Everything claims to be craft beer these days. But what is craft beer and who can legitimately claim to be a craft brewer?
Can supermarket beer be craft? How about the old brewery down the road, is that craft? And your uncle Brian who brews in his garage, is he craft? How about your mum, is she craft? Are you craft? Does craft even mean anything anymore?
We will attempt to answer some of these questions.
Firstly, all these issues derive from this simple fact:
There is no agreed definition of what qualifies as craft beer or a craft brewery in the UK.
To some, craft beer is a broad term covering all small-scale brewers. It encompasses real ale and breweries that date back centuries.
To others, it’s more specific, meaning modern independent breweries producing beers inspired by the US craft scene or historic styles, with big flavours, named hops, a broader ABV range, and mainly served on keg rather than being cask conditioned like real ale.
The US Brewers’ Association defines craft brewers as small (6m barrels a year or less), independent (less than 25% owned by a non-craft brewer) and traditional (in ingredients and method).
Attempts to nail a definition in the UK have failed.
In 2015, a group of craft brewers – Brewdog, Beavertown, Magic Rock, Camden Town, and distributor James Clay – under the banner United Craft Brewers couldn’t agree on the technicalities. The whole thing fell apart and Camden Town sold out to multinational brewing giant AB InBev.
In 2017, the UK’s Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) introduced the Assured Independent British Craft Brewer accreditation, complete with packaging logos, to help the public identify independent beer.
To qualify, brewers have to abide by SIBA guidelines, be independent of any controlling brewery, and brew less than 200,000hl (35m pints) a year. But not all craft breweries are (or want to be) members of SIBA.
So we’ve reached a stalemate.
Brewdog’s James Watt and Martin Dickie have argued the industry should define craft to stop huge multinational brewers appropriating the term and hoodwinking drinkers with faux-craft products. Just because a beer or brewery describes itself as craft or uses the word crafted doesn’t mean it is. Pint of Hop House 13 anyone?
Corporate takeovers of craft brewers have muddied the waters further.
Can Camden Town Brewery still be classed as a craft brewer now it’s owned by a global drinks giant? Is Brixton Brewery still craft now it’s 49% owned by Heineken?
Huge brewing corporations exist to make money, not to increase choice and quality for the consumer. And in an industry where margins are tight it’s inevitable more breweries will go the way of Camden Town and Brixton Brewery. But should the public care as long as the beer stays the same? And will it stay the same?
Would you rather see someone drinking Camden Pils or Carling? How about if they’re drinking Camden Pils thinking they’re drinking independent craft beer? It’s a complex issue.
So here’s what we mean by craft beer:
To us, craft beer is innovative, authentic and brewed using quality ingredients with the emphasis on flavour. You know where the beer was made and what’s in it. It’s not brewed on a mega industrial scale by a global corporation, or pretends to be from somewhere it’s not.
Cask or keg, newcomer or established name, we just want to drink interesting, quality beer. So that’s what we’ll be reviewing.
But that’s just us.
How do you define craft beer? Are you bothered who ultimately owns the breweries? Can a brewery go from craft to not craft in one business deal? If a craft brewery becomes a hugely successful business can it still call itself craft? And does any of this matter as long as the beer tastes good?