Friday, October 17, 2014

The Hand Made Tale

One of the most common marketing memes amongst brewing companies is that their beers are 'handmade', 'handcrafted', 'made by hand', or some such term, often phrased in juxtaposition to something along the lines of 'not by machines'. This zythophilic ludditism plays very well with people looking for a more 'authentic' or even folksy view of beer, but it really doesn't fit very well with the everyday realities of working life in many a brewery.

Beer is, by its very nature, an industrial product, something that would never occur in nature, and the processes that go into making your pint, whether that pint comes from SABMiller or your local microbrewery, are heavily mechanised.

Let's start at the beginning. The mill, which crushes the malt so that the sugars and enzymes can do their thing in the mash tun, is a machine. I don't know of any brewery, regardless of size, out there that has its brewers use a pestle and mortar to crush their malt. Perhaps there are nanobreweries using the hand cranked barley crushers that many a homebrewer would use, but they still just hand cranking a machine.

Let's head then to the mash tun, where the grain will sit in warm water while alpha and beta amalayse do their thing to the starches in the grain. Here again machines come to the aid of the brewer in the form of mash rakes, which admittedly not all brewers have the luxury of. With mashing done, it's time to lauter and sparge the grains, pumping more water over the grains to extract more wort from the mash, pumps being machines.

I think you see my point, and I don't need to go through the entire brewing process pointing out where mechanisation is part and parcel of modern brewing. Ultimately the use of machines is an every day reality is the vast majority of breweries. Sure some may have more advanced systems involving hop chargers to automatically dose the boiling wort, but these tools don't impact whether or not the beer is actually worth drinking.

If transparency is really all that important in beer marketing then there are plenty in the craft segment of the industry whose marketing is guilty of deceiving the consumer. Claims that their beer is 'handmade/handcrafted' ring hollow when the truth is they use many of the same machines and technologies as industrial scale breweries.

I don't believe that the use of machines in a brewery impacts the flavour of a beer as much as the choice of ingredients, recipe, quality control processes, or the skill of the brewers themselves, but they do make a lovely straw man as a replacement for faceless corporations.


  1. There's very little of anything that's made totally by hand. "Simple tools" is what we usually limit ourselves to in this sort of "hand-crafted" discussion. The point of simple tools is that they're accessible to those who don't have the capital to fund complex ones. The less "handcrafted" it is (buckets -> pumps -> SCADA), the more capital (and less labour) it requires, the more it must serve capital (and less people). It's a bit Schumacher isn't it.

  2. I think this is an American thing, in the Uk we have never been under the illusion that brewing is anything other than an efficient industrial process. and nor should it be, I don't want mucky hands touching my beer.

  3. Funny you should say that, it was a British brewery's marketing materials that prompted the post.

  4. I like telling people that I hand craft all my beer. All 20L of it in a go. Any more than that, then my back would give up. Can I has Railway Arch Now?

  5. oh well they're barking up the wrong tree, no-one gives a monkeys how "hand-crafted" it is, they just want it to taste good and cost peanuts.

  6. "I don't believe that the use of machines in a brewery impacts the flavour of a beer as much as the choice of ingredients, recipe, quality control processes, or the skill of the brewers themselves"

    I suspect that "hand crafted" is being used as a sort of shorthand to imply that the choice of ingredients, recipe and quality control processes are controlled according to the judgement of a skilled artisan brewer wandering around the brewery inspecting things in person rather than being, I don't know, generated by a statistical model based on the outcome of a series of focus group sessions and automatically programmed into a computer controlled brewery with no human intervention. Which is also bollocks, obviously, but makes marginally more sense than the idea that your beer's better than Carlsberg mainly because someone crushes each individual grain of malt between their thumb and forefinger.

    (On a similar note, you can get "hand forged ironwork". Someone's got bloody tough hands!)

  7. When did we "in the UK" elect py as our spokesperson? Did I miss that?

  8. I think Dave's right -- like 'craft beer', 'hipster' and numerous other buzz-phrases, it's a verbal shortcut. I'm not a fan -- handcooked crisps is my pet hate -- but I know what they're getting at. The fault-line lies at breweries such as Thornbridge where the process -- the opening and closing of valves, temperatures in each vessel, and so on -- is controlled by computer. To a lot of people, that just looks a bit *wrong* -- like this.