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.)

PintShop – a preview


View PintShop in a larger map

I have long bemoaned the lack of a good “craft beer” venue in Cambridge. The terminology is contentious – but what the hell, “craft” is a movement and a vibe and essentially undefinable. Maybe I should pointlessly write about what “craft” means to me some time, or maybe not. Anyway – what it isn’t is something we have in Cambridge. Perhaps until now…

Do not read me wrong – we have some excellent pubs serving excellent beer, some have even made a foray into having a bit of a “craft” note to their beer lineup. But none of them are “craft” at their core – and they don’t need to be, I love them as they are. I don’t want the places we have to change – I want something new brought into the mix. It is an ineffable feel combining time and place that embodies my experience of craft. Cambridge’s collective diverse-beer loving hearts were raised as the news of a “Cambridge Tap” some time ago, but those plans were never to come to fruition resulting in a collective *sigh*. We have had some small hopes for other venues that turned out to be … not quite right, though respectable in their own ways.  I’m not besmirching our local breweries either – I feel some of them would be right at home in the context of a craft venue, which in my mind should be accepting of good beer regardless of style or form.

View PintShop in a larger map

Now, however – an introduction to PintShop. It appears to me that we may finally have our first modern/new-wave/craft beer venue in Cambridge. On the 31st of October Kat, Colin, and myself attended the PintShop pre-opening gig. Free beer and nibbles – who’d turn that down? The site is central, in a foodie area that lacks a decent pub. Neighbours include your typical McHighstreet chain joints: Zizi, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s plus some local gems like the Cambridge Chop House and of course the retail Mecca of the McGrandArcade. Nearly all places I have no interest in, this is a part of town I walk through to get to places, rarely do I linger. Also nearby are excellent arts venues – the Corn Exchange and Arts Theatre – places I sadly don’t know well, but feel I should make the time to know better. In essence: location is spot-on, a much needed indy addition to the food & drink options in the immediate vicinity.

There are decent pubs, by my reckoning, within a 10 minute walk: The Mill, The Maypole, and The Cambridge Brew House. All good places that were on my North Herts CAMRA Cambridge Pub Ramble. Check that map, note the void that is the town centre. PintShop would have fit into this neatly between the Mill and the Maypole.

So – location is all very well, what about the venue. Compared to any other drinking venue I frequent it is a right rabbit warren, and I love it. Walk in the front door and you’re greeted by a passage – signposted forward for dining and left for the bar. At the far end of the passage: stairs. Turn left into the bar, of course. Decoration is minimalist and chunky, exposed black electrics on pale shades of cream and green, varnished parquetry flooring. A crackled enamel bar top with industrial looking bronze keg fonts and a prominent beer-list blackboard with all the details you need to decide on a drink. The fonts themselves have no place for badges – I don’t know if this’ll be a permanent arrangement, but if it is I think I like it. (Breweries with snazzy branding might be less enamoured – and customers may be initially befuddled.) Cask hand-pumps are not immediately in evidence as they are tucked around the other side of a pillar in a snug little back-bar area that I can see myself taking up residence in. Anyway, cask junkies need not fret – both styles of beer dispense are well catered for.

Cask Bar

Cask Bar

Keg Fonts

Keg Fonts

Has Bean sighting!

Has Bean sighting!

Moving through the cask bar and out of the bar area, turning left down the passage takes you to a dining area on the right, a retro-chic layout of tables and seating, opposite all this a service room. Look and feel is consistent throughout – stark black lines of electrical fittings standing out. The service area houses shiny stainless dumb-waiter hatches, appliances and coffee paraphernalia, bags of HasBean in evidence – hurrah! The passage continues past these and hooks a right to lead to the rear patio. A newly paved space surrounded by high building walls with sky overhead. I hope there are some summer barbecue plans in mind.

