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.