Why Craft Beer Can’t Work as a Definition in UK

Let’s get one thing straight before I give my rationales about any attempt to define anything as ‘craft beer’ in the UK…

I don’t like it when I walk into venues and they have a ‘craft beer list’ that is all mainstream brands with perhaps the odd bottle of Brooklyn or Anchor tacked onto the bottom of it to try and give it some sort of credibility.

That’s just bandwagoning hooey and, like all forms of false advertising, deserves a swift kick in the junk.

However, you will get venues that do this because, like anyone who tries to be ‘down with the kids’ they don’t get it, they never will, they just think it’s cool, hip, trendy, dope, sick – whatever hell word you want to use for it – but it’s not a good enough reason to try and label beers in the UK in the same way they do in the States.

And why don’t I think we can put a definition on brews like craft beer over here?

One word – history.

But what do I mean by that?

Simple really, the US craft brewing movement has been able to define itself so successfully because it started from a point where there was virtually nothing but bland, big brand lager available.

When people like Fritz Maytag of Anchor, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Jack McAuliffe of the defunct New Albion, Jim Koch of Sam Adams and homebrew advocates like Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhart all started in the 70s in the US there was Bud, Coors, Pabst and more Bud… poor buggers.

But, Watney’s Red Barrel aside, we simply haven’t had that sort of market development over here.

We haven’t had swingeing legislation like Prohibition that put a stop to all brewing (well, legal brewing anyway!).

Almost overnight more than 1,000 breweries were wiped out, taking a lot of their records with them sadly, but there is evidence that these breweries were making everything from English-style ales to Bocks to lagers (as a nerdy aside, often with a lot of corn, a now much-derided adjunct but a grain widely grown in the US and, if used well, is actually a good addition to many beers).

And a massive proportion if those companies simply weren’t able to start up again and moved on from beery ambitions, allowing companies like Anheuser-Busch, that was able to just mothball equipment as it had other business concerns, or Miller, which had started making malted milk for the candy industry, to strike up and take advantage of the repeal within weeks.

And then, of course, came two successive World Wars which wreaked even more havoc on choice and small businesses in the brewing world (alongside the obvious horrors of conflict) but, again, those bigger breweries with diverse business interests and economies of scale survived.

But they were the lucky few… which really led to a very unlucky few generations of beer drinkers in the US.

However, despite being used as a cash cow by successive governments, the UK brewing industry, regional family brewers, small concerns and brewpubs survived in the UK, and grew, providing us with a diversity of beer styles the Americans could only dream of.

Until those aforementioned pioneers started up a new brewing movement in the US in the 70s, inspired very much by British beer styles, and so we have this amazing vibrant brewing scene over the pond that has, in turn, kicked our beer culture into a whole new gear and so, in a way, we’ve kind of come full circle.

However, with the good comes the bad and that’s the C-word – craft.

Certain factions of the beer world think we need to introduce a craft definition in the UK that is based on size or age or even possibly method of dispense (MASSIVE EYE ROLL AT THAT!) which would leave breweries like St Austell, Fuller’s, Bateman’s, Bathams, Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Adnams and the like somehow in the same league as Heineken, AB-Inbev, Carlsberg or Molson Coors.

And, equally, how would you define Sharp’s, Franciscan Well or White Shield in this brave new world?

Not to mention I think we’re going to see more acquisitions of this ilk; for example, if I was someone at SAB Miller HQ, I’d be looking quite hard at a brewery like Meantime as something I desperately want in my portfolio to sit alongside brands like Pilsner Urquell  – and this is a brewery that has just produced a crowd-sourced brew from hop boxes it supplied to punters… not exactly a big business approach to beer is it?*

And, let’s not forget, what you can end up with, is a situation where a brewery like Goose Island is no longer considered ‘craft’ in the US because of its ownership.

Now, I don’t know about you but I’ve not noticed a jot of difference in their IPA, Honkers or 312 that I’ve tried over here in the 18 months or so – and most of their barrel-aged beers at GABF tasted pretty much as good as I’ve had them, particularly Madam Rose.

