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Not this again: the birth of the term ‘craft beer’

As the question is in the air again, here’s our attempt to answer the question “Where did ‘craft beer’ come from?”

A decade or so ago, it seemed as if this was all anyone was talking about – what is craft beer? Is there a better phrase we could be using? Is it meaningless? An Americanism? A con trick?

We enjoyed the debate, formulated an opinion, and have stuck by it, more or less, ever since.

And in our 2014 book Brew Britannia we gave a brief account of the history of the term and how it took hold in the UK, drawing on research by Stan Hieronymus and others.

Since then, we’ve picked up a few extra instances of its use, or similar, and thought it might be helpful to everyone involved in researching and writing about beer to have a timeline at hand.


1883 | “the great craft of brewing” – anonymous, Holmes’ Brewing Trade Gazette, 01/09/1883

1930s | “the craft of brewing” – Worthington Brewery advertising

1934 | “neither an art nor a science, but a traditional procedure” –  A. Drinker, A Book About Beer

1946 | “Maybe it can hardly be called a craft in the strict sense, but cider-making is an interesting old country work” – Norman Wymer, Country Crafts

1967 | “Craft Brothers” – Ken Shales, Brewing Better Beer

1973 | “In the last decade, brewing has turned from being a craft industry into a technology.” – R.E.G. Balfour, chairman and MD of Scottish & Newcastle, quoted in What’s Brewing, 08/1973

1975 | “This is all some way from the small craftsman brewer.” – Conal Gregory and Warren Knock, Beers of Britain, via Gary Gillman

1977 | “craft-brewers”, “craft-brewed” – Michael Jackson, The World Guide to Beer

1982 | “A craft brewery down to the last detail.” – Michael Jackson, Pocket Guide to Beer

1983 | “The recent return to the craft brewing of ‘real ale’ as championed by the consumer group CAMRA…” – Elizabeth Baker, the Times, 07/03/1983

1984 | “craft-brewing scene,” “craft brewery”, “craft brewing” – Vince Cottone, New Brewer, 09/1984

1986 | “I use the term Craft Brewery to describe a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients” – Vince Cottone, Good Beer Guide: Brewers and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest [SOURCE]

1993 | “They’re riding on the tails of the craft beer movement” – Steve Dinehart of the Chicago Brewing Company quoted in What’s Brewing 08/1993

1994 | “craft ale” – Ed Vulliamy, Observer, 27/10/1994

1995 | “independent craft breweries” – Roger Protz, Observer, 26/02/1995

* * *

A couple of those are new additions – the 1973 Balfour quote and the 1983 one from Elizabeth Baker.

Our view is this: the phrase ‘craft beer’ is a natural development after a hundred years or so of people talking about ‘the craft of brewing’.

And it’s not really any surprise it beat designer beer and boutique beer because they’re both, frankly, a bit wanky, while ‘craft’, per some of the examples above, has a simpler, more down-to-earth, traditional quality.

Updated 4 April 2020.

9 replies on “Not this again: the birth of the term ‘craft beer’”

What’s interesting about this history is that, at the end of it, ‘craft brewery’ and ‘craft beer’ mean more or less what they did to begin with, i.e. using traditional practical skills and consequently being relatively small-scale and unindustrialised, with a strong suggestion of maintaining tradition in other ways. If you based a prescriptive definition on those quotes, you’d say that craft brewers are the ones who practise the craft of brewing as they learned it (or even inherited it) – they don’t mechanise (or do so reluctantly), they don’t mass-produce, they don’t take a big corporation’s money and they don’t go around inventing new styles (although reviving defunct styles is fine). In short, you’d say that craft brewers are CAMRA’s kind of brewer. It’s interesting, in passing, that Vince Cottone initially (in 1984!) used two separate terms – he refers to “craft brewers” producing “True Beer”, which in turn is defined as “beer that’s hand-made locally in small batches using quality natural ingredients, served on draft fresh and unpasteurized”. Is that True Beer or is it Real Ale?

