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