It's about the beer
Gina Miller and Bill Keeper
Hey Bill, -
The new wave of British brewers will meet to do something that, so far, beer geeks like us have
found nearly impossible. They will define what craft beer is in the UK. Their group is called the
United Craft Brewers (UCB). Defining what is and isn’t craft beer is notoriously difficult. Here in
the US we tend to do it by brewery size but that's not always a good answer especially with all
the buyouts and pseudo craft breweries operated by the big boys. You cannot restrict it to a
list of ingredients, like the historic German purity laws, because modern brewers want to use
everything from coffee grounds to chillies in their beers. You cannot define craft beer in terms
of how it is packaged, as Camra did with real ale, because it already comes in cask, keg, can,
bottle and – who knows? – probably Tetrapak cartons and PET bottles soon, too.
I've sometime thought a definition of craft could outlaw certain practises, such as the addition
of cheap adjuncts such as corn and rice to beers, or pasteurisation, but even that would run
contrary to the spirit of craft which has, repeatedly, overturned the shibboleths around beer.
Tell a craft brewer you cannot do something and, invariably, they will come back next week with
a flavour-packed beer that proves you can. Craft beer is antithetical to rules. Which to me is a
You can see the thinking behind UCB, can't you Bill? Loads of big breweries are piling into the
sector with sub-standard beers that trade on the language and design of craft. They are
cashing in on a scene they did nothing to cultivate and exploiting a cachet they have not
earned. Don't call me paranoid but If left unchecked, they will devalue at the least what craft
has accomplished and that is encouraging experimentation, craftsmanship, big flavours, a
The obvious danger in trying to define craft beer by something other than size is that you just
might turn this subjective byword for quality into something objectively quantifiable – is that
such innovation will be swapped for the demands of some sort of industry rulebook. And once
that happens you can be sure some some giant brewery will begin knocking out ersatz craft
beers in huge numbers. Of course in the long run real beer people wouldn't be fooled but in
the short run it could drive many small, true craft breweries out of business.
You know what Bill, I can solve their problem of defining craft beer. It's something you'll
recognize when you taste it. It's that simple.
That's it from me, chug-a-lug, Bill.....see you next time.
There they go again. Years ago the European Commission gave up trying to define precisely
what beer or chocolate had to contain to be accepted and came to the conclusion that if it's
considered beer/chocolate by the laws of one member-state, then all the others have to accept
that and allow it to be sold as such. Before that, EU attempts to define products gave rise to
thousands of pages of material, not to mention attempts by Belgium to have UK chocolate
products relabelled 'vegolate' (Belgian chocolate may not contain vegetable oils) and Germany
refusing to recognise many foreign beers as 'beer' because they didn't conform to the
'Reinheitsgebot'. I stongly suspect that any attempt to give a binding definition of what is and is
not 'craft-beer' may well run into similar difficulties for our friends across the pond.
I was intrigued by that United Craft Brewers Group you mentioned. Now I might be just a touch
cynical, but think about this. Currently the UK, like the USA, is experiencing an incredible surge
in the number of microbreweries, Might the UCB be seen as an attempt by its founders to portray
themselves as the defenders of the true craft faith, precisely because it will give them a timely
marketing boost?. The UCB is being promoted as an inclusive, collaborative entity, but, in the
short term, is it a way for more positive publicity for a group of established breweries that already
dominate UK craft beer?
Here in the USA, the Colorado-based Brewers Association, has created a definition of craft beer.
For them, the brewery must be small, independent and traditional. To them "small" means the
brewery distributes no more than six million barrels of beer a year. "Independent" means that less
than 25 percent of the brewery is owned by a non-craft beer brewery (like Anheuser-Busch
InBev). Traditional" means that the majority of the brewery's output consists of "beers whose
flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation."
Well, I have an issue with some of that. Personally, I believe craft has little to do with size. The
Brewers Association merely requires that a brewery produce fewer than six million barrels a year
to qualify as “craft.” That’s 1.98 billion bottles, a volume achieved only by the world’s largest
international mega-conglomerate brewers. So, size clearly isn’t everything. Yet the craft
designation isn’t entirely meaningless. Pabst—the hipster favorite, which brews just under three
million barrels per year—can’t call itself “craft,” Why? PBR contains corn syrup, a “non-
traditional” ingredient. Disqualified. What about Widmer Brothers Brewery, or Kona Brewing
Company—both owned by Craft Brew Alliance, a company that produces fewer than 750,000
barrels per year? Nope: Anheuser-Busch InBev owns more than 32% of C.B.A. Sorry, you're not
craft by the definition. Get my point Gina? When I think "small” I think of the 3,000-plus US craft
breweries, which will produce fewer than 50,000 barrels a year.
It's those truly small breweries here, in the UK and in Europe, that are the backbone of the craft
movement. And yes I agree with you that once there is an industry wide definition of craft beer
the large, monolithic brewers will simply exploit on an even larger scale then they already do.
I can hear you thinking I' rambling again. All right let's get to the basic issue - what is craft beer?
Well, I really can't put it into words. All I know is that "it's something you'll recognize when you
taste it. It's that simple". I think some really smart person said that once.
Here's looking at you Gina