Friday 23 August 2013

Is Blue Moon craft?

"What lager do you have?" said the stranger in town, who was obviously having difficulty with the array of handpulls on the bar. I know I shouldn't really butt into the job when there are perfectly good bar staff there to help, but I'd prefer he chose a "craft" lager, rather than some macro-brewed tasteless beer made by some huge multi-national corporation who use sexist TV adverts in prime time screening.

"There is Hawkshead Lager" I ventured. Well, Hardknott don't really do a lager, and even our closest options of Lux Borealis or Duality had given way to Azimuth on the bar on this occasion, which I had already been tucking into, and was probably helping the fluidity of my verbal communications at the expense of  tact.

"It's not a cloudy wheat beer is it?" I can't help myself in these situations "do you drink with your eyes?" I asked without thinking, and with far more sarcasm than the poor gentleman deserved.

I did proceed to explain that it was a very good lager and that it was indeed quite bright and on good form.

I am quite sure that any hazy beer to this gent would have been classed as one of those trendy types of Craft Beer. Assuming of course that he had heard of the concept of craft beer. I'm sure to him craft are the slightly wonky hand thrown vases seen at car boot sales punted by people who have a notion that they might one day make a living at their own passion. Or perhaps to him the artisanal rag woven bed-spreads that no-one really likes to buy, but have been painstakingly made, by hand, for some very worthy local charity.

He very probably prefers the security of consistency gained from mass produced branded products and hazy beer is just a sign of poorly made beer, he is sure of that. He is absolutely certain that anything at all that comes from a handpull is in the same hand-crafted zone.

This story, which is loosely based on a true event that happened recently, was brought to my mind after the various discussions surrounding a recent definition of Craft Beer. A significant point of contention is the refusal to exclude Blue Moon from the category despite being made and marketed by a major multinational. I'll admit, I'm split on the issue myself.

On the one hand it could very easily be seen as a cynical attempt to try and reverse the falling sales of the nasty chemical beer producers. Having seen micro-brewed beer and Craft Beer erode volume they see the need to make something that might appeal. In itself it is reported to be a highly processed beer transported at high gravity and diluted and treated for consistency with tetra hop and goodness knows what else.

But, equally, it is different. Both flavour and presentation is very different to the standard, pale, highly filtered, clean flavoured, and quite frankly boring lagers that are sold by the same large producer. The banana and clove flavours, the hazy presentation, the theatre of serve created by the addition of a slice of citrus fruit all add to a beer experience that is designed to appeal to a more adventurous drinker. Our man in the story is put off by all this.

Of course I don't want Blue Moon included in the Craft Beer category. None-the-less, many people do not trust small brands, very often this manifests itself at a very simple level of distrust of anything that is from a handpull and much more trust put in things from keg fonts. "I don't like bitters" a simple and common reaction to being offered cask beer. In some respects this can be partly due to the inevitable variability of artisanal producers. This is to some extent where the unfortunate but arguably unavoidable additions large brewers use to gain that consistency could be beneficial. Yes, it goes against the concept of craft, but gaining trust of the wider consumer base is where Craft Beer can fail.

From that point of view a beer like Blue Moon, if we can bring ourselves to welcome it, and I admit the difficulty in doing so, may help consumers who thus far only trust lager to venture a little into the Craft Beer world. Is this a bad thing?

If we can accept the above then we simply have to assess the beer for it's attributes. We must consider a beer drinker who does not have some sort of pre-conceived political motive that sways their judgement simply based on the nature of the business that is responsible for the product.

Going back to the basics of our reference definition, we ask.

Does the beer differ significantly from the styles available to mainstream consumers in the last 10 years? - YES

Is the brewer generally attempting to challenge/create something interesting/resurrect a style? - ABSOLUTELY

If a brand is British/American is the branding modern, is it inclusive? - Oh, VERY MUCH SO. No macho branding, but equally not patronising to any sex or gender.

Has the brand been historically widely available in GB? - NO, and here I assume that a no is a positive answer,

If we simplify this we end up asking if the beer in question is bringing something new and positive to the beer scene. Something that might change perceptions and broaden appreciation of beer.

I believe Blue Moon does do this whilst it is still new and fresh to the broader consumer. Of course, like many things that are new, it will one day be old. It might gain big market saturation. But then, many brands that we now might consider craft will in turn suffer this once they gain widespread acceptance.

This last point is important. The criteria create a sector which by definition must remain dynamic. Reinvention and a need to innovate and react is essential. A point that is not made explicit, but is inextricably implicit.

Even so, I still think you can still say "Blue f*****g Moon is NOT Craft Beer" if it makes you feel happy. Indeed, you'll make me feel happy if you do.