This is not a criticism of the Brewer’s Association by the way, they have rules and they have to stick to them, but it just gives you an idea of the corner into which things can get painted when it’s a simple system in a relatively simple marketplace like the US – god alone only knows what would happen if we really tried to do this in the UK!

All I’m trying to say is that things are never as black and white as they seem and the idea of putting in place a craft beer definition in the UK is making me turn grey at an even more alarming rate than was already happening!

(My apologies to anyone who knows American brewing history better than I; I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading when I can and this is what I’ve gleaned, any glaring errors please tell me and I will happily amend.)

*I have no knowledge nor have heard rumours about this, it’s mere speculation based on market insight

7 thoughts on “Why Craft Beer Can’t Work as a Definition in UK

  1. I understand how you would feel Goose Island _should_ be considered a craft beer, and I agree that, in any real sense, it hasn’t changed since being bought by the big boys, but where can you draw the line? The megacorps have shown time after time that whenever their bottom line is affected they’ll save money at the cost of flavour. What will happen to GI’s IPA next time we have a hop crisis? Most of us are guessing it won’t be good.

    1. Hiya, thanks for your input but as I said in the next paragraph: “This is not a criticism of the Brewer’s Association by the way, they have rules and they have to stick to them, but it just gives you an idea of the corner into which things can get painted when it’s a simple system in a relatively simple marketplace – god alone only knows what would happen if we really tried to do this in the UK!”

      And as the BA has no overight on the quality of its members beers I’m not sure what bearing a hop crisis would have to anything defined, or not, as craft

      1. That’s awfully short-sighted. Sure, a craft beer need not be good, but you’re arguing that Goose Island is still the same beer it was when they qualified as “craft”. My point is that that’s still true now, but when producing a quality beer interferes with what their owners see as the bottom line, you can bet it will stop having the same quality.

  2. Great and interesting article about the whole debate about the nomenclature of craft beer and how it applies to the British trade.

    I think the brewing culture here in Britain is different from the US for many of the reasons you described, and then some. There’s a great book by Maureen Ogle called Ambitious Brew that discusses the history of American brewing, which would be good for anyone unfamiliar with America’s brewing history.

    In the UK, it’s not a clear break, as it is with the US, from the mainstream brews, from what I see. At The Five Points, our head brewer Greg Hobbs often remarks how the Hook Island Red, a rye ale, isn’t a million miles away from an English best bitter–it’s just hopped with a different set of hops and comes with a higher ABV.

    Looking at coffee, they describe the differences as ‘waves,’ ie first wave, second wave, etc. I think it’s interesting to compare it similarly with beer in the UK–there may be a new swell of breweries with beers different from that of older, more established breweries, but it’s all part of the same beery sea, and we’re all riding the same wave of folks awakening to the realisation that beer is brilliant, diverse, can now frequently be locally sourced and goes damn better with cheese than some Pinot Grigio.

  3. Melissa
    I’m a little late to your blog, but great post, so interesting to see the changes in beer culture in the UK. You are very right, the US had to restart a brewing tradition after prohibition and that massive vacuum left room for the American craft beer movement to begin. You all were very lucky, never having to do without a proper pint! Though we now have an amazing beer movement here, I think we are starting to struggle with the same issues that you raise for the possibility of trying to determine “craft” in the UK! As you mentioned with Goose Island, just because AB owns them doesn’t mean they are any less innovative, right? But what about as the flagships of the craft beer movement, like Sam Adams, get bigger, does the Brewer’s Association have to keep refining their definition of craft beer to make sure that Sam is always at the table? It is really interesting and as you said, so not black and white for the UK and getting really grey for us!

  4. We need a ‘brand’ that tells drinkers – this is not the flat, warm, weak cask ‘real ale’ that CAMRA has been trying unsuccessfully to get you to drink from the last 40 years. I don’t care what we call it, craft beer is as good as anything.

    Here’s to something cold, strong, lively, either keg or bottle. cheers.

    RIP real ale.

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