Generalisations about beer culture opinion

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?

Blogging and writing

Eight alternatives to 'boring'

Pint of ordinary bitter in an English pub.

1. Well-mannered, polite
Ron Pattinson prefers polite beers to arrogant ones. Is a polite beer one which, although it doesn’t seem the life of the party, perhaps impresses you over time with its integrity and good qualities?

2. Bland
Nowadays, bland is a pejorative term absolutely synonymous with boring, but it hasn’t always been. Somerset cheese used to be advertised as bland and digestible; a woman in the nineteenth century might have been described as bland if she was pretty. It derives from a latin word meaning soft or smooth.

3. Vanilla
There’s bad vanilla ice-cream — bright yellow, basically whipped margarine, with artificial flavourings — and there’s the good stuff, where a flavour we take for granted is made once again the star of the show. Is that beer boring or does it make a virtue of good old English hops, instead of easier-to-spot varieties?

4. Standard
Almost every British brewery makes a standard brown bitter, which conforms to punters’ expectation of this type of beer, being within a certain range of colour and strength. Not brewing a standard bitter would be commercial suicide in many cases: these beers are the foundations on which breweries are built.

5. Straightforward
Yes, you can buy a pair of jeans with green stitching and butterflies embroidered on the knees, but maybe you just want a pair of bloody trousers. By the same token, aren’t all these bells and whistles on big beers a little pretentious? Don’t you sometimes just want a beer which quenches your thirst, bites at the back of your throat, and knocks the edges off a bad day? Does every beer have to be profound and eye-opening?

6. Clean
Precision engineered lagers are sometimes put together with the intention of making the experience of drinking them only slightly removed from that of drinking sparkling water. Let’s not sneer: these beers can be refreshing, and they’re technically marvellous.

7. Classical
Having regard to established principles of form and composition in the pursuit of harmony and balance, rather than seeking to innovate. Disciplined and respectful of tradition.

8. Subtle
After two pints, you start to notice flavours which are hard to pin down, and even harder to describe. This beer makes you work for your tasting notes and doesn’t pander to your lazy, hop-shocked palate. Perhaps you’re not up to it? Perhaps you need something brasher and simpler?

Blogging and writing

Plain English, please!

In an excellent post on his blog, brewer Tom Cizauskas recently made a compelling case for plain English in beer writing.

Yes, it’s important to preserve the historical terminology; yes, some of the words are just plain fun to use (“spile” is a favourite of ours); and, yes, people who are into this will know what most of them mean.

But often, that rarefied vocabulary is used as a way to lord it over others and to exclude them, just like political jargon or street slang. It’s an obvious sign of the “If I can just stop you there to make a minor correction, young lady” mentality we’ve written about here.

Watching Neil Morrissey and his mate on TV this week as they struggled to understand the brewing instructions from this book really brought this point home — why the hell should anyone who didn’t grow up in the 16th century know what “turbid” means?