The Age Old Debate – What is ‘Craft’?
This is undoubtedly the most talked about subject in the beer world.
I first got disgruntled with the word ‘craft’ when working for a very successful (and forward thinking) regional brewer. The context goes a little something like this…. I was doing a tasting evening for a new beer we had just launched in one of London’s most renowned beer bars when I asked a prospective punter if he would like to try my beer… “no thanks, I only drink craft beers” was the retort, with a snigger, whilst looking at his mates for approval. Not to be discouraged I replied – “Interesting, whats your definition of craft? Something generic and simple like how big the brewery is? Whether tastes different every time you try it? Whether or not it uses a blend of wild animal droppings for bitterness on the palate? Or maybe if its because its a style of beer you have never tasted before, brewed by a brewery you have never heard of, in an industrial estate you didn’t know existed?”
I should probably say now – I can’t necessarily quantify what Craft is. Unlike our friends across the pond that define the word simply by a brewery’s volume, I am not sure it’s as simple as that on the grounds that a US brewery that brews 10 times the volume of some of our oldest and largest regional breweries is classed as ‘craft’ in the US.
Surely its just about the beer quality? Whether brewing on a home kit or a 300HL kit – if the beer is brewed with passion by people who drink their own product and have a sense of pride in what they are doing… are they not craft?
This leads us on to how do you make good beer? This is where I think we can start drawing lines between ‘companies’ that are brewing beer to keep shareholders happy and ‘people’ that are brewing beer to keep themselves and consumers happy. There is without a doubt, a direct correlation between the malt and hop bill that goes in to each brew and the quality of the beer. Simply put – sub grade malt and cheap hops or hop substitutes, in low quantities – will produce crap beer.
I should probably add that I appreciate economies of scale have a big part to play in the UK brewing scene. Global, National and Regional brewers are buying malt and hops in considerably larger quantities and quite often on ‘futures’ to ensure a supply at a good price. The smaller brewer simply doesn’t have the cash flow or the rate of sale of their end product to buy in such bulk or to be able to demand what they need from the growers. These factors hugely affect recipe design and availability. Does a craft brewery brew the same beers all year round with the same rotating seasonal beers knowing they have no issue with sourcing ingredients? I don’t think this military process is agreeable with craft…
One thing that virtually all breweries have in common is that they are a business. Which means they need to make money. However, if a beer is designed purely with the cost of ingredients, production, packaging, Duty to be paid and ultimately – profit to the brewery and/or shareholders in mind, is it craft?
I end on this thought – regardless of the size or age of the brewery, if beer is brewed by robotic men and women who are shackled by bean counters in Finance departments with their abacuses as opposed to independent brewers using their passion, knowledge, and instinct then I would suggest that the end product is not something that would qualify as craft. Don’t let pre-conceptions of a brewery cloud your judgement on what craft is. Trust your nose and tastebuds…. if it smells and tastes stunning… its probably craft.
Dom Metcalfe is our Sales Director. He has worked for the largest soft drinks company in the world, the most easterly brewer in the UK and the brewer of the single most celebrated beer in the UK. You can probably work out which companies they are. Answers on a postcard.