Sunday 3 November 2013

Craft Beer is Dead, long live Hardknott

It’s been a long journey for me. From the young man who cared little about beer, even though I rebelled against my peers who drank big brand lager. Through to being a confirmed beer geek who really believes he understands the spectrum of beer.

From a discerning food and drink loving professional who gave up a lucrative career, perhaps on an early mid-life crisis whim, to buy a pub, then set up a micro-brewery. Eventually selling the pub to put everything into what I believed in.

It really has been a long journey, and I've been through many phases and viewpoints along the way. Indeed, I doubt very much I've reached the end of the journey. Moreover, as I think about it, I enjoy the journey I'm on, so I hope really it only ends the day the lid is nailed on my coffin.

A reason for us selling our pub in 2010 was to concentrate more on the type of beer I wanted to make. Beer that was different, beer I believed in, beer to divide opinion and make the world sit up and take notice. Not just micro-brewed beer, made in a shed, by nice people, sold to local pubs with the main differentiation being "it's not fizzy chemical lager" - I did not want to depend on being a little cuddly local brewery that deserved to be liked, just because...

I believed in craft beer.

OK, the term craft beer is controversial. Yes, it has no clear definition. Some hang on to the dictionary definition of craft, failing to realise every single word in the dictionary can have topical or fashionable context that changes it's meaning1

It could be said it is a marketing term. I have no problem admitting it is, but to suggest it is nothing more than a marketing term is unfair to the beer drinkers who understand what is meant by it. Many have called for it's definition to be made clear. I've always said it is dangerous to define it, mainly because it is not a switch, it is not a hard and fast line in the sand.

"The term Craft Beer does mean something. Even if exactly what that is remains debated, it does still mean something, and the number of people to whom it means something is increasing." - I was pleased to see this quote by me in a presentation by Rob Plant of CGA Strategy. In my view they are the only proper industry organisation that actually acknowledge the term means something special to craft beer drinkers.

I now feel betrayed, not by CGA Strategy, they are my friends, but by most of the rest of the beer industry. Even by a certain brewery who have had a significant influence on this special part of the beer world. Even by my own trade organisation, who is trying to suggest every full brewing member is a craft brewer.

I certainly feel defining craft brewing mainly by size of the brewery is in the UK a pointless and meaningless action. Lumping in "Blue F****ng Moon" might be a mistake by some, and used as a useful diversionary tactic by others, but it is not an excuse to use size as a blunt instrument in the definition. We will eventually find those who have the power will redefine the size boundary anyway.

It was inevitable I guess. Eventually there would be enough people wanting to jump on the bandwagon and dilute the meaning. I think the time has about come. Craft beer, as a term, is getting to the dangerous point where it will cease to mean what I believe it to mean.

Hardknott is much more than just a small brewery, much more than just a member of SIBA. We stand for much more than simply a brewer who doesn't use rice or corn to lessen costs. We are all about a lot more than simply brewing beer at its original gravity.

None of these things are what defines beer that is truly different, ground breaking, progressive, innovative, contemporary and individual.

Hardknott is inspired by the concept of being really very different, modern, exploratory, cutting edge and exciting. We might not have always stepped up to the plate, and feel we might have diverted from these goals along the way from time to time, but now we are feeling like we simply have to tackle the latest rounds of dumbing down beer and make our own individual way of it.

So, for me, the term craft beer is dead as far as Hardknott is concerned, and so we shall look for something else to define ourselves by.

Craft beer is dead, but long live Hardknott.


1"Wicked", for instance, did for a while mean "absolutely bloody brilliant" - quite the opposite of something evil.


Carsmilesteve said...

Punk's not dead ;)

Cumbrian Drinker said...

For reference, my understanding of Craft Beer is best summarised as 'good beer that is not real ale'. Though, obviously, I accept to a greater or lesser extent all of the defenitions above. Great piece - as usual. It's a pity that the National Executive of CAMRA aren't familiar with how language functions (never read Wittgenstein, I'd imagine!) Finally, can members of public buy beer at the brewery or does it need to be online?

David Hughes said...

CAMRA the organisation that lives in the past

John Clarke said...

An interesting thought from "Cumbrian Drinker" but unfortunately that "definition" falls apart at the first test, I think, Taken literally it would mean that none of the cask beers at IMBC were "craft". Really? And take, say. Marble Farmhouse IPA. On both cask and keg at their Northern Quarter Beer House last week - so the keg version was craft and the cask wasn't? And what about Wild Beer Co (about as "craft" as you can get I'd suggest) - their keg beer is craft but their cask isn't? Etc, etc, etc. Cumbrian Drinker's definition may work for him/her but it's essentially a personal one which nicely brings me to a quote (of a third party) from the Beervana blog:

"The definition is subjective (and has to be) as the whole concept of craft is in the mind of the consumer, and it is impossible to come up with a rigid definition that makes sense"

Which kind of nails it really. Now that Dave here has signed off there are welcome indications that this pointless and interminable debate might be fizzling out - and we can all get back to just enjoying the beer.

