Objective Definition of Craft Beer

Don’t try to define craft beer, that way madness lies… [Added 3/8/15 21:41: Please don’t read this as me insisting there ought to be some sort of an enforced definition… nor that I think I am laying down a One True Definition of Craft… it’s just a thought exercise. I do still think the concept is worth pondering.]

But hey, everyone seems to be defining craft beer again. I decided to give it a ponder, to flog the dead horse per se. Nowt better than a well flogged equine corpse. (I clearly don’t have enough to do… like accounting, inventory, and sales for example.)

The problem is nearly every definition goes into some wishy washy non-measurable territory about “quality” and ethos. This isn’t going to work… after significant thought (5 minutes, but on the back of several-years worth of feedback loop), here’s what I boil it down to from my own personal perspective. This is _my_ best attempt at a definition of “craft beer”, it gels with a lot of others, even BrewDog’s, but brings in stricter ownership rules and discards what I see as unnecessary minutiae & subjectivity.

  1. Brewery is “privately” owned and controlled.
    This is about being in control of creative direction, not being answerable to shareholders and investors. Freedom. Being an exchange listed company _definitely_ rules you out of the “craft beer club” (which, to my pleasure, takes Greene King out of the definition, huzzah!). Collective employee ownership is OK however – that’s about as craft as you can get I reckon. You can buy a brewery and have it still be craft too, so I’m not tying this down to founder-owned. Look at breweries like Moor, for example. [Disclosure: I sell Moor beer. It is awesome.] I’ll allow breweries owned by rich benefactors as well, so long as they have entire ownership of the brewery, so I’m not tying it down to brewer-owned either. If the owner(s) build it up, and sell it to Molson Coors… craft status stripped. Harsh perhaps, the beer probably won’t change in the short run (it will almost certainly change in the long run). But I believe craft is about more than the liquid in the glass.
  2. Investment companies / investors own, collectively, no more than 10%
    I think equity-investment in brewing is fine, see “rich benefactor” above, but a large corporate or institutional investor pretty much says one thing to me: where’s the exit strategy? It isn’t quite universal, perhaps, but it is nearly always the case that investment means travelling a path towards a destination of either sell-out-high or get-listed. Cash-in, cha-ching… that’s not craft. On the other hand, making lots of money by building a mega-successful brewery is perfectly OK. It’s “selling out” that I don’t believe is craft, unless the “sell out” is privately to a private owner in which case there’s room for the operation to remain “craft”.
  3. IMG_20150802_163304Beer clearly states origin and name of origin brewery.
    Origin fudging is not craft. I won’t budge on this one. Being shy about your production is not craft. If you’re embarrassed about how & where your beer is produced: it is not craft. I’ve no problems with cuckoo or contract brewing so long as it is done honestly – Yeastie Boys are an example of honest (and worthwhile) contract brewing. [Disclosure: Yes, I sell their beer. Because I love the beers.]
  4. Beer lists all ingredients.
    At a minimum top level ingredients, including brewing essentials such as yeast – so a list such as: Barley Malt, Flaked Wheat, Hops, Yeast, Blood Oranges, Otters’ Tears. I don’t really understand why this isn’t more normal, in my opinion it ought to be a legal requirement. But failing that – brewers should just naturally choose to do this! If you’re not proud of your ingredients, not ashamed to admit what goes into the beer, than you’re not craft as far as I’m concerned. I’m not saying brewers should give out the recipes to their beers – I am saying every beer should say what is in the bottle. And I want more than most here, as much as is practical. Malt types, hop varieties, yeast strain (and “our house yeast” is fine here). Whether isinglass is used at any stage too. Ideally this should be on the bottle, it can’t practically be presented for keg/cask – and sometimes hops have to change, often recipes evolve, but that’s what websites are for: 8 Wired, Hopwired [Disclosure: Hey, I happen to sell this stuff too.]
  5. Brewery meets a (to be determined) set of basic standards.
    This one needs some work. But, basically, I would lay down a set of minimum standards in addition to the core points above… I don’t think it is good to be too specific, like ruling out use of certain adjuncts, or brewing processes, etc. But there are some basics that are simple to audit. Some rough initial ideas: pays at least living wage (quality of people, I don’t think living wage is perfect but it is a start), invests in cold-storage (quality of beer), deals with wholesalers who invest in cold-storage (self-interest afoot here! But I believe *strongly* in improving supply chain in this direction – and the same applies for exporters and foreign distributors), educates employed brewing staff (owner-brewers excepted perhaps?), does not package beer in clear glass (personal enraged bugbear!) … what else? (All subject to debate…) [I’m, astonishingly, changing my mind on pasteurisation just a little, there are circumstances where I can accept it is not a compromise. Late additions of maple syrup, for example… how’s that for a subject for a “craft debate”?]

What, nothing about about size? Production volume? Etc… I think the US has shown that measuring craft by brewery size doesn’t work very well.

It may not quite be perfect… but it is “craft” as I see it, as much as I can pin it down within my own mind. Plenty of breweries I think are a bit crap fit within the definition, but defining craft beer can’t be about what I do and don’t like and it needs to be objective if it is to work at all. I use the word and if I’m to continue to use the word I ought to be able to outline what I mean when I use it… that’s one of the points of this post.

I’ve an ulterior motive in all this of course. Because I think, if done right, this can be used as a mechanism to drive change and improve quality in the UK beer industry. A proper craft beer representative body can pick up where SIBA fails to deliver, and bridge the gap to where the Beer Academy doesn’t quite seem to have the grunt to execute.

If there is to be a wider crystallisation of a concept of craft then mere definition is not enough… it needs an organisation behind it to work. Sometimes there are grey areas and a committee, perhaps, needs to make a ruling. For a definition to work lines do need to be drawn. And the organisation doing this needs to really stand up for the ethos behind craft beer… creativity and independence, and striving for quality. (We can’t make quality part of the definition, but an organisation can support and encourage it.)

This should be a membership based organisation like SIBA, where all breweries that meet the definition can join for a fairly low fee. (£250?) [But you don’t have to be a member to _be_ a craft brewer!] Major decisions are made on an open democratic basis – we have the technology to achieve this quite simply. The purpose of the organisation is to manage the membership, manage the definition, promote the concept of craft beer, and – importantly – make an attempt at defining best practice. Work to improve and modernise the world of great beer in the UK, which will be of benefit to everyone in the chain from farmer to drinker.

In the UK we’ve a lot to do to improve the pint of beer that ends up in the glass. SIBA isn’t doing it (but it does help), the Beer Academy isn’t doing it (but it does help), CAMRA isn’t doing it (and may actually have become a barrier to good quality).

Finally – “craft beer” should try hard not to look down on “not craft beer”. We’ll all have our own personal prejudices which we won’t give up (*cough*GreenKing*cough*). But we have to accept that some multinationals do make a high quality product, and sometimes it even happens to be rather tasty.

This has been a craft community broadcast brought to you by the vested-interest department… and I may very well change my mind tomorrow. Or after I’ve had a beer.

P.S. In all of this I think it is well worth being aware that craft is not necessarily equal to “good”, and non-craft is definitely not equal to “bad”. Good and bad are subjective and undefinable, there is debate even around identifiable brewing/beer flaws. Craft is not equal to “better” – but it will _usually_ be more interesting than the alternative thanks to the creativity and flexibility of the style of operation I think my above points encompass. Cases in point are to look at Greene King’s efforts at “craft”, and Marston’s “Revisionist” beers… which for the most part I don’t think are _bad_ beers, but they’re clearly contained and restrained beers… yet are the most “adventurous” beers breweries of this scale and shareholder-value maximising sensibilities will produce. (You can still brew really dull beer within the points of my attempt at a definition above, of course.)

16 thoughts on “Objective Definition of Craft Beer

  1. It’s a good definition of something, but I’m not really sure who it’ll help? The reason that most definitions go on about quality and ethos is basically because those are the things that most people associated with “craft” at the moment, and the reason that people want a definition of craft at all is because there are a lot of people who are interested in it.

    If you were, say, a CAMRA fest buyer who was being encouraged to get some stuff in that’ll appeal to craft beer drinkers, you could take this definition and pat yourself on the back for a job well done because you’ve got plenty of Harveys, Hook Norton, Elgoods and so on. But while you’d probably have some fine beers, you wouldn’t really have what you where after.

    IMHO a subjective definition – probably based on what a “craft beer drinker” is and is not looking for – with some reasonable claim to authority (ie endorsed by the Craft Brewers Tufty Club or whatever they’re calling themselves) would clear the water a lot more.

    • It helps me more than anyone. I can now point people to this and say: this is the general gist of what _I_ mean when I say a brewery is “craft”.

      Is it likely to be deployed as a functional definition? No, I’d not think so.

      A better way: create a website where all beers are listed, and have a rating scale of: 0 (not craft), 1 (craft). Folk’ll have to long in via Twitter/Facebook/G+/whatever to avoid too much gaming of the system, but that’s pretty standard these days.

