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.