Cooking Lager said...

Ya wanna make "artisinal" beer, pal.

It's where all the kids are at. Top dollar paid for it. You can churn it out just as easily as craft.

Craft is sooo like yesterday, yeh?

Unknown said...

I think "Punk" is trademarked for the beer category.

Cumbrian Drinker, you would be most welcome to pop into the brewery and buy beer. We are licensed for "Off sales" - sorry, but it's cash only as we have no credit card machine. And please phone first to check we are here and not upside down digging out the mash tun or scrubbing the copper.

As for "Real Ale" well, I don't care for the term. But cask beer, yes, as John points out, can very much be craft and the examples John gives makes the point very well indeed.

John, thanks for that quote, I very much agree with it. In fact, as you say, nails it.

As for signing off, well, I might just change my mind and go back to using it as a marketing term, but only if SIBA do leave it alone, which is looking increasingly unlikely.

Still, good beer, mmmmm. I like good beer.

(For many reasons, that I will not go into here, I'm not going to have a go at CAMRA on this one)

StringersBeer said...

Yep, I always look forward to the end of an "interminable" debate.

John Clarke said...

Smart arse!

StringersBeer said...

Oooh, snappy comeback. Hardly worth solving the CAPTCHA.

John Clarke said...

Well if you will make smart arse comments what do you expect? Some Wildean epigram perhaps?

StringersBeer said...

See, John, that's just the same thing but longer. And with a couple of hard words tagged on. You should leave it.

John Clarke said...

You started it.

Tandleman said...

Hmm. Keg fonts at dawn!

Cumbrian Drinker said...

Obviously I disagree with much of your post - but most of all with your quote from a third-party! The whole concept of Craft ISN'T in the mind of the consumer if the PRODUCER has used the term for his / her beer (which they have a perfect right to do). I thought it a tired point but obviously in the US the term Craft Beer has a real and measurable meaning. The question to ask is: why has it been applied so nebulously and ubiquitously here in the UK? It is a metaphor for SOMETHING as much as a promise of quality.

John Clarke said...

Well, possibly. It is a concept that can exist in the mind of any given producer or consumer. Doesn't make it any less nebulous.

And I think the one thing parties to this debate are agreed on is that the US definition has little or no relevance in a UK context.

But at the end of the day, who cares? If you are happy with your own personal definition and it works for you then fine (but as I think I demonstrate I don't think it stands up). I'm just going to enjoy good beer regardless of whether it's "craft" or not because at the end of the day that's what's important don't you think?

Benjamin Nunn said...

This just smacks a little of 'People won't instadopt my definition of craft, so I'm chucking my toys out the pram' really.

Dave, most of your beers are pretty good. Some aren't to my taste (Vitesse Noir on keg in particular!) but they're generally sound. Why this compeiling need for a recognised format/genre to fit into?

Unknown said...


Why a recognised genre? Why does music need it? Why do restaurants identify as a certain type of cuisine? Why is literature arranged by genre in book stores?

Because people want to be able to understand what they are buying before they buy it.

Yes I've never disagreed with people when they say it's a marketing term, because at least in part they are right.

Using some sort of descriptor to align one's product within a large market is not wrong, or evil, or daft, it's just a way of saying roughly what we're about.

The latest talk of how craft beer should be defined makes it meaningless in my view.

But it's OK, I'm not throwing my toys out of the pram. What would you have me do, dis the people who are trying to water down the meaning of the term? Instead I'm simply saying that I need to find a new way of defining what we do.

John Clarke said...

"Beers of Distinction" might be adecent tag line.

StringersBeer said...

Hey Dave, now that they've betrayed you, will you be selling your "shares" in a "certain brewery"? Oh no, you can't.

Tim said...

Craft beer doesn't mean anything.Jim Koch and Boston Brewing make over a million barrels a year, the beer is excellent but its not micro and its not swill. Is it still craft? As a consumer, I don't care. Surely every brewery aspires to be brewing the beer they want to drink on a macro scale.


ps. There is nothing wrong with Blue Moon other than the brand being owned and produced by a large brewery.

Cumbrian Drinker said...

Well, you can see what I think of the term Craft Beer above. But surely Tim, though I don't doubt what you say about Boston Brewing, you have to admit that there is at least the RISK that a large producer will take it's eye off the relentless pursuit of quality? Which gives me an idea....

Dave, are you familiar with the works of Nassim Taleb? If not, I'm sure yyou'd find them stimulating (Black Swan is best). You could produce a porter, not a Robust Porter but an Antifragile one? You'd have to ask his permission though as he's American and would sue your ass off...