      Crowdsource “craft”…

      I actually think a more interesting question has always been: is a _bar_ craft. Because that’s where I want to mainly drink my beer, and I want a “Good Craft Guide” to tell me where to go, my experiences using the GBG to locate good pubs have largely been grim. So I #AskTwitter and usually get good results that way. But that “crowdsourced” knowledge would be better in website/guide form. An “untapped” for bars. (Or, perhaps, another way to do this is to data-mine Untappd to auto-select bars…)

  2. This is all well and good but….. Unless there is a legally enforceable definition of craft beer this is all a pointless exercise. CAMRA, as the only show in town at the time, was able to get a nationally agreed definition of real ale (which all the breweries producing the stuff did not seem to have any problems with) and then get it in the OED. This is a jumping off point for legal enforcement against any outfit claiming they sell “real ale” or even “cask ales” when in point of fact don’t do that.

    Where’s the equivalent organisation to do the same with craft? Who’s going to get everyone to sign up to it? How will it be policed? What sanctions will be available against “non-craft” brewers labeling their beer as craft? Another part of the problem of course is that those most vocal about defining craft always seem to be those with a commercial interest in doing so. I don’t think that is a good starting point in any event.

    As far as I can see the horse has bolted. In a very short space of time “craft” has gone the same way as “traditional”. It just means what the user wants it to mean in the context of the particular circumstances of its use at any given time.

    • I _broadly_ agree with enforceability being a problem, and with the general “craft” horse having already bolted.

      Albeit I’d also claim the publicly accepted definition of “real ale” is about as useful as that of “craft beer”. Mildly clueless folk will define it by “secondary fermentation”, more clued up folk go on about “live yeast cell counts”, but the public will judge it as: that which comes out of a hand-pump or barrel. A few codgers will spit chips about aspirators, but nobody really gives a stuff. (Ref also: real ale in a bottle and how most happily accept filtered pasteurised bottled “real ale” brands as “real ale”.)

      Rack near-bright 1.4 vol CO2 beer into a cask and serve it the next day and it is “real ale”, and this is becoming a not-uncommon production process.

      The same beer gets racked into keg, usually with higher vol CO2 mind you. (How much of this CO2 is “natural” is up to the brewer.)

      So… is a legally enforcible definition really necessary?

      Whilst I am “in the industry” at present, I don’t think I have much of a commercial interest in a definition of “craft beer”… I don’t think it’d change things for me, or for other distributors, at all really. (And I would certainly not consider myself bound on what I sell by such a definition, there is “non-craft” beer that I respect and would probably consider selling in the right circumstances.)

      As for where such a body can start… 2 options: as an industry body, representing industry interests, such as SIBA. Presumably this is what Camden/BrewDog/Beavertown have in mind with their nascent craft beer collective. Or perhaps it could start at the same place CAMRA started, enthusiasts… building up slowly… my CAMRA membership will lapse this year, myself and others like myself would be interested in a more modern, open and inclusive sort of beer consumer organisation to which we’d be happier to send our £25-or-so quid. It may never be the size of CAMRA (size isn’t everything, CAMRA may be growing but is the active membership growing?), it may not even work, but I reckon it’s worth a try. CAMRA and I, and many other beer enthusiasts, have increasingly divergent interests when it comes to good beer. An organisation more like the Kiwis’ SOBA is what I have in mind. Anyway, now I’m off on some other tangent entirely.

      1. I present a definition for “craft beer” that works for me
      2. I propose an industry group be formed to _represent_ (not _enforce_) this definition
      3. But, realistically, I have little expectation this will happen to my satisfaction.
  3. I was going to use the expression “this ship has sailed” rather than “this horse has bolted”, but otherwise, what John said. Brewers aren’t going to use any definition you or I come up with, however perfect it might be. Retailers aren’t going to use it and drinkers aren’t going to use it. Brewers will do what they always do: use the language that sells the most beer. At the moment that is “craft” and there’s nothing anyone can do now to stop Greene King running its “craft” bars with Yardbird pale ale and Erdinger.

    The best we can do is try to let “craft” die naturally and get on with talking about the factors you mention and their importance, without the label getting in the way.

    • I am generally, and usually, anti-definition… but I use the word “craft” and this is now my outline for what I mean by it as best I can pin it down in usefully objective terms that I can feel somewhat comfortable with. [For now.]

      Given the subject is currently popular again and some brewers may well be on the way to forming a “craft” organisation I figured I’d put my own (relatively unimportant) view on this out there… because the fact is that if this organisation does happen it’ll probably involve players, and thus probably a definition, that I find unsatisfactory.

  4. Yvan, I like this post a lot. However I feel flavour and quality are an essential part of the definition – in fact I think that flavour is the ultimate product of a brewers ‘Craft’ as it were.