Next up, why I think the term Craft Beer is important.


Benjamin Nunn said...

Hmm, can see a nonsensical situation emerging whereby beer A could conceivably be 'craft', and beer B which tastes almost identical would not be categorised as such.

If Blue Moon is craft, then does that mean Holsten Weiss, which is rather similar is also craft? And if Holsten Weiss is craft, does that mean that Holsten's other beers are craft?

I just can't see the logic ever being watertight enough for a satisfactory definition.

Predictably, the most contentious part of the latest definition is:

"Draught Dispense Type

We did not differentiate by Cask or Keg."

That's all fine and dandy with me, but other definitions of 'craft beer' that implicitly (and sometimes even explicitly) *exclude* cask have already gained substantial traction and already mean something to consumers.

It's all very noble to try and come up with a definitive definition, but much harder to redefine something nuanced that has already acquired a set of connotations.

Cooking Lager said...

Oh dear, you've started to bother normal people that just want a drink and not be bothered by beer geeks.

Step away, reconsider your life, make better choices, move on.

StringersBeer said...

Er, Hoegaarden? That was quite big wasn't it?

Sat In A Pub said...

If you have to ask, then it's not craft.

Unknown said...

Ben, I totally disagree with the notion that it can only be craft if it is in a keg. Cask, keg, bottle, can or out of a plastic re-used pop bottle, makes no difference to me.

Cookie, if you are suggesting that my conversation with the nice man regarding his choice of drink was ill judged, then I agree, very much so. But that's what drinking a 5.8% beer as if it were a session strength beer does you see.

As for the other brands mentioned by everyone, I'm not even going to start to try and answer. But I take you points. When we talk about big brands made by big companies pretending to be craft we certainly have to be careful.

However, the specific question about if a brewery makes one beer that can be considered craft, are all the rest of their beers craft too? No, absolutely not.

Benjamin Nunn said...

I disagree also that it should exclude cask.

The problem is that the early adoption of the term has sometimes had an implicit overtone of 'this is not cask/this is different from cask' - in some quarters 'craft beer' has become almost completely synonymous with 'craft keg'.

One particular Scottish brewer has a lot to answer for in this regard.

On the wider issue, while marketing suits want the term for product categorisation, they almost always also want it to act as a badge of quality, and hence an opportunity to charge a higher price.

This will always fall over in real life.

Being 'Craft' doesn't guarantee that a beer will taste nice any more than 'real ale' or 'reinheitsgebot' or 'cask marque' or 'organic' or any other labels of product differentiation.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I quite enjoy beer.

StringersBeer said...

Ahh, yr missing my point there, Dave. Does Blue Moon indeed "differ significantly from the styles available to mainstream consumers in the last 10 years? InBev have been offering a spicy belgian "wit" (kind of) for quite a while now. So not only is it not "innovative" among big brewers products, in point of fact, MillerCoors were rather late to the party. But their reps did give out bags of oranges. It's all bollocks really, isn't it?

StringersBeer said...
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StringersBeer said...
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Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I think Miller had a stake in Pierre Celis' brewery in Texas and it was called Celis White

StringersBeer said...

ATJ, I think yr right, then they bought it all and shut it down? Point is, all that really distinguishes BM from the other big brewer wits is the marketing effort and the cunning positioning it as "craft". And that works. See, it's worked on Dave.

unclepuble said...

Blue Moon is NOT Craft Beer, it is a wolf in sheeps clothing! "Craft" was defined many many years ago it means

"An activity involving skill in making things by hand."

The term is usually applied to people occupied in "small-scale" production of goods. The traditional terms craftsman and craftswoman are nowadays often replaced by artisan and rarely by craftsperson.

I don't see why people involved in beer need to redefine the Meaning of Craft by adding the word Beer after it, and then twisting further to make out that "Craft Beer" is something different than what it should mean.

"Craft Beer" should mean Hand made beer(by this I mean manual dexterity should be employed, with the minimal amount of automation, pumps etc should be allowed, & the decisions within the process should be made by a skilled brewer, based on touch, smell, visual inspection, manual readings etc at each stage of the process) it does not need to be any more complicated than that!

A craft baker makes bread etc by hand but uses mixers etc, therefore a Craft Brewer & Craft Bread should be no different!

Back to Blue Moon if you stick to the Meaning of "Craft" as above Blue Moon cannot sit within the craft category, as it is processed using masses of automation, where much of the skill is removed from the process by automation, & the people that make it rarely leave a control room!

Its a nice tasting beer, and definitely is a gateway beer to more artisan products on the market, but craft (in my opinion) it most certainly is not.

