Sunday 13 February 2011

What is craft beer?

I don't know. I know even less now I've read some of the posts surrounding this issue. I think it is very difficult to define what it is exactly.

A week gone Friday there was The Session hosted by Reluctant Scooper which asks about the various methods of beer dispense. I'm sorry that I've not had time to even read most of what has been written on the subject, let alone write something about it.

There has been further critiques of CAMRA recently. SWBrewery published a letter that stirred the blogosphere a little. Pete Brown also pointed out that one of the founder members of CAMRA regrets recruiting certain people to the organisation. Nicely balanced by Cooking Lager who points out in the comments that CAMRA are entitled to campaign for whatever they like1.

I am very happy to put a little bit of money into an organisation that champions cask beer. What I am not happy to do is carry on thinking that cask beer is simply the best way to serve every beer in every situation. It may well be the best for many beers. It may well be best for many pubs. It is certainly the case that there are a significant minority of the population who drink it routinely. I'm very happy for CAMRA to continue to defend this. Although we should remember that it is a form of snobbery all of its own.

I'm getting somewhat frustrated by the conviction that beer cannot and should not be snobby or elitist. That very facet of the beer world is starting to make me feel that there really is a political agenda still simmering away under the surface.

Being snobby and elitist does not mean you wish to eradicate what you feel is beneath you. Indeed, in my case I'd argue it simply means I appreciate a broad spectrum of many good things. I'm snobby about food for instance. I have enjoyed, as special treats, many good restaurant meals. I have also plumped on occasions for the consistency, convenience and all-round calorific good value of McDonalds4.

Why is there a fear of a beer world which is striving for something more exciting than the array of indistinguishable session ales that now adorn many pub bars? Many of them which might as well, if we were honest, have been brewed on some big industrial plant anyway.

I like many types of beer. I like cask beer a lot. I drink and brew a lot of cask beer. The remainder of the beer I brew, for the time being, gets bottle conditioned. I have only ever had a small amount of my beer chill filtered and re-carbonated. I'm not convinced the results were as good as my own bottle conditioned beer. But watch this space, "never say never" is what I'd say, chill filtering can be done right.

I do drink a little bit of beer that is not "CAMRA calls this beer Real Ale". Because I try to choose wisely I enjoy pretty much all of it. I've even tried cask up against keg and for some beers there is no doubt that keg beats cask. The other day, when the local pub had been let down by their normal supplier2 of cask beer I was forced to drink Guinness and enjoyed it quite a lot.

We all know cask beer. We understand it can be great. We also understand that it needs care and attention and not all circumstances are best for it. We also know that there are some pretty dull cask beers out there. Some are so dull that to be honest I'd rather have a Guinness, or perhaps a Carling.

So, this thing about Craft Beer? Well, whatever you want to say, there is a void, a vacuum, an esoteria that is trying to find some substance. To me it is irrelevant if it is burgeoning or not. This proudly snobbish, geeky and elitist void is currently fighting to form solid mass. This visionary cloud exists both here in the virtual world and in an increasing number of beer bars and progressive breweries.

Is Craft Beer the right term to help us fill the void? I think it could be. Although there are some very, very good arguments why we should approach the concept with some trepidation. Specifically, it would seem that in USA, craft beer is defined as made in a brewery that produces less than 6 million barrels of beer a year. Very few UK breweries produce more than this I'd hazard. Molson Coors? AB-InBev? Diagio? anymore? Besides, for what it's worth, I believe Molson Coors do brew some craft beer in the shape of White Shield and P2 as well as others.

I could go on and disassemble concepts such as "Traditional methods"3 "adjuncts to add rather than detract from flavour"5 etc.

The point is that there is an increasing cry for something, especially as we've just had the first SIBA Craft Keg festival. This cry sometimes blames CAMRA for standing in the way. I think there is some validity to that as I hear all to often that keg can't be as good or that we're being too elitist. So, let CAMRA get on with its good work at defending cask, why not? It's a good cause. Perhaps, in return, CAMRA activists could stop criticising, people using American hops or elitism that is trying to bring a refreshing new look to the beer world or even people asking a price that might make their brewery or pub a sustainable venture.

