. But like pornog­ra­phy, you know it when you see it.

  15. It’s inter­est­ing to see a lot of peo­ple ask­ing “what” craft beer is but no one is ask­ing “why” craft beer should be defined.

    In the US it was to pro­tect and sup­port a small but grow­ing indus­try. That sup­port has dri­ven them to 5000 brew­eries and a near 15% mar­ket share. In short, it nor­malised micro­brew­eries and made it some­thing almost any­one can eas­i­ly enjoy, all of the time.

    So maybe its time to stop ask­ing what the para­me­ters are and look at how we can pro­tect and sup­port one of the UK’s most impor­tant indus­tries.

    1. I don’t think its the most impor­tant thing to move the beer on offer for­ward.

      It has to be about qual­i­ty of beer most of all, the way its served or deliv­ered, and then how/where its avail­able.

      There are some shock­ing beers that call them­selves ‘craft’, there are some poor brown water ‘real ales’ out there. Just as there are also some venues that get away with serv­ing god awful beer and still get to call it beer.

      Get those things right and chal­lenge those above what is and isn’t craft and every one would be drink­ing hap­pi­ly.

      A big­ger chal­lenge that we should envy from the US mar­ket is how most of their bars are indie, the non-tied bar/pub on every street, that is buy­ing from var­i­ous sources, this gives cus­tomers so much choice. Far too many of our pubs (out­side of Lon­don) are tied to brew­eries and beers that fall into the poor qual­i­ty or mass crap drinks, or sourc­ing from one place, thus pre­vent­ing every­one to expe­ri­ence ‘quality/craft/real ale/beer’.

  16. There is no such thing as craft beer. There is beer and there is no beer. Beer is described as craft by those who want to/need to feel supe­ri­or.

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