But if ‘craft beer’ includes, say Un-Human Cannonball and Camden Hells, which most of us would say it does, I’m not sure what’s left of that definition; certainly every one of those “don’t”s is out of the window.

Perhaps the key milestone is one that you omitted, presumably for lack of space.

28th November 2010: a hitherto-obscure beer blogger remarks
It begins to look as if “craft” as an adjective doesn’t actually mean anything: it’s an arbitrary bit of marketing jargon that a few brewers and their fans like to apply to their beers, for reasons best known to themselves.
and gets a quite surprising amount of traffic from BeerAdvocate and Reddit in response.

Perhaps not.

It seems a bit cussed to suggest that it doesn’t mean anything? Unless you’re saying that Omnipollo are functionally indistinguishable from, say, Black Sheep?

I think “craft” was a poor choice of word to adopt in the UK, being copied and pasted from a US context where the only other game in town was Big Beer and all the extra connotations of “craft” made at least a bit of sense in comparison, and applied to the UK, where it wasn’t and it didn’t. But if we’d landed on something like “new wave” beer that didn’t a) carry the connotation that if you weren’t that then you were bland industrial piss so obviously (eg) Harveys must be that as well and b) have an existing meaning that people could look up in the dictionary and insist must be applied literally in the context of beer then I think the whole thing would have seemed fairly straightforward and uncontroversial.

At any one time (and in any one country), everyone knows more or less what it means, but it doesn’t have any stable, consistent meaning. A few years ago one of the connotations of “craft” was independence, for instance. As for Omnipollo, does one of their ice-cream stouts share any one thing with a Goose Island pale ale that neither of them shares with Black Sheep?

But that’s true of more-or-less any term that describes a cultural thing – they’re woolly and inconsistent and unstable by their nature. You could make similar points about “folk music” or “heavy metal”, for instance, but they’re still sometimes useful phrases to have around. I’d still say that the biggest issue with “craft”, particularly in the UK, is the implied superiority.

Looking at some of the newer breweries that describe themselves as craft, they have equipment, automation and brewing techniques that wouldn’t be out of place in an A-B plant, just downscaled, and obviously with more and higher quality ingredients being put into the process. Consistent quality of product is a key benefit which perhaps goes against the whole craft ‘thing’ I think.

Just caught up with this. Craft is used in quite differing contexts here with different goals, e.g. in 1983 real ale could be and was made by some very large breweries. Craft emphasised there a traditional character. Jackson’s usage of craft brewery in 1982, to which I drew attention some months ago on my blog, was in connection with Timothy Taylor’s Keighley. It was rendered at the dawn of the modern small brewery movement in the English-speaking world and imo was decisive in how craft brewing was viewed (the core of it) for a long time after in its American cradle, meaning all-malt brewing, no pasteurization and ideally cask conditioning, small scale industrially, and family owned.

Interesting that you mention all-malt brewing. Smaller breweries like Taylors with older mash tuns can’t get full extraction from malt so invert sugar has played a role in many breweries since Victorian times when many of them were established.

Yeah – in fact, I’d say that sugar and unmalted adjuncts are key to the character of a lot of the world’s greatest traditional beers, so deliberately excluding them from your conception of high-quality, small-scale brewing seems blinkered at best…

I am talking about what Michael Jackson wrote in 1982 in his first edition of the Pocket Guide to Beer. He pointed out, evidently as a plus, that Timothy Taylor brewed from all-malt. Thereafter, all-malt became a mantra of American craft brewing and certainly influenced British craft brewing.

Only years later did the Brewers’ Association pull back from that focus. The German Reinheitsgebot was a factor here as well, but in essence in that comment about Taylor’s, Jackson codified the modern understanding of craft brewery.

In terms of my own position on sugar, and I’m well aware of its history in brewing, I support in general all-malt brewing as Jackson (a Briton) did, and many others, while recognising use of adjuncts and sugar is part of UK tradition and does not significantly affect the palate when used well. That is separate and apart from the point I make above.

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