Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Revolutionary Tosh

One of the streams of consciousness that spouted forth from one of the people I was listening to in a pub recently was loosely around the theme of the "craft beer revolution" which is apparently sweeping the world with a tsunami of beery goodness. In fact, as the gentleman in question pontificated and warmed to his theme, the phrase "craft beer revolution" was dropped into conversation with all the regularity of a Valley Girl saying "like" or "so".

Is there any more vacuous and pointless phrase in the beer world today than "craft beer revolution"? For crying out loud we can't even agree on a definition for "craft beer", having heard of late that apparently the likes of Samuel Adams and Fuller's don't count because they are big companies, a symptom no doubt of the bitter fan unable to handle that his once exclusive domain has been invaded by scurrilous interlopers whose only interest is to enjoy a nicely made pint rather than question if said beer is "in keeping with the style".

Now, I don't want to get into the whole definition of what constitutes "craft beer", but I do want to pick up on the word "revolution". Just for reference sake, here is a dictionary definition of "revolution":
  • an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.
  • a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, esp. one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence.
  • a sudden, complete or marked change in something.
Obviously people drinking "craft beer" is not bringing about the first definition there, in fact if some of the beer geeks I have overheard of late were let loose anywhere near government I would be running for the hills, as they have all the fervour of the Spanish Inquisition or the McCarthyite Trials. I guess definition two is out of the running as well, purely from observation in the local supermarket, the vast majority of people are still buying Bud Lite, and I am yet to see a craft beer fundamentalist smash a mini-keg of beer over someone's head in an effort to get them to convert. Three is a no starter because it has taken Samuel Adams 25 years to become one of the biggest craft beer companies in the US, and they have just 0.9% of the total American beer market according to their current advertising.

Evidently then, all this talk of "revolution" is complete and utter unfounded bullshit, but it sounds great in marketing a product, after all why be normal and every day when you can be "revolutionary"?! Of course the marketing bullshit brigade would have you believe that almost every product you buy these days is revolutionary, whether it is your vacuum cleaner, the shoes on your feet or the amazing new healthy sweetener which is just natural sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.

The question though has to be asked, what is going on with craft beer? It is beyond question that, especially in the American market, there are more and more craft breweries, making a wider range of beers, as well as crossing beer styles to make hybrids and new styles (and no, Black IPA is not revolutionary either, interesting yes, revolutionary no - putting the ingredients together in a slightly different way is not a revolution). Aging your beer in wooden casks is not exactly revolutionary either, what do you think they used before metal? Using weird and wonderful herbs and spices is nothing new either, think of beer before hops, so that's not revolutionary.

The British context is easier to get a handle on in my opinion because we never had the insanity that was Prohibition, and so still have a few decent sized independent breweries that have been around for more than a century. Of course there are plenty of new microbreweries opening up across the UK and their share of the market is increasing, but is it revolutionary? On the mainland of Europe there is a similar story, large family owned breweries are being supplemented by a growing number of smaller start ups making beers which have never been seen in those countries before, but still the larger breweries use the traditional methods and ingredients and can be regarded as "craft" brewers.

So no, there is not a craft beer revolution going on, though there may be plenty of revolting craft beer and craft beer drinkers. What is happening is a renaissance of the brewing industry, and if in the course of that renaissance the big industrial brewers want to jump on the bandwagon and make craft beers and widen the number of people enjoying well made beer then that can only be a good thing in my book.

Here endeth the, slightly longer than intended, lesson.

15 comments:

  1. How do you mean "What is happening is a renaissance of the brewing industry" Are there more brewers?

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  2. I disagree. I think the CBR (you gotta have an acronym or it isn't a real thing) fits definition 2. Yes, most people in the supermarket are buying Bud Light, but there's a choice, right? Most supermarkets are going to be carrying something from a small or independent brewery, right? Possibly even a selection? That's "a radical and pervasive change" to the beer market compared to twenty years ago.

    I would go so far as to say that the widespread availability of beers like Brooklyn, Fat Tire, Samuel Adams, and the clincher of non-craft Blue Moon, means that in the US the revolution is complete . Craft beer may not be sitting in the Winter Palace rifling the Tsar's cigars, but it certainly has replaced the former absolutist system with a more inclusive form of beery governance.

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  3. Spot on. Craft beer is a stupid term. I can understand where it comes from in a US context, breweries emerging with little connection to the existing nearly monocultural brewing industry, and defining themselves in opposition to that, but in Europe it makes no sense at all. Even in the States there are breweries that don't fit in to this false dichotomy, leading to endless threads on BeerTwat and TickBeer over whether surviving brewers (Yuengling) are "craft", or whether Samuel Adams or Sierra Nevada are "still craft".

