Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Humanity of Craft Beer


The good old craft beer definition thing keeps rearing its head. There are people that don’t see the need to define it. Sometimes this seems to be because they feel comfortable with what they see as craft and wonder why there is a fuss at all. Some people, it seems, feel that beer is just beer and we shouldn’t try to differentiate.

I can find good reason to hook with these synergies; on the one hand I know what I class as craft and what I don’t, and on the other appreciate that the world of beer is broad, and even that which I dismiss as not craft still deserves a worthy place in the broader sense.
But still, the desire is still there to attempt a demarcation. We all have the need to assign to a club, a clan, our tribe that defines our inner sense of being. Our own individual need to say “this is who I am and these are the people with whom I belong”

Despite this obvious need to define ourselves it is unlikely that we will ever find the answer. What you feel is worthy, dear drinker, of being part of your craft world will always differ to mine. We should not be afraid to admit to this and remember that whilst we can discuss, argue and perhaps occasionally get annoyed with each other over what we feel is right, the fact that we all care about it is proof that it matters enough.

Momentarily I shall remove myself from the abstract and consider a practical point of view. I make and sell beer. I need a way to put across how the beer I sell differs from the other beer that customers could buy from other brewers.

To allow me to explain I will apologise in advance for in part being a little derogatory about beer that I don’t make, but could, at least in the eyes of some, still be classed as craft. I am, of course, referring to cask beer, made as inoffensive as possible, to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and brewed mainly to the cost constraints laid down by accountants. Made by people who might well be brewers, and may well be quite technically competent and indeed, far more competent than me, but have had all the flair and imagination knocked out of them by financial targets imposed by men in suits. It might be cask and it might be local, but it isn’t exactly what you would call inspirational.

I can hear a sigh “There you go again Dave” will come a comment “Why can’t you just say what is good about your beer, rather than condemn other beers” and the reason is quite simple; comparison. The people who like, and drink everyday the beers I am describing are content with what they drink. If they are happy then that is all good to me. Equally, it is important for me to say that this is not the sort of beer I wish to make. Partly by saying this it helps me to apologise to the people who don’t like what I brew, and to define what the people who like my beer might drink.

To this end one definition of craft beer is that which has flavours, strengths, aromas and presentation that steps far away from the criteria needed for the common man. Perhaps it is hopped to hell, or is 10%++ or has some crazy adjunct flavour that just shouldn’t be in beer. Perhaps, as I saw one commentator write, brewed in the American style.

You can say these things, and more. I would like to offer one other asset of craft beer. One that seems to ring through all others; Craft beers have a real story behind them. Real personalities. Real people. People who care about touching base with the drinker who buys the beer. People who’s inspiration shines through not only in the beer itself but also the fact that they take time to communicate what the beer is about. People who are not just influenced by accountants, and shareholders who care only about their dividend, but are also influenced by wanting to inspire the drinker.

John Keeling, me and The English Experiment at The Rake
I am writing this sat on a train to Euston Station. We have already sent a cask to The Rake Bar. John Keeling, Alex and I made a beer a few weeks back and we called it The English Experiment. One thing is for sure, after John’s expenses to travel up to Cumbria and my expenses for today are taken into account, this beer is making a substantial loss financially, at least for this batch. If we brew a lot more of it we might well make money. If so, can we still call it the same beer if John isn’t there to wave his Fullers’ magic?

Rhetorical, is the answer for now. Making money, directly at least, was not the point of the exercise. Obviously, we hope that the PR will be mutually beneficial to both our enterprises.

We hope that this transparent and public show of what the comradeship within inspirational UK brewers can mean will strengthen my point that in part, beer is about people. From the people who load the grist case, dig out the mash tun, scrub the copper, fill the casks, run the bottling line, analyse the results, sell the beer, buy the beer and of course, drink the beer, it’s about the people.

People, personalities, emotions, fun and fears, and many, many more human factors are what, in my mind, makes craft beer more than any other definable quality.

Because of that, we will never define craft beer, nor should we be able to. The people and the personalities who make it will, in themselves, continue to discuss for a very long time what it means. It is good that we do, I’m happy that we do, because it shows we are human.

27 comments:

Cooking Lager said...

In seeking not to define "craft" I think you offer your own definition. A beer with a romantic story of not being influenced by accountants and shareholders. That's fair enough and if it helps sell your grog, good luck with that.

I can't help but think its bull, but you'd expect that of a comment from me. You are the shareholder and your accountant is probably a decent fella that doesn’t tell you how to make beer, but does tell you to keep your receipts, keep your books tidy and keep something in the business account to cover tax. My accountant doesn’t tell me how to piss around with databases and computers but has told me all those things and isn’t in any way an evil man to despise. I guess that makes me a craft artisanal computer geek rather than one of those evil corporate ones. I like my accountant; he’s a mate of my Dads and he visited him in hospital when he was ill. A decent fella and I am better off for him being my friend too.

