Brown's beer: How mainstream is craft beer?

Our male-about-ale Pete Brown reveals the truth behind craft beer

These are strange times in beer.

A few years ago – perhaps even less than that – craft beer was something for the hobbyist beer geek. Then, quickly, more people started getting interested – and not just the East London hipsters we love to mock. A recent Mintel report shows that 13 million people – a quarter of all British adults – have drunk craft beer in the last six months. Much to everyone’s relief, there simply aren’t that many hipsters or beer geeks around.

Craft beer has gone mainstream: 40% of pubs say they want to stock a craft beer, and 25% claim they already do.

Not bad for a category no one seems able to define.

The beer world is split on whether craft beer needs a technical definition or not. There is one in America that’s totally unsuitable for here, and not really fit for purpose over there.

‘Craft’ is an adjective that applies to lots of things other than beer. It has a broad set of associations. We can agree that craft beer is probably made by smaller producers, that it really should have more flavour than mainstream commercial beers, that it should be better made, with more focus on the integrity of ingredients and process than on branding and talk of usage occasions and SKUs [stock keeping units]. But there’s a grey area between what is and isn’t craft, and there always will be.

Before craft beer came long we had ‘world beer’ which, when it began, had a very precise definition, differentiating beers genuinely imported from their country of origin from those brewed here under licence.

Big brewers simply ignored this, claimed their UK-brewed beers were world beers anyway, and used their huge marketing budgets to bludgeon the term into a pulpy, meaningless mess that no longer presented a threat to their megabrands.

Craft beer seems to have them more worried than world beer did though, and now the marketers have been deployed to make sure we don’t have our silly little heads turned too far by a movement that has blindsided the kind of corporation that believes the badge on the glass, bottle or can is more important than the liquid inside it.

I was at a ‘beer innovation summit’ a few weeks ago. In response to news that craft beer, as defined (imperfectly of course) by market analysts CGA Peach, had grown by 71% last year, various big brewery reps reminded us that “82% of the market is still mainstream lager.” Fine, but after the third repetition, you had to wonder why they were sounding so defensive about it.

So now we’re starting to see the same aggressive obfuscation in craft that we got with world beer. Stella Artois was originally ‘crafted’ for Christmas. Guinness is privately referring to itself as ‘the original craft beer’. One trade journalist told me recently that she had asked a marketer at Heineken if they intended to launch anything in the craft beer space. Apparently with a straight face, he replied, “We already have a craft beer in our portfolio. It’s called Foster’s Lager.”

This is why many ‘genuine’ craft brewers believe a tight definition of ‘craft’ is needed. But if world beer is anything to go by, it wouldn’t do much good. Even if big brewers were to respect, it, they’d just continue to sneak the weasel word ‘crafted’ into their copy instead, oblivious to the simple truth that any discerning craft drinker can smell bullshit from the other side of the pub.

Between the big brewers and the micro craft brewers we have Britain’s traditional ale brewers, and this is where things get a little more complex. I agree with brewers such as Hook Norton and Batemans who claim they have been making craft beer for years; it’s just that no one called it that. The English real ale tradition is a craft beer tradition, just not the craft beer tradition we currently think about. It’s worth remembering that it is our ale tradition that inspired the US brewers to create the new beer styles we have fallen in love with in this country and are now copying back. And that session cask ale is pretty much the only world beer style America’s craft brewers are still struggling to perfect.

The craft revolution has inspired some of these regional ale brewers to start shoehorning the ‘c’ word into their copy in slavish deference, just like the multinationals. But it’s inspired others to let their brewers off the leash to create some interesting beers to compete with those from the young, punky start-ups.

Naturally some of the start-ups feel threatened by this, resentful that people who have been brewing what they refer to as ‘boring brown beer’ for decades are diversifying into a more eclectic range of styles now the bold innovators have gone ahead and proven the way is safe. While the marketing budgets of regional brewers are tiny compared to what a brand such as Budweiser loses down the back of the sofa, they dwarf anything a twenty-barrel start-up under a railway arch in Hackney can spend.

But as a drinker, I have no problem at all if brewers who used to just brew traditional best bitter are now spreading their wings and brewing American style pale ales, Belgian-style saisons or German influenced wheat beers. These are competent, capable brewers with the connections to be able to get their brands stocked widely. Irrespective of the size or motives of the company, there’s more great beer on the shelves than there was.

I have just one caveat.

My own personal shorthand for what makes a ‘true’ craft beer, which I don’t expect anyone else to take on board, is this: was the beer in my hand designed by a brewer or by a marketing department? Was the ‘craftsman’ able to express their vision without interference? Or was the recipe a compromise result based on focus groups and innovation funnels, designed by committee and compromise?

A few weeks ago, I went to the launch of a new craft beer range from a large regional brewer. The design was good. The range was thoughtful: nothing wilfully wacky, but a diverse collection of great beer styles from around the world.

The marketing material certainly spoke the language of craft: “We believe that all great beers are born from creativity, passion and not always following the rule book,” it said. “We have given our team of brewers free reign [sic] to ‘revise’ beer styles and create their own new interpretations.”

So it was a shame when, talking to one of the brewers about her favourite creation – a beer she was clearly passionate about – she said, “The only problem with it is that it should really be around 7% ABV [alcohol by volume], put the marketing department wouldn’t allow it. They said we couldn’t brew anything stronger than 5%.”

Free ‘reign’ indeed.

Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week.Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.

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