To be brutally honest, no-one really knows. There are all sorts of articles and postings on the internet where people claim to know the definition of what a craft brewer is. It’s easy enough to define what an American Craft Brewer is, because they have an association and a definition: Small, Independent and Traditional. But for them small is less than 6 million barrels of beer a year. That’s a whopping 1.7 billion pints. Not sound so whopping? Here’s a bit of maths; in the UK each day 28 million pints of beer are consumed, which equates to 1.02 billion pints a year. And by beer, that’s all beer including lager and even stuff like Tennents Super and Special Brew.
So, a craft brewer in the USA can produce enough beer to satisfy the entire UK’s thirst for beer and still be considered small. But while we over on this side of the pond consume just over a billion pints a year, the USA consumes over 50 billion. So a craft brewer over there can be big, and yet remain small. As for independent, that’s clearer cut, no more than 25% of the brewery can be controlled by someone in the alcohol industry who isn’t a craft brewer themselves. Actually, that’s not that clear cut is it? Each brewery can own shares in other breweries, so while the big breweries may not have control, you could very easily get a cartel running which isn’t exactly independent. Thankfully, there’s been no signs of that yet.
Surely though traditional should be easier to define? Well, they define it as either having an all malt flagship beer (the main seller) or at least half of the beers are all malt or use adjuncts only to enhance the flavour. So, have a heavily promoted beer, and it doesn’t matter what else you produce. A little bit murky then, but at least there is a definition. Over here there isn’t really one. Which is a shame because like anything that seems good, it won’t be long before the marketing people jump on it and start advertising mass produced swill as “Craft Beer”. So maybe what we need to do is clearly define what a craft beer is before the phrase gets hi-jacked and used to sell substandard fizz.
So I think we need to look more closely at the phrase to see what a craft beer actually is, not so much the beer side of it, we’re hopefully all clear on that. But what is “Craft”. The dictionary definitions are:
1. An art, trade or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.
2. Skill; dexterity.
3. to make or manufacture with skill and careful attention to detail.
That seems more like it, “An art that requires skill and careful attention to detail”. That doesn’t require a size limitation, so we’d be able to even allow those Americans into this definition. And over this side of the pond? We’ve got a lot of breweries, but are they Craft breweries in that definition. Some of them almost certainly aren’t. I personally just can’t see the Royal Brewery in Moss Side fitting into this category. I’m also not sure I’d see some of the other local breweries fitting in either but that’s open to debate. But we do have breweries that care about the beer, that aren’t afraid to experiment and see what can be done. I think this is where the craft comes in. It’s not about churning out the same thing again and again, but it’s about seeing what you can do. The first brewery that comes to mind here is Hop Back. Summer Lightning was first brewed at a time when most beers were much darker. They dared to experiment and they’ve reaped the rewards since, they’re probably the most awarded brewery in the UK, with Summer Lightning probably the most awarded beer. Oakham Ales also experimented, they were one of the first breweries to start experimenting with American hops, and their beers are constantly winning awards. So we have a definition of Craft Beer that allows both UK and USA beers to sit side by side:
“Brewed using an art that requires skill and careful attention to detail”.
Now we know that they can sit side by side, can they compete? Can a brewery from England with a capacity of 30 barrels at any time, compete in a glass with an American brewery that produces over 800,000 barrels a year? Well, now you can find out. Go to the bar and order a pint (or a half) of one of the American ales, and a pint (or a half) of one of the kegged English ales. It doesn’t matter if they’re not the same style, just so long as they’re similar styles. And can they compete? I think so. In fact since the fonts have been installed serving some UK beers in the US manner for a fair comparison, I don’t think there’s a single UK beer being served that can’t hold its own. It doesn’t take a big brewery or a lot of money to produce a good, craft beer. It takes skill, dedication and a love of beer.
words by Steve Dunkley / picture from British Craft Brewers Association