    I noticed the other day on BeerTwat some idiot using the phrase "real craft brew drinkers", like it was some sort of exam you had to pass.

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  4. Barm, I don't think Europe's beer industry is as homogeneous as you suggest. I agree that the craft vs. other model doesn't work for Great Britain, Germany and Belgium, for instance. But in Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Spain, for instance -- places where the macros previously wiped out the smaller breweries -- the same dichotomy exists as in the US.

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  5. red dave,

    by renaissance I mean that brewing seems to be undergoing a re-birth in the sense that old techniques, such a barrel aging, are making a come back as are styles of beer which got lost in the Industrial era rush for uniformity.

    TBN,

    From my recent reading of the history of American beer, there is again less of a revolution that a renaissance. Until the likes of Anheuser-Busch demolished the competition, many towns had their own breweries, up to Prohibition, there were 10s of thousands of breweries here, of which only 19 survived.

    I am not convinced that the macros wiped out the smaller breweries in the US, Prohibition that took care of that, and it took 50 something years for smaller breweries to again become viable.

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  6. Sure, but from the drinker's point of view -- from the revolutionary's point of view -- it looks the same. So your despotic monarch was overthrown by a military junta. You still need a revolution.

    Many revolutions seek to turn the clock back to a time when things were perceived as better. They are still revolutions, though, not renaissances.

    The fact that there are active campaigners out there, trying to force the industry in a particular direction -- even if it's back to the old days -- is what makes the term revolution appropriate.

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  7. I would argue though that renaissance is a better term, given that one of the key mottoes of the Renaissance was "ad fontes" - "to the sources".

    Since much of craft brewing is about re-discovering the old ways of doing things, using traditional ingredients and methods, the re-birth, if you will, of cask in the British context all suggest renaissance rather than revolution.

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  8. But it doesn't take account of the re-arranging of the traditional ingredients and methods which you mention in the post, nor the fusion of different ones, which are all part of the revolution. How does a bourbon-barrel-aged Russian imperial stout with added sake yeast fit the renaissance model?

    And, as I said above, Britain is a bad example.

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  9. Fair point, but neither does it fit the revolutionary model. Perhaps a better model would be the Reformation with craft beer cast in the role of the Protestants?

    < ducks and runs for cover >

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  10. No, that's a pretty good analogy, I like that. But I would also say -- for its breadth and its legacy -- that the Reformation was revolutionary.

    < nails 90-Minute IPA to front gate of Coors >

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  11. Shouldn't that be 95 Minute IPA? ;)

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  12. Probably.

    New advertising idea:
    "Coors Light -- It's An Indulgence"

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  13. Isn't it just semantics and marketing? I like 'craft beer revolution' because it makes it sound important and that's a good thing. There's nothing wrong with a little self-promotion to increase awareness of good things which are going on. Craft beer renaissance doesn't quite have the same ballsy attitude. And it's not merely a renaissance. It's attracting new brewers all the time, it's constantly evolving and selling more beer.

    In the UK, where the term hasn't caught on, I still think it has a place and it marks beers apart from 'real ale' which to some seems old and dusty.

    It's clever marketing and it works.

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  14. Mark,

    One man's "little self-promotion" is another man's self aggrandising wank.

    Craft beer will not turn the world upside down, will not bring about social justice, will not make governments actually pay attention to their people, it will just make better beer available to more people, which is a good thing but hardly revolutionary.

    I think the reason the term hasn't caught on in the UK, thank goodness for that, is because there is a generation of beer drinkers and writers that pre-date the founding of the American craft brew scene. Love them or hate them, CAMRA have been, and you could argue, still are very important to the health and vibrancy of the British beer industry, and while I am not going to praise CAMRA to the hilt, I wonder if it had not been for them the British beer world would be very different today.

    Semantics seems to be dismissed with such ease in the modern world, whereas in reality understanding the meaning of words and wanting to see them used in a proper sense is very important. I have issues with slick marketing, because it often covers up the fact that the product is second rate.

    On the "real ale" vs "craft beer" thing, where do you draw the line? Surely there is so much crossover as to make the distinction entirely moot?

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  15. Think of this like a road runner cartoon. Road Runner the smug git is the craft beer scebe. Wiley Coyote keeps getting killed but coming back to life. So he is Jesus. And the ACME corporation is thus the Roman empire.

    Wait I am confused. What were we tallking about?

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