Heading back inside to those stairs – these lead up to toilets, another dining room at the front, and a well equipped kitchen at the rear (entirely too relaxed to feel right, but I’m sure that won’t be the case come opening). The central stair area highlights the wonderful feature of the core curved wall that separates the bar from the passage. You have to see it really – I like building features like this, I love this wall. They’ve been really lucky with the site, there’s loads of detail and history on the The Real Cambridge and Pints & Pubs blogs. Some of the atmosphere of the place is captured in Matthew Harris’s flicker photo set from the night.

In reality food and beer have yet to really prove themselves at PintShop – this is a pre-view not a re-view. That said, the sample we have had is promising. They have stolen some prime kitchen talent from Cambridge establishments (the talent came to them I hear, such is the excitement and expectation for what PintShop is bringing to town). We had a quick talk from the butchers supplying PintShop, Barker Brothers of Shelford, who are very much “proper” in my estimation. It was great to have both the old and the new generations of family butchers talking to us – refreshing to see the young generation picking up the trade as well in an era where butchers we know all too often close with nobody to take up the reins. We tried samples of porterhouse steak, excellent flavour, and a cut (the name of which escapes my mind) which was perfectly and surprisingly juicy and tender. These I tried as well as rabbit pasty in a melt-in-the-mouth crust, all good indicators. The fennel seeded pork scratchings are made on-site – dry and crisp, but in need of more fennel and salt for me! A dusting of salt and ground fennel seeds perhaps? But fennel is a love/hate flavour so perhaps subtle is for the better. Maybe have a salt-shaker of fennel-salt so you can go wild if desired?



Pork Scratchings

Pork Scratchings

Beer Board

Beer Board

BEER! Pre-opening line-up was: Keg: Adnams Dry Hop Lager, Kernel Table Beer, Rogue Dead Guy (a timely Halloween pick); Cask: Oakham Asylum, Adnams Old Ale, Marble Pint. We had pints of Pint in PintShop – haha! What this list needs is a few more hops… this will come, I know PintShop have received entire pallets of Magic Rock and Buxton – for starters. Personally, I was mostly very happy with pints of Table Beer – light, clean, zesty and not too intoxicating. I had a bit of every beer on offer, all good – though some not to my taste. As with the food – time is required before a real judgement can be determined, but based on this sample: looking good. I simply cannot wait to see that beer-board fully populated. My mouth waters at the thought. Gin is also a highlight, with a list of 40 gins at launch I think I heard. We also attended a session upstairs where Cambridge Distillery (the UK’s only “nano-distillery”?) told us of their modus operandi and successes. A shot, or maybe a double, of science – the challenge of using peas as a botanical for PintShop’s “P” gin didn’t faze them, having already had to use ants (yes, ants) for Noma. We tasted a pure pea distillate – and now I really want one of their 2 litre vacuum distillation units in my kitchen.

Cambridge Gin - nano-distillery

Cambridge Gin – nano-distillery

I haven’t had much of a chance to chat with Rich and Benny, the guys behind PintShop – but they certainly seem to have the experience and motivation to get this right (by my own definition of “right”). I spoke to some of the staff who all seem overjoyed to be working there. One, newly moved to Cambridge, exhibited the same pride and joy at this opportunity that I see in most of the BrewDog bar staff I meet. They’re really getting into it. The pre-opening gig had a hugely positive vibe.

Colin enjoying PintShop pints.

Colin enjoying PintShop pints.

So – that’s where I stand. Positive. Having watched the build-up of PintShop – a truely massive task that has taken the guys 3 years to reach doors-open – I’m pleased to see things taking shape in “the right” direction. I think PintShop is going to tick the “craft beer” box for me and be a much-needed addition to the Cambridge beer scene, adding a missing piece to the beer diversity puzzle. It isn’t all about the beer however – and it is going to be interesting to see how the food element, which will be very important to the business, mixes in with the beer side. I hope it all gets along famously. I see a good bit of potential for my favourite subjects here too: beer with food, and beer in food.

PintShop opens on the 4th of November… see you at the bar?

Independent Manchester Beer Convention

Wow… what a weekend!