    Look at Founders, for example. They’re 30% owned by Mahou San Miguel but their output is packed with flavour. Take for example their wonderful All Day IPA, Breakfast Stout and its many barrel aged variations. They most certainly wouldn’t fit under ‘Craft’ as per the definition outlined above, but you wouldn’t be able to question that the beers most definitely are on tasting them.

    Of course the UK’s craft breweries are at least 5, perhaps 10 years away from from getting into situations like Founders’ – at least regularly. Still, I like a lot of the points you’ve made above, it’s good thinking.

    • I don’t think “craft” flavour and quality are measurable, and therefore they cannot be part of a definition. In my “heart” I agree that there are subjective and indefinable qualities at the core of “craft beer” – but I think that these can never be captured in any definition, and not everyone agree on which breweries do and don’t embody such ideals.

      Note that I _strongly_ do not think not-craft = bad (nor that craft = good). I’m fine with Founders being not craft, and I’m fine with the concept of them being both not-craft and good.

      I’m fine with a definition of craft that rules Founders out in favour of less encumbered operations. And I do absolutely think 30% multinational ownership is an encumbrance, if perhaps in no other way than to not gel with my own personal moral “craft” compass. (And this part of my definition is structured around my own sense of where deals/ownership/etc bend away from the ethical. But not to imply that fitting within the definition guarantees an operation ethically sound.)

      I think craft can only be usefully “defined” to label an industry sector using measurable qualities – which is sort of the point of this post. To outline what I think is realistic and *workable*.

      The alternative is to not define craft at all… which is probably the best way forward. But it is a subject not unworthy of being thought about and discussed as we travel this particular beery road.

      [Multiply edited comment… 3/8/15 – 19:54]

  5. For my part I’m not convinced that objectivity is actually that important.

    Also, I suspect it’d be easier and more useful to define craft with respect to a bar’s selection than a specific beer or even a brewer. I don’t really care if Greene King or Harveys or Meantime want to describe themselves as “craft brewers” even though people might disagree with each of those for one reason or another. On the other hand I’d be quite happy if it was more generally understood that Punk plus Yardbird plus Erdinger does not a “craft beer bar” make, and that people who cynically claimed otherwise got laughed out of town – or at least, ragged on enough to make them think twice about doing it.

    I don’t think this needs a strictly objective legally enforcible definition, just something measured and neutral enough that people with a reasonable interest in beer can spot when the blatant piss is being taken. OTTOMH it’d make sense to talk about variety of strengths, styles, flavours, emphasis on quality of selection and attention to condition across the whole range, interest in new, interesting and occasionally challenging beers and so on.

    Also, I think that’d be closer to what people are talking about when they come to you asking you to tell them about (and hopefully sell them some of) this “craft beer” stuff that everyone’s talking about. Presumably you wouldn’t just give them Harveys’ number and send them on their way?

    • I think objectivity is necessary if we’re really to have what folk like BrewDog want: a binding definition (that can be taken seriously)

      When I started my business I wrote this “definition”: http://jollygoodbeer.co.uk/2014/02/what-is-craft/ – quite vague, and thus a more accurate depiction of how I personally feel about it.

      Also, focussing on the bar end of things, I wrote this in 2013: http://ale.gd/blog/2013/11/craft-beer-diversity-is-the-key/

      The latter was specifically inspired by cases of bars putting on Camden Pale Ale and Meantime Lager and then effectively advertising that they were now a “craft beer” venue. (Amusingly given places often already have a perfectly “craft” cask ale range.)

  6. As far as kicking ideas around in the blogosphere & influencing mainstream usage, this horse has not only sailed but locked the stable door behind it. What I like about this definition is that it’s top-down – you have a group, brewers join the group, but in order to do so they need to tick these boxes. I think that would basically be a good thing, although I’m not sure how much it differs from what BD, MR & co have just done – maybe that horse has already hit the road too.

    I’m interested in your alternative not-CAMRA. As a recent recruit I’m not sure what’s wrong with CAMRA atm, apart from the entrenched anti-keg prejudice – and since the organisation has now officially recognised that real ale inna bag inna box is still real ale, I’m not sure how much of a problem that is any more.

    • UCB is basically what made me write this… because I worry about it. Yes, my thoughts on this don’t deviate a huge deal from the BreDog outline – as I state at the beginning – but there are some key differences.

      UCB has some of the right impetus about it, but I’m uncomfortable with some of it. Like I’m not sure any US brewery in their right mind want their product hitting UK bottle shelves a la James Clay and the whole retail beer sector here. That’s why US beer here is mostly sad tired stuff. I call it “Warm shed, warm shelf” beer. They don’t represent quality. (I am not currently aware of a single beer importer with any sort of cold-storage.) BrewDog… well, yeah, they’re pretty good still, have been through their ups and downs, etc, but still are just kind of tossers sometimes and I will always question anything in which they’re involved. They’re craft, fur shure… but I have reservations.

      Camden, I can live with… Beavertown most definitely.

      And Magic Rock are, I expect, close to the (if not “the”) pinnacle on the quality & ethos front. So… we shall see.

      It’s all business at the end of the day… which is probably where & why some of this stuff is most likely to go sour. If so, at the end of the day, how different from Big Beer is is really?

      I’m glad to say that more and more of the “craft breweries” I deal with are investing in important details, like if they get a canning line, they get a DO meter… long-term hop contracts, near-freezing hop-stores, many now are installing (or have installed) decent finished beer cold-storage [A huge problem for some of these guys who’ve grown ultra-fast, many have been effectively sticking “kegs in sheds” that they’re sometimes not shifting quick enough and in the trade we see more and more over-conditioned beer as a result.]

      What’s wrong with CAMRA… hmm… I don’t really have time for that one…

  7. I don’t like the term ‘Craft Beer’ because it is meaningless in the UK, or if not meaningless it’s an exclusive and pejorative term used by a lot of people who think that they are cooler than you and are in a position to make judgements about what they are brewing or drinking, usually without any real locus standi to do so.

    I don’t like defining Craft Beer in the UK, because any definition that comes about is simply a self serving device which someone has engineered to create ownership and marketing opportunity, and to exclude people whom they have deemed not to be ‘Craft’.

    Finally, I don’t like Craft Beer as a term, because its used as an excuse for failed originality, lack of integrity and poor quality by unscrupulous people who know a bandwagon when they see it.

    The Brewers Association in the US had a very good reason to create their definition of Craft Beer, because their Country’s brewing heritage was in large regional brewers and by the time it came about, crystallised into a few very large Corporate Brewers. They where driving a new movement that needed to work in a collegiate manner and exclude those to sought to harm their small businesses before they had a chance to flourish. Britain on the other hand has a diverse heritage of large and small, brewing a wide range of beer styles by a variety of methods.

    Some folk fancy themselves as ‘creators’ of British Craft Beer, maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong, but the day for a British BA have passed in my opinion, that horse has bolted.

    So we have CAMRA which is a Consumer movement that has a set of rules that their members agree on in the main, and we have SIBA which represents small brewers regardless of how they produce and present their beers, which is how it should be.

    Neither is perfect, but one represents the consumer in the face of interventions that affect them, and SIBA are there to represent the interests of Independent Brewers, not against one another in the sense of how they define their product, but against legislative moves that are harmful to them, as a campaigning organisation to combine small brewers to do business with big Corporations as customers, and to act as a members organisation should, transparent, democratic and accountable to its members.

    Do we need a third organisation that has an agenda to exclude those who don’t conform to their idea of what ‘Craft Beer’ means? Especially when it’s definition is tilted hard toward the business model and needs of their founders?

    Being true to your own vision should be enough, and as with everything, quality will out.

    It’ll be a good day when the consumer starts to realise what is good rather than just new or hyped or Fashionable, I hold out no great expectation that it’s a day that is near.

    • I reckon SIBA fills the role pretty well. And gather SIBA is improving in various ways from what I hear from brewers. They’re definitely doing a good job of supporting the keg side of the industry in their comps and big events like BeerX.

      I think some crafties just get pissed that SIBA has, like the US “craft beer association”, bent its definitions in the past in order to keep the old-guard in the club.

      Despite this blog post my prevailing opinion is still that “craft beer” is non-definable.

  8. An unfit for purpose definition is worse than no definition at all. It only serves to further muddy the waters. Craft has nothing to do with size, we already have a word for that (microbrewery), nor does it have a word for independence, we already have a word for that as well (duh, independent). There is no point in reinventing the wheel. If you are trying to say an independent microbrewery, just say “an independent microbrewery”.

    As for “Brewery meets a (to be determined) set of basic standards.” Well, that all seems rather wishy-washy. I certainly don’t see what paying the living wage has to do with how the beer tastes.

    The rest of the definition is really just a matter of labelling. Surely the adjective craft applies to the beer, not the bottle it’s in?

    Craft beer is not about the brewery capacity, the debt-equity ratio, the right-on-ness of the marketing blurb or the number of tattoos the head brewer has, its about the beer. That’s it.

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