Words as blunt tools

Last night, another conversation about the language we use to discuss beer kicked off when Lovibonds brewer Jeff Rosenmeier said this on Twitter:

Tweet: I don't like the term 'craft keg'. It's craft beer. Am I alone on this one?

Our two penn’orth was in the form of a quick diagram (above, top) which shows how we think it works in the UK, i.e. with ‘craft beer’ as a super-category which includes most real ale, some kegged beer and (not included in the pic) some bottled beer.

The fact is, though, that none of the terms we use are perfect; they’re just blunt tools to enable conversation.

We’re both reminded of meetings we used to endure in previous jobs. Typically, six hours would be set aside to solve a problem, of which five would be spent going round the table arguing about the language: “What exactly does ‘world class’ mean? I don’t like it.”

The last hour would be spent discussing how there was no longer enough time to solve the problem and agreeing dates for another six hour meeting.


Something in the air

CAMRA have finally done something we’ve wanted to see for a while: begun to consider how the biggest beer campaigning group in Britain should react to so-called craft beer and, in particular, ‘craft keg’.

Members can read more about the new working group on the CAMRA website (we wish CAMRA wouldn’t lock all its content away, but hey ho) and we can all read about it direct from one of the group’s members on Tandleman’s blog.

If you’re a CAMRA member, a lapsed member, or someone who thinks about joining but holds back for whatever reason, you can feed in to this conversation by commenting at Tandleman’s blog. (But he will be overwhelmed with people wanting their say, so make your comments are constructive and to the point, if you want them to be heard.)

It would be naieve for anyone to expect CAMRA to change policy drastically overnight, not to mention potentially disastrous for the Campaign — there are, after all, many members, whether we agree with them or not, who believe kegged beer is something to be opposed, and who would cancel their memberships if there is too much change, too quickly. And, assuming the working group does propose changes, those would then have to be approved by members at the annual meeting. (Although wouldn’t an online poll for members be a great and inclusive alternative?)

Nonetheless it would be great if, through this discussion, CAMRA can find some way to reconcile the organisation’s aims — supporting cask ale — with some kind of support, however restrained, for some of the very good non-cask beer being made in the UK today.

Pop Culture and Beer

Boat with ABBA hallo written on the side
That weird boat in Lübeck with ABBA hallo written on it for no obvious reason.

These are just a couple of thoughts prompted by reactions to our last post.

1. You can’t write a set of rules for “cool”. Trying to define “good beer” or “craft beer”* in a form as definite as the CAMRA conception of “real ale” is impossible. Defining “indie” is pretty tough, too, but you know it when you see it.

2. People have often have very different taste in music or films when they’re just finding their way than they do later in life. They might start with the pretentious stuff and get over themselves; or they might prefer brash, loud and attention-grabbing, but begin to appreciate something more thoughtful as they mature. Our respective dads thought our respective tastes in music were terrible, but they were just glad we liked music at all.# If people just starting out on beer happen to get all excited about Guinness, or crazily hoppy American IPAs, we should be encouraging them, not sneering.


*. Actually, we’re not going to footnote ‘craft beer’ every time we use it. We’re going to link to this new permanent page.

#. That sentence is a perfect example of what a pain in arse this “two bloggers with one voice” thing can be. That’s the last time we’ll mention our respective dads…

Ten signs of a craft brewery

Stained glass pub window reading "Stout"

We were pondering the hard-to-define, much-loathed term “craft beer” again this morning and decided that, rather than a firm definition, it makes much more sense to think about indicators or signs.

The following list, off the top of our head, is not exhaustive and, clearly, we’re not suggesting that any brewery needs to be able to tick all ten to be considered to be making craft beer. Equally, some of these apply to breweries that, instinctively, we wouldn’t consider craft brewers.

So, this is just more food for thought, really.

1. They use malts like Maris Otter or even Plumage Archer because they want a particular flavour in their beer, rather than higher-yielding, cheaper varieties. This fact is mentioned on the packaging or on the website.

2. They might well produce single-hop beers or beers which prominently feature specific hops. Their choice of hops is driven by something other than the market. It is possible/easy to find out which varieties are used.

3. It is easy to find out where the beer is made — ideally because it is mentioned on the packaging. It does not pretend to be from somewhere else. (I.e. Belgium, Denmark, Newcastle.)

4. The brewers have their names and/or faces on the website or packaging. There are identifiable individuals making the beer. They might even be contactable on Twitter or through their own blogs.

5. They lager or age beer for extended periods even though it’s expensive to do so.

6. Their beers have vintages and change from year to year: they are not entirely focused on consistency.

7. There are signs of innovation led by the brewers rather than marketers or management.

8. The brewers are the management.

9. They make beer that makes you say “wow”, not “meh”. (A beer can be 3.8% abv, brown and hopped with Goldings and still make you go “wow”, by the way.)

10. They make a dark beer: they haven’t ceded this ground to Guinness.

Any others?

Our wish list for a beer consumer organisation

With various embryonic entities popping up to answer the call for a body to champion all good beer, regardless of whether it’s ‘real ale’ or not, here are a few things that we would like to see in a British beer consumer organisation.

1. We want it to be serious, measured and perhaps even a little boring. We think even the venerable CAMRA fails on this front sometimes, allowing passion to spill over into bad temper. UPDATE: Beior.org in Ireland seems to get this right.

2. To work constructively alongside CAMRA. That doesn’t mean necessarily always agreeing with them, but at least getting along well enough to manage joint events or campaigns. It certainly means that cheap jibes about beards and sandals are out.

3. A focus on quality, taste and the certification of ‘good beer’, probably through blind taste test panels. We wouldn’t care if that meant some beers from big breweries got the stamp of approval, or if it meant that some small breweries get some harsh feedback.

4. Avoid distracting, divisive side-campaigns — e.g. “drink British craft beer” — and stay out of politics. As the beer blogoshire shows, people who love beer, when they get off that topic, can turn out to have very little in common. Trying to get them to agree on anything other than that well-made beer is where it’s at would spell disaster. Promote good beer and leave it at that.

5. Achievable objectives. Here’s an example: reduce the number of pubs in the UK where there is no beer a member of said organisation would want to drink. That might mean more cask ale; or it might just mean a bottle or two of good beer in the fridge.

We still think, with a bit of creative thinking, CAMRA could take this on this without compromising its core values but there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to do so, leaving a gap in the market for something else to emerge.