IMBC Keg Hall – Calm Before The Storm…

The Port Street Beer House folk behind the festival deserve our praise, and thanks, for making it happen. Above all, I hope it is a business success as well as a huge social success. We need more @IndyManBeerCon gigs. I’m sure that, like myself, all beer lovers throughout the nation are hoping this is just the start… I’ve already caught wind of a potential London event of this sort kicking off for 2013.

IMBC Keg Hall – Full-Swing…

Our recent beer festival left us with empty casks that we needed to drop back at Summer Wine and Buxton breweries. Oh, look, there’s this “Indy Man Beer Con” thing happening… several of our friends will be there… could be interesting. They want volunteers too, well – why not? So on Wednesday we scooted north to Holmfirth then south over the wonderful-driving Woodhead Pass to overnight in Buxton. (For beer go to the Queen’s Head or the Old Hall Hotel – we had great condition Buxton ales in both.) Then on Thursday we popped up to Manchester to help out with the IMBC set-up… a day that predictably ended in beer. Much, maybe too much, excellent beer at BrewDog Manchester and Port Street Beer House. The evening was shared with fellow Twitter beer folk & Untapped users Kirk and Chris… as you can guess it was an evening of total beer geekery. Anyway… the next day the festival begins!

IMBC Cask Hall

Weirdly for 2 days of beer festival, I actually didn’t manage to tick off even half the beers I was interested in. Next time perhaps I should focus less on chatting & volunteering and more on the drinking part?! I’m going to list some beer highlights now… at the risk of leaving things out & alienating brewers and fellow drinkers…

  • Dark Star, Critical MassDark Star, Critical Mass (2009) – mmm… rich, dry, bretty stout. Aged since 2009 in-cask with brett yeast perhaps? I can’t find any definitive info online about this particular beer! Right up my alley though.
  • Ilkley, Green Goddess – thick, sweet, spiced dessert of a Belgian “bitter”. It magically has worked, somehow, and tastes luscious. When I was behind the cask bar, this was one of the beers people were coming back to for more.
  • Dark Star, Belgian IPA – this didn’t work for me, though many people loved it – it’s not you, it’s me… However I found it interesting, especially beside the Ilkley offering. To me there was little of that lovely American hop character left in the beer, and just a huge spike of bitterness in the middle of the palate. (Dark Star need to put more info on their website, this one isn’t there either!)
  • Wild Beer Co, Modus Operandi – a brewery I’ll be watching out for. I love “wild” beers, my nose and mouth don’t mind even a lot of wet goat, sourness, funkiness, etc. The MO was balanced & smooth though, a rich & dark saisony sorta beast.
  • Magic Juice ClownMagic Rock, Clown Juice – mainly because Stu, the Magic Juice Clown. But also because it is a great beer.
  • Hardknott, Queboid – don’t misunderstand, I don’t rate Hardknott beers just because Ann & Dave are my friends. I stalked and badgered the Hardknott folk, and eventually got to know them, because I like their beer. I’m a Queboid fan and have a small collection of bottles spanning several batches going back about 3 years. This was my first experience of it on draught, and it was goooood! Dave’s really perfecting it, if not perfected. (Though I do prefer it a few degrees warmer than it was, between 8 and 10C.) I spent some time at the Hardknott bar and did enjoy introducing people to this beer and sharing in their newfound love of Queboid. (I was in no way threatening in suggesting they should love it… really, I swear.)
  • Hop RocketBitches Brewing, Chocolate Chilli Stout – through a “hop rocket” full of chillies, and with an extra smoked naga chilli thrown in just for fun. WEAPONIZED STOUT! I had this beer for about 2 hours before topping it up with more of the stout and by that time merely placing it in the vicinity of your lips caused them to try and crawl back into my mouth and down my throat. Naga foolishness aside, the stout was a grand obsidian elixir – my favourite type of beer.
  • Buxton, Tsar – following that previous point, need I say any more?
  • @MacChater prepares @SWBrewery beery cocktailsSummer Wine – the whole mixology tasting session! I’m a flavour fiend, and this sort of monkeying around with people’s perceptions & entrenched ideas about food and drink is right up my alley. Beer as a cocktail ingredient?! Don’t be daft! … but why not? Their beers themselves are brilliant, and of course divisive as any such creatures will be. Stout with ginger? Beer with licorice? Good thing I love both ginger and licorice. The gin and Paracelsus beer cocktail was just too much gin for me, I like gin… but in this case it dominated. Less next time? The rum and Calico Jack, with chocolate orange wedge, was a huge success on my tongue. I’m going to have to buy more Calico Jack now I think. Massive thanks to @MaxChater for putting this together in collaboration with the Summer Wine dudes.
  • Lovibonds, 69 IPA – a legendary beer that I’ve never managed to get into my mouth until IMBC. It really lives up to its reputation. Lovely IPA and I really must visit Lovibonds sometime… and buy a case of it. :)
  • Tempest, Brodies, Thornbridge, Kernel, Marble… too much amazing craft beer? Never! But every one I didn’t get to experience is a wrench to the heart & a deep sobbing in the soul in memory of beers still untried. Sour beers shouldn’t go unmentioned. Cantilion on cask! The Lovibonds Sour Grapes! Oh my, the sheer diversity of it all…
IMBC Cask Bar@SWBrewery Barista & the Quantum/@NorthTeaPower collab at the coffee bar!Kegs!