As stated I know a little bit about the process as I worked in two MCBC Brew houses for a number of years, it is no different than the process for making Carling & will be made on a similar scale plant in the USA, if they are not in fact brewing it here now. Therefore if Blue Moon is Craft so is Carling Grolsch, Stones Fosters etc etc etc!

unclepuble said...

I will add as I noticed I didn't include in my comment here

""Craft Beer" should mean Hand made beer(by this I mean manual dexterity should be employed, with the minimal amount of automation, pumps etc should be allowed, & the decisions within the process should be made by a skilled brewer, based on touch, smell, visual inspection, manual readings etc at each stage of the process) it does not need to be any more complicated than that!"

The "Craft Beer" tag should be restricted by size of brewery, and level of automation, to be agreed by some qualified body, as the most "skilled" brewers in large Breweries "DO NOT USUALLY BREW ANY BEER" they check process and parameters thats all.

To Craft you have to be "HANDS ON" which is probably a better term when it comes to defining "Craft Beer"



Mike said...


That's absolute nonsense. We decided to automate our new brewery when we built it in 1994. The reason consistenency of product from one Gyle to the next. The art of the brewer is in devising the recipes. Automation takes out human error that is all

unclepuble said...

Mike, I would argue that if you cannot make a fairly consistent, quality product, (within certain parameters, where natural products and yeast are concerned you are always going to get some variance) by feel, sight smell, touch and minimal readings etc, using the bare minimum of brewing helpers, pumps and temperature control (fermentation especially) then you are not a true craftsperson, automation replaces expertise.

& it has been proven time and time again with many breweries, who have lost a brewer to another brewery, where there beers have suffered as a result, true craft is locked with the person hand making the product!

unclepuble said...

"The art of the brewer is in devising the recipes"

That is Crap,there are a lot of breweries Craft & non craft, that market their award winning beers on quality art etc where the award winning beer has actually been devised by a brewing consultant!

Therefore I stand by my original statements.

however "Craft Beer" as a definition has been that damaged by the Blue Chip Marketeers, is it really worth fighting for?


unclepuble said...

I would also think that Craft does not always lend itself to consistency, take a schriber kitchen, they look nice are fairly good quality, they look the same within parameters, wherever they are installed but tend to be lifeless and bland, with no real soul.

compare one to a hand made oak kitchen made by a craftsperson, and they do not compare, the hand made kitchen may be out of speciification here and there,but a true craftsman will usually make a feature out of these imperfections giving the final product more soul as a result & effect/product satisfaction felt by the end user will usually be better, and the end user will be happier with the product, more likely to pay extra for it and more likely to show off the goods, to friends rather than if it was the duller mass produced kitchen.

Craft or artisan can be more suited to one offs, and bursts of genius, not just consistency, and a true craftsperson should be able to manage both outcomes. thats me done zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Neville Grundy said...

"Do you drink with your eyes?" The answer is that it is quite natural that we do. We have evolved the use of our senses of smell and sight as well as taste to determine whether something is suitable to eat or drink. It was a survival technique that we haven't shaken off.

Leaving Darwin behind, I regard the stranger's question about wheat beer quite reasonable, as it suggests he has tried it before and not liked it. In addition, most people would accept that it's quite reasonable for food to be well presented and look nice to be appetising; it's not illogical to apply the same thinking to beer.

Your 5th and 6th paragraphs are pure supposition, and I note you have written that the story was "loosely based on a true event". So in other words, it didn't quite happen as you reported it. What's the point in telling a story that you have, at least in part, made up? I've no idea which bits are true and which are fantasy. I remember challenging one of your previous anecdotes, and you admitted you had modified the facts because - you said - you were trying to be a better writer. I'm not sure how modifying the facts to suit your point helps you achieve that.

As for a definition of craft beer, it is quite impossible to create one that would be broadly accepted by most people in the way that the definition of real ale is. It's probably best to regard it as an imprecise term that indicates, rather than defines, what it is referring to.

Unknown said...

unclepuble, I am, and I'm sure you are not particularly surprised, in agreement with Mike. No brewer makes beer by hand. At least no commercial brewer, at any rate. You definition is only one on many that can be found. Here is another. "A craft is a pastime or a profession that requires some particular kind of skilled work."

I recently attended a seminar on automation within brewing. The company who were presenting very much would like to be able to produce a brewery that didn't need a skilled brewer. They have had to admit that it simply isn't possible.

Indeed, they went on to say that the more automation you apply the more the brewer has to know about brewing. The more skilful and adept at brewing he or she has to be.