For me there has probably never been a better time to be involved in the British beer scene. We have a great array of fantastic beers out there. Some micro-brewed cask, some imported bottles, some craft keg, even stuff in cans that to be honest I'm dubious about, but we'll wait and see. Then there is the macro-brewed keg. We have to realise that this is what keeps many pubs trading. Yes, we'd all like every pub to have cask beer on the bar, that in itself is an elitist utopia. But it's not going to happen anymore than craft keg will usurp cask anytime soon.

Diversity is good and I'm happy to try and embrace it all.

Here in Cumbria a few merry folk are banding together to try and help fill the void in our part of the world. We've got no specialist beer bars in Cumbria you see. Craft Beer may not mean much to some folk, but to others it is a void that simply has to be filled.

Watch this space, there is more to come one this.


1"we" I should say. I'm a CAMRA member. Contrary to rumours, I have absolutely no intention of giving up my membership either.

2Their normal supplier is, of course, us. They can only take pins at the moment and we'd run out. Besides, they have a good flow of Guinness, best pint of the stuff I'd had for sometime as it happens.

3Where does a mash tun become a mash filter? Is it still craft if hop pellets are used? How far is it acceptable to process the hops?

4Yes, it's true. I've even been known to put ketchup on the chips although I'm more likely to if forced to the even lower depravity of Burger King, whose food is truly dreadful.

5I know of one very small microbrewery that uses sugar to increase fermentables. The only good reason I can see is that it is cheaper than malt. I'd probably be tempted to include them in the Craft Beer subset, although their beer isn't brilliant.


Ed said...

Not sure what you mean by footnote 3. Mash tuns and mash filters are entirely different bits of kit.

Policing brewing methods and ingredients must be pretty much impossible anyway because there's no easy way to find out. Despite its limitations it's normally pretty obvious if a beer is 'real ale' or not.

Tandleman said...

"Being snobby and elitist does not mean you wish to eradicate what you feel is beneath you."

I'd urge everyone to think carefully about that statement. I will.

StringersBeer said...

I can think of all sorts of reasons to use "sugar". But you'd probably have to ask people who know something about it, like Achel, Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westmalle or Westvleteren to name half a dozen. They're out then. And all those great British brewers who, I'm told, shovel in the maize and maize syrups, as well as the old "brewers invert". Shame.

Ron Pattinson reckons that sugar is vital to the story of British brewing, he discusses it here and here, if you're interested.

Unknown said...

Ed, of course there are a number of different mash extract systems that all use different equipment. Mash Tun, Lauter Tun or Mash Filter. My point is, from the end result's point of view, the equipment and method isn't really what defines craft beer. Although craft beer isn't generally made using a mash filter I suspect very good results could be achieved if it were.

Beer brewed using mash filters tends to be for mass appeal. Perhaps there we have a true indication of what we mean by craft; something that is not intended to have mass appeal. Bespoke, unique, niche, specialist, limited appeal. The majority of cask ale fits this to a greater or lesser extent.

Yes, cask beer is easy to define and identify on the bar. But that does not mean that other beer cannot be bespoke, unique, niche, specialist and have limited appeal.

Tandleman, I'm sure you will.

Stringers, Indeed. There are very good reasons for using sugar especially in stronger beers as a way of getting original gravities that are hard to achieve using all grain. Sugars also affect the flavour, which can be a good thing if done for that reason.

The example I give doesn't seem to be for the purpose of improving the beer.

Cooking Lager said...

Liking what you like isn't necessarily snobbery. It only becomes snobbery if you look down on and sneer at what you don’t like. Do you do that? I’m not sure you do, or if you did you appear no longer to since meeting those nice people at Coors. I’m sure I’ve read tweets of you drinking lout in a curry house? The fun in snobbery isn’t just that Hyacinth Bucket likes to put on a candle light supper along with other pretentions; it comes from the appearance of her more down to earth relatives that prick her bubble of conceit. The candlelit supper sounds like a nice evening, the snobbery is not the supper but her conceit regarding what it says about her and the fact it all goes wrong ensuring her conceit is justifiably rewarded. You won’t find me disputing that many cask or craft beers are nice drinks, whether they are worth the extra money is a matter of personal preference. The amusement comes from those that think it says something about themselves when of course all it says is that you like a pint and prefer a range of flavours that the wider market does not appreciate.

Neville Grundy said...

Cooking Lager's first two sentences are spot on. I've just checked two dictionaries, and it's quite clear that being snobby and elitist does involve denigrating and looking down on what you feel is beneath you.

The word you're looking for may be 'discerning'.

Tandleman said...

But if you feel they are beneath you, that changes things does it not?

I think this all reminds me of the famous Ronnie Barker/ Corbett / John Cleese sketch.

I am a craft beer drinker so I look down on him as he drinks real ale.

I am a real ale drinker so I look down on him as he drinks lout.

I know my place.

Neville Grundy said...

"But if you feel they are beneath you, that changes things does it not?" True, so don't disparage others drinkers' choices!

I like the sketch idea.

Unknown said...

Cookie and Nev. Yes, thank you, I believe discerning is the word I am looking for.

I believe that cask beer drinkers are discerning.

Sadly, I'm not recognising the sketch Tandleman refers to. However, to suggest cask beer drinkers are somehow less discerning would be incorrect. Less open-minded if they are not prepared to embrace all types of craft beer, perhaps.

And this is an important point; Cask beer is a subset, in my view, of a larger craft beer arena. The view that cask, at it's best, is superior to keg is a valid view point. This I understand even if I don't wholeheartedly agree. The view that in certain cases keg has it's place is also valid.

I now think the term craft beer encompass all types of beer that are brewed with the discerning drinker in mind irrespective of the dispense format.

So, returning to Cookies point: Yes, I have enjoyed "lout" in an Indian restaurant. I'm even getting to the point of not feeling guilty about it too.

StringersBeer said...

The sketch referred to is an all-time classic, from the Frost Report: "An Understanding of Class"

Cooking Lager said...

The joke is that the class system is ridiculous. If it wasn’t the sketch wouldn’t be funny. The same is with Hyacinth Bucket, her candlelight suppers and exclusive guest list are shorthand for her snobbery. Snobbery is defacto ridiculous. It could be a nice evening if it was a get together with friends, but it is clearly an attempt at social climbing. At that point you have a well observed gentle joke. The viewer waits and the payoff is her fall, her plans turning to crap at the appearance of her relatives. Dad’s Army may be a better example. Mainwaring is insecure in his authority due to his humble origins and seeks the trappings of authority as he believes they afford him class. He is an identifiable snob. Wilson is secure in his higher social class but appears happy in a middle class job and lower class lover, associates, possible son or step/surrogate son and friends, mixing easily with higher social class figures of authority that appear. This security highlights Mainwarings lack of security and we love it when Mainwarings plans turn to farce and he comes a cropper. Aspects of social class & snobbery remain even in our so called classless society. The best character in this here beer world is arguably Dickie English on the CAMRA forums. His snobbery is so perfect as to make you wonder whether he is real. Whether you share his tastes in beer or not you cannot but laugh at him stuck on a train with only “chemical fizz” to drink. If it were not for the snobbery you might sympathise with his plight, instead you find yourself enjoying his displeasure.

Curmudgeon said...

"Cask beer is a subset, in my view, of a larger craft beer arena."

But surely most cask beer - indeed by volume the vast majority - is outside the scope of what is normally considered "craft beer".

"Craft" by definition (and I'm not meaning to be pejorative here) is surely somewhat select and non-mainstream, whereas cask is ideally suited to being a mainstream, high-volume product.

You can still find pubs (although far fewer than thirty years ago) where cask beer is poured in large quantities down the necks of ordinary folks who have never heard of BrewDog or Thornbridge.

Unknown said...


Of course this imaginary class system is daft. What really baffles me is that many people want to maintain it and have some sort of non-existent upper-middle class to berate.


Can't fault what you say.

But still, the thing I'm trying to say is that the craft beer enthusiast considers that some cask, however small the proportion of the overall, is included in the craft beer set.

And overall, the craft beer enthusiast is not against cask. Indeed, often very much for it.