I think organic food is bull too, as is the romanticism of small scale production and hand crafted artisanal produce but it is more romantic than stuff that has nothing to with accountants, which really is just a useful function of any enterprise that wishes to last longer than a tax year.

How about a romantic narrative of beer for a post punk world? Beer for new romantics?

Dave Bailey said...

You are right, our accountant is a decent fella. And, like yours, he doesn't tell us how to brew beer. But, unlike bigger enterprises, neither does he look at the detail of costs and influence what we decide to put in the beer.

Equally, having talked to John Keeling, I know some larger breweries, like Fullers, have people like John on the board of directors. John is at liberty to fight the case for good and characterful beer and this happens because Fullers are sensible enough to have a brewer on the board.

Romantic beer? Why not? Indeed, it is the romantic notions of the enthusiastic brewers who make up our notional Craft Beer world that is part of the attraction for me, and many others I suspect.

Besides, as you well know, a bit of faux romanticism helps smooth the way with the squeeze, so I'd expect that to be right up your street.

Cooking Lager said...

Fair enough but why the big downer on accountants?

My point was more about financial than cost accountants, but even cost accountants aren't evil. I don't need cost accountancy but I suspect even a small scale artisanal outfit like yours would benefit from some activity based costings. I suspect the only reason you don't is that for a small outfit it isn't worth the expense. It you were a hundred times bigger it would be.

Whether you'd use that information to debase the product or make a better product or make the same product more efficiently is your choice. The information itself isn't bad.

I've worked for big evil corporations and truth is they are not evil. Often stupid but rarely evil.

Oh and admit it, you'd like to make a profit, profit isn't bad, isn't an exploitation and is no more than a justified return on your risk and capital.

Nowt wrong with saying you want to retire one day richer than you are now through your own hard work and efforts.

Dave Bailey said...

Cookie, you know, I'd much rather we focussed our conversation on the relative advantages of using romanticism for the benefit of getting a bit now and again......

Cooking Lager said...

Do a whole new blog posting, Dave, on how I might get a few more early nights from the squeeze through the use of craft beer rather than Pinot Grigio.

Not of course that I'm suggesting getting lasses pissed before jumping on them. Nooo. Nice romantic gestures that make them feel cared for and loved before jumping on them.

Why not start with a run down on the knicker loosening effects of each of your beers.

othertonales said...

Not wishing to spoil the spirit of true romanticism developing here, but perhaps I can change back to the original theme for just a moment... ;)

Maybe you're right Dave, and we will never actually define craft beer, but you've probably come closest of anyone yet to capturing the essence of what it means to me. The sense of real people behind the beer, the inspiration that comes through that beer from the brewer to the drinker, and the influence of the brewer ahead of the accountant, all ring true.

Whenever the term craft is applied I do think it is important to be able to offer some sort of calibration as to how that term is being used - with so many different understandings across different people it would be easy to be talking at cross purposes. This came home to me only this week - in considering the creation of a craft beer festival for Birmingham I felt it important we try and agree amongst the organisers what we mean by craft beer, to be able to explain that to our target audience, and to set the expectations of our potential customers accordingly. Your themes of people and influence hit the spot, at least for me, perfectly.

Obviously, no brewery business is going to survive for any length of time if it doesn't pay some attention to the bottom line overall, not withstanding the less tangible benefits of potential loss-makers (on paper, anyway) such as the English Experiment, but that doesn't mean that the influence of the accountant, or shareholders (whether that is the sole owner of the business or the "city") need to eclipse the passion and inspiration of the brewer. Being profitable, and maximising profit before all else, are not the same.

Maybe I ought to caveat these comments by pointing out that I have received a free bottle of beer from Dave recently, but do not believe this has in any way affected my integrity or influenced my opinions on this matter!

Zak Avery said...

The thing about saying “this is who I am and these are the people with whom I belong” is that it's insular and divisive - it's a "for us, by us" thing. Fine, if it's for you and your mates, but why would anyone buy into it on that promise? See my FUBU comment from 18 months ago.

othertonales said...

Not wishing to spoil the spirit of true romanticism developing here, but perhaps I can change back to the original theme for just a moment... ;)

Maybe you're right Dave, and we will never actually define craft beer, but you've probably come closest of anyone yet to capturing the essence of what it means to me. The sense of real people behind the beer, the inspiration that comes through that beer from the brewer to the drinker, and the influence of the brewer ahead of the accountant, all ring true.

Whenever the term craft is applied I do think it is important to be able to offer some sort of calibration as to how that term is being used - with so many different understandings across different people it would be easy to be talking at cross purposes. This came home to me only this week - in considering the creation of a craft beer festival for Birmingham I felt it important we try and agree amongst the organisers what we mean by craft beer, to be able to explain that to our target audience, and to set the expectations of our potential customers accordingly. Your themes of people and influence hit the spot, at least for me, perfectly.

Obviously, no brewery business is going to survive for any length of time if it doesn't pay some attention to the bottom line overall, not withstanding the less tangible benefits of potential loss-makers (on paper, anyway) such as the English Experiment, but that doesn't mean that the influence of the accountant, or shareholders (whether that is the sole owner of the business or the "city") need to eclipse the passion and inspiration of the brewer. Being profitable, and maximising profit before all else, are not the same.

Maybe I ought to caveat these comments by pointing out that I have received a free bottle of beer from Dave recently, but do not believe this has in any way affected my integrity or influenced my opinions on this matter!

StringersBeer said...

Some people are prepared to choose, & pay for, the "bull" and the romanticism and other intangibles - like some kind of perceived relationship with an actual brewer - over a cheaper product from a faceless corporation. They're not irrational, they're buying something that's not necessarily inside the bottle. Cookie maybe doesn't want to buy that - but that's not because he's stupid, or not discerning. Maybe he just plain doesn't want it.

P.S. we'd be screwed without our accountant.

Dave Bailey said...

Zak, the world is divisive. If it were not you would not be able to compete against supermarkets who are selling beer at a much lower price that you are.

That doesn't mean I don't understand or agree with your concerns, which is why I take time to explain that everyone is different. If you like, the beer world, like any other interest, is subdivided by overlapping subsets.

Nothing wrong with that and indeed to some extent I'm trying to give a nod towards embracing that very fact.

Phil said...

Bloody hell, Zak - eighteen months? Now I feel old.

FUBU is about the size of it - or "For Us (And Our Fans), By Us". Or as I said in that post,

“Craft beer”, at least in the UK, seems to mean nothing much more than “a beer made by a member of the club of people who like using the term ‘craft beer’”.

To test this theory: "Tesco's selling four-packs of Punk IPA in cans now. Nice, but not exactly a craft beer, is it?"

On reflection, I think craft beer is the wrong focus - what matters for people who use the word is the idea of craft brewers. They're great, they are.

Cooking Lager said...

I get what Jon says and in a world of cashpoints, self service supermarket tills, on line banks we do so much that previous generations did with human contact.

It is nicer to speak to a butcher when you buy pork chops and have some notion that the pig was well cared for, lived a happy life and was called "Peppa", and those with either the time or money might choose to do that rather than self scan a packet of sausages at Tesco.

Beer and pubs are a social thing and an intangible notion that fits your world view would be as appealing as the tangible product qualities. It's nice to relax with comforting notions of craftsmen and artists. Nicer than big industrial smoke belching factories.

Zaks comment sort of resonates too. I suspect clubs like CAMRA rely as much on the social nature of being part of something. People would buy into it on a promise of being in some sort of notional group or club. Same with craft beer, by necking it I join something.

If it sells product, what's the harm?

I don't see much of a difference to the lifestyle led marketing of Carling lager, though, that tell me if I neck it I'll have mates.

I guess the choice is whether I want mates that have beards or not.

StringersBeer said...

Cookie, you also get to choose between the old-school real-ale beard and the more modern arrangements of facial hair associated with the "craft" movement.

Phil's right, of course. Craft beer is beer made by craft brewers, and we are great, we are.

Dave Bailey said...

Oh bravo Cookie, I think that sums it up very well. Of course none of this is any different to the lifestyle adverts that are used to advertise so many different commodities.

Why do people often say "I don't like bitter" when asked if hey would like to try a cask beer? I have proved on occasions that the very same person, when given the very same beer chilled and fizzed, loves it. Well providing it's actually more like a light mild, rather than a bitter that is.

I doubt there is a genetic influence that results in a particular person liking or not liking a particular beer. It has to be influence from culture, advertising, peer pressure (Is this different to culture?)

Of course this is the infamous brainwashing by big nasty chemical fizz makers that is mentioned by some activists in a certain organisation. But then, this organisation arguably also brain washes in equal counter proportions.

That's life. That's humanity. It's been happening ever since our ancestors learnt, or evolved, the power of language.

Dave Bailey said...

Stringers, I think it's beards, tattoos and facial piercing that define craft beer people.

That's us out then.

Cooking Lager said...

Certain tastes are learned, Dave, but some are inherited traits. Phenols I think is one. Bitter markers for sure come down to genetics

http://dmd.aspetjournals.org/content/29/4/535.full

As for letting myself get brainwashed into craft beer, only if the club has something as cool as the furry gnasher badge of the Dennis the Menace club. One of them, and I'm in.

Zak Avery said...

Cookie - I'm sure there is someone locally who will show you their furry gnasher for a price

OllyC said...