Nev, I haven't really got any argument with you other than the fact that I feel quite happy with my motives for telling the story the way I have. It is probably a conglomeration of experiences I have had regarding the clarity of beer.

The crux of the matter is that within the small scale production category of beer, the UK is the most critical of any beer that has a haze of any sort. Go to America, or Belgium or even Italy haze is not viewed as a fault. Indeed, in some circles pin bright beer is viewed as obviously filtered and therefore inferior.

Gary Gillman said...

I've thought about this a lot and I agree now with you on this: it really is the type of beer, not who makes it or scale of production, that is the key difference. For example, wouldn't an 1800's Bass IPA be regarded as a craft beer? It used significant amounts of malt, tons of hops, was bottle-conditioned.

What this means though is there will always be a nether world where you can't be sure if it is craft. Some craft beers are quite close to mainstream lagers in taste, so those will be problematic, but it is the taste again, not other factors, which must dictate. At the extremes it is easy to tell: yellow Foster's lager, say, seems different in kind to Punk IPA. Blue Moon must fall IMO onto the craft side of the range due to its full taste and non-trad haziness.

I was going to suggest that pasteurization is a bright line here, but that doesn't really since e.g. Coors Light isn't pasteurized and Anchor Steam is. Nonetheless, lack of pasteurization will often assist a beer to gain craft beer status - but not always. (I understand that mass market U.S. lager used to be unpasteurized but that today it almost always undergoes at least a flash process).

So, yes Blue Moon is craft, as Hoegaarden is.


Phil said...

I think the question is why you would stop calling a beer 'craft'. I tasted Stella Artois in Belgium in the 1970s and was appropriately impressed when it started to be available over here; as late as 1990 I can remember being happy to pay a bit more for Stella, which presumably would have made it a 'craft beer' if the phrase had been around at the time. Now, not so much.

What changed in the 1980s and 90s which stopped Stella being a craft beer? Was it
a) something about the composition of the beer & the way it's produced?
b) something about the popularity of the beer, i.e. it became a 'mass' beer and therefore not 'craft'?
c) boring boring ancient history boring, craft beer is what we call craft beer right now, we all know what we're talking about...

Phil said...

yellow Foster's lager, say, seems different in kind to Punk IPA

Also seems different in kind to any decent cask bitter.

The bullet we need to bite here is the relationship between 'craft' and 'good'. If (1) all good beer is craft beer, the word 'craft' doesn't add anything and I'm not interested in it. If (2) some good beer is craft beer, I'm still not really interested - I'd rather just drink good beer, whether it's craft or not.

What Dave seems to be trying to say, without ever quite spelling it out, is that (3) the best beer is craft beer (and vice versa) - older, more traditional beers may be perfectly good, for those who like that sort of thing, but craft gets all the extra plus points - new! different!! innovative!!! shiny!!!! But this is totally unconvincing to anyone who isn't already a neophile; it certainly doesn't persuade me (says man who returned to England today with a suitcase full of Trappist beer).

So that leaves me with definition 2: 'craft beer' is a label for some beer which is good, although it doesn't include some other beer which is equally good (or better). OK, whatever. What's on the other side?

Gary Gillman said...

I had Stella Artois in Belgium 20 years ago and in my view, it has declined a lot since then. I recall a flowery hop taste and rich malt character, whereas today it seems different, e.g. did it use maize back then? But point taken about relativity, there will always be some of that and grey areas, e.g. is Beck's craft? I would say yes but some will disagree. Good is perhaps too broad a term and I'd say generally any full-flavoured beer falling into a traditional beer type or reasonable derivatives (bitter, mild, lager, with old World hops or new, Black IPA) is craft. With lager it should be all-malt or very close to it, same with the others since some have contained some non-malt component for a long time and with exceptions for e.g. Belgian wheat beer which has always used a lot of non-malted wheat.

Admittedly no bright line but while allowing for personal disagreement it sets a broad test IMHO for what is craft: something of a traditional or derived style made to very high standards.


Phil said...

One final comment (for now!): you seem to have inadvertently defined Sol as craft beer. After all,

The oil and petrol flavours, the painted-label-on-clear-glass presentation, the theatre of serve created by the addition of a slice of citrus fruit all add to a beer experience that is designed to appeal to a more adventurous drinker.


DavidE said...

"do you drink with your eyes?"

It bugs me when a publican says that (although I haven't heard it for years). I 'drink' using a number of senses including sight. I'm a home brewer and I drink plenty of slightly hazy beer, so it's not that I'm squeamish. But when I pay a premium price for a beer that isn't meant to be cloudy, I object.

DavidE said...

I meant:
for a cloudy beer that isn't meant to be cloudy