For me, personally, the IMBC was actually more about people anyway. Friends who I’ve met several times like @HardKnott Dave & Ann, Twitter-personalities who I’d had yet to meet like @SimonHJohnson, even coffee gods like @HasBean Steve! Not to mention brewers… many, many excellent brewers. Also folk like myself from the fringes of the beer scene – brought together in one place by the love of really great beer. Nothing else I’ve been to in the UK is comparable… GBBF, for example, doesn’t come close. It is probably a density issue – IMBC was simply wall-to-wall with the sort of beer people you want to meet. It turned out there were people there I should have met but somehow missed, chances are we were within a couple of meters of each other. So, while the IMBC beers were astounding, it really was the people that made this festival come alive. People were the magic-ingredient, beer the not-so-secret-sauce.

The quality didn’t stop at the beer and people however. The organisers had gone out of their way to get it all right. Food wasn’t an afterthought, as it too often is. Not only was there a beer & food matched dinner available to those organised enough to book it – the general festival food was varied & exciting. Gourmet hot-dogs, brilliant quality curries, and a selection of the old staple pig products. I tried them all, everything was up to scratch. If only some didn’t run out of food so early! And COFFEE! I’m a coffee geek as well as a beer geek – quality HasBean filter coffees thanks to the wonderful people at @NorthTeaPower in the afternoon? Yes please! On top of this having @acousticcoffee Dale and @HasBean Steve at the festival was almost overload… context switching between drinking & talking coffee, and serving, drinking & talking beer almost broke me I think.

Sausage inna bun queue...

Sausage inna bun time…

Posh pie!

Posh pie!

IMBC coffee heroes!

IMBC coffee heroes!

The venue too… stunning. If you’re in Manchester you must visit the Victoria Baths. Such an exciting building to hold a beer festival in, so many nooks and crannies, such architecture! You’ll get the general idea from their own website, and some of the festival photos. If there was one downside it was the capacity of the men’s toilets. I suspect this may have been part of the reason the venue was limited to 500 tickets per session when I’m sure the bars could have supported at least 50% more. Next time I wonder if a trailer of toilets out the back might be a reasonable addition to proceedings.

The “what is craft beer” debate raged on throughout the festival. We’ll never have a satisfactory definition for something so based in the eye of the beholder. Though for me, in this moment, I’m thinking craft beer is IN the beholder. Craft beer is people. Brilliant, wonderful, friendly, diverse people.

Get some Clown Juice in you!

Get some Clown Juice in you...

Don’t just take my word for it though — here’s more: