Friday, February 11, 2011

Craft is Daft

I like to think that I drink good beer. My friends who drink Budweiser like to think the same. My friends back in Prague who drink Gambrinus like to think they drink good beer. Everyone, it seems, who enjoys beer is convinced that the beer they drink is good.

I don't like Budweiser particularly, but if that is all that is available and it is colder than a penguin's feet then I'll drink it. I won't savour it, I won't notice the hop aroma (that joke is simply too easy to make, so I won't bother), I won't comment on the lacing down the side of the glass. I will just drink the bloody thing because it is hot out, I am dying of thirst, I want a beer and there is nothing else available. The same could be said about many a product coming out of small breweries that like to give themselves the title "craft". I can think of several beers made by well known American craft breweries that were I given a choice between Budweiser and said product, I would drink to the financial health of AB-InBev.

When I was living in Prague, I drank a fair old bit of Gambrinus. That was until I met Mrs Velkyal on that fateful day in Pivovarský klub and I discovered a whole different world of Czech beer. It wasn't that I went from drinking pale lager to super hoppy IPAs overnight, but rather I went to drinking better pale lagers, then discovering that there were some smaller breweries doing insanely interesting things like brewing a hefeweizen, or an English Pale Ale (a beer that Mrs Velkyal still misses). Yet my favourite Czech brewer does none of those things, they make but 4 beers, 2 pale lagers and 2 dark lagers. All 4 beers are magnificent, but is it craft brewing or just making Czech lagers the way Czech lagers are supposed to be made?

Since moving to the States, I have drunk an awful lot of craft beer, not to mention a lot of awful craft beer. Even in it's native context, craft beer is something of a pointless term and, if I may be cynical, entirely made up. When certain brewers got too big to be considered a mircrobrewery they needed a new term, given the absence of a middle ground between micro and macro. The term itself, whilst perhaps, at a push, acceptable in the American context, becomes divisive, allowing people to label themselves "craft beer drinkers" as opposed to just regular "beer drinkers", as though they have somehow attained to a higher existence by virtue of their drinking choices.

Having not lived in the UK for over a decade now, I guess I can look from the outside on my own culture to a certain extent, and in the British context, as with the Czech, craft beer is an utterly pointless term. Especially when you remember that many of the "innovations" coming out of the US are in fact just re-discoveries or interpretations of British brewing traditions. Black IPA? Nothing new, the Brits were over-hopping porter and shipping it to India along with IPA. A simple change of hop varieties a new beer style does not make.

The thing that needs to be constantly remembered is that, regardless of appellation or waffly bollocks from the marketing people, beer is the everyman drink. The thing with an everyman drink is that it transcends class and status, as such it should not be used as a status symbol. Beer has been drunk by kings and commoners, presidents and peasants since time immemorial, it is nothing new. Adding the label "craft" does not make it a lifestyle choice or mark a consumer out as somehow special, though strangely it does bump up the price, at least in the US context.

I guess it is clear that I think the term "craft" beer to be somewhat antithetical to the very nature of beer, though I can understand why it is used over here, with the back drop of Prohibition and market domination by BudMillerCoors. Within the British context, and it was that context that Mark at Pencil and Spoon wanted to address, the term is fatuous. Britain did not, thankfully, have its brewing traditions smashed by a bunch of manic religious zealots. The reality of the British brewing scene is that the new brewers have greater access to ingredients from around the world, and the transfer of knowledge and experience allowed by modern technology has broadened horizons. Is modern beer then really a craft, or just the logical outcome of the globalised world?


  1. Well said, mate, well said.

    There is no point in categorising something that can't be defined. "Craft Beer" is one of those things.

    On the other hand, it's sometimes funny to see people trying to arbitrarily define "craft beer" as some Spanish micro brewers do: maximum volume 5000hl a year, unfiltered and unpasteurised and bottle fermented. If that makes any sense to you, well, congratulations.

  2. I should sell my homebrew in Spain - it qualifies!!

  3. Can't it be craft and a logical next step? It's interesting to see the differences between the US and the UK. I'd like to hear more European or New Zealand/Aus views on it to see how it changes around the world.

  4. I think you nailed the pin. Thanks!

  5. Well said...I've felt exactly the same way for a while now about the term, which is is headed for certain obsolescence anyway (at least as far as it's present usage is concerned).

    Good beer is good beer. And thankfully, there is probably more of that available now than ever. Consumers will, I'm sure, begin to focus more on that, rather than a label which is not much more than a marketing term.

  6. The 5000HL a year is almost what defines in the UK to wheather you are a micro brewery or a brewery. It is also the threshold of the PBD (Progressive Beer Duty) Something Adnams brewery are contesting at the moment.


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