I had a sample of Green King's 5X at the East Anglian beer festival recently. That ticks all the 'craft' boxes, but does it make Greene King a craft brewer?

I'm still not comfortable with the 'craft' definition. And it now seems that a number of breweries/pubs are using it purely to sound cool because it somehow associates them with BrewDog and the like.

And for the record, I pretty much only drink beers from microbreweries. Hey, there's a term we don't see much of anymore - how about using that instead? Far less ambiguous than 'craft'.

Dave Bailey said...

Zak,

I'm sure Cookie could get more than a look at a furry gnasher for the price of petrol station flowers.

Olly, exactly, where to draw the line? Green King I'm sure make at least some beers that are progressive enough to be called craft. For the reason, it is perhaps not too much of a leap of faith to call them craft brewers.

But, microbrewery definition suffers the same problem. When is a brewer too big to no longer be a microbrewer? I've even been accused of being too big to be a microbrewer, simply because I'm about three times the size of some of the smallest around here.....

StringersBeer said...

I've said it before, and I'll (with apologies to Dave) say it again here, "craft" is meaningless if you're looking for it in the beer.
Craft is what the brewer does (and how and why they do it). An aside: of course this can be done with the aid of automation - I don't believe that anyone with any sense says it can't.

And Dave, yes, Hardknott's a microbrewery. No question.

OllyC said...

Dave, that's a good point about size. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the term 'craft brewery' has its origins in the US, where they have a set definition of what constitutes a craft brewery based on size. Who came up with this rule? The US equivalent of SIBA?

Perhaps we could do something similar over here with the term 'microbrewery', or 'craft brewery' over here. I prefer microbrewry myself - don't want to copy the Americans too much :)

StringersBeer - if craft is what the brewer does, then surely almost all breweries are craft by definition? Just because a big corporate brewery is pumping out millions of gallons per year, doesn't necessarily mean that the brewer isn't passionate about what he does and ticks all the craft boxes.

Oh, I'm going up to the lakes a week on Monday, so I hope to be able to locate your beer in lots of pubs!

Cooking Lager said...

From all of this talk about what is "craft" I can't help but turn back to the issue of accountants.

I've drank Dave's grog a few times. I liked it. I enjoyed the bottle he sent me and I've seen it in beer geek pubs and bought it. Who wouldn't? The beer of the guy from that blog I read. I necked a few and enjoyed it.

But as far as I can see this outfit has been going over a year. I've seen the bottles on the internet retail at prices that indicate a lot of added value is in the grog. If your not making a profit by now, isn't it time to hire a cost accountant? Not a full time employee but the services of someone that offers business consultancy?

Isn't it time to look at process and understand where the costs are? I'm not advocating cheaper ingredients or dumbed down grog but an understanding of where the costs are falling? You might be surprised to discover where money is leaking from your outfit and might be the difference between making a quid and not.

StringersBeer said...

OllyC, the Brewers Association (which is I suppose a similar kind of thing to SIBA, but bigger) have a widely referenced definition of a "Craft Brewer".

As to what brewers do - there's also why and how they do it. See http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/what-is-craft/ for some interesting (non-beery) perspectives on "craft".

There's a whole bunch of ways do divide the industry up by size. SIBA has bands:
1: Up to 999hl pa [0 - 11 brls/wk approx]
2: 1,000 to 4,999hl pa [12 - 59 brls/wk approx]
3: 5,000 to 29,999hl pa [60 - 351brls/wk approx]
4: 30,000 to 59,999hl pa [352 - 703 brls/wk approx]
5: 60,000 to 200,000hl pa [704 - 2345brls/wk approx]

What would you call micro? Bands 1 to what? or everything the HMRC calls small brewery? (bands 1-4)
That's what Dave went with way back when

StringersBeer said...

Oops, no he didn't. Sorry Dave. Got that wrong. But that was an interesting piece as well.

Dave Bailey said...

Cookie, apologies for not responding sooner, although there is a part of me tempted to treat the comments you make with a little bit of contempt. After all, I am a business man first and foremost. It is of course one of my chief concerns as to where my costs go.

I have, in fact, been working hard over the last couple of months, along with a consultant and our accountant, on a very exciting project. I learnt last Wednesday that the project has got the necessary funding and our business plan and accounts have, in order to make it work, been scrutinised by many people who supposedly know more than me.

I could go on, but suffice to say that a small flippant comment about how we focus on brewing to an ethos, to a desired beer specification, rather than a finical specification, has been blown out of proportion.


Fullers have a brewer on their board of directors. Many bigger breweries do not. Of course, Fullers have accounts on the board too, and if Hardknott were their size I dare say we would too. But so long as I'm in charge our ethos will be driven by the idea that beer is more than just another beverage commodity whose sole purpose is to achieve dividends for shareholders.

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