The 'C' Word

Believe it or not, you can now even buy 'craft' bread.  Craft this, craft that, craft the other: we are constantly being told that everything is 'craft', but what exactly does it mean? Does it mean anything? In the context of beer, the term is particularly confusing and contentious. Everyone has heard it, nobody is quite sure what it means, and everyone has their own idea - but the one thing that's clear is that 'The C Word' divides opinion.

Now that the 'craft beer revolution' is well and truly here (or so Brewdog would have us believe) we're now seeing many pubs offer a new 'craft beer' range.  However, unhelpfully, what they often mean is that as well as a range of cask conditioned ales, they now serve some 'quality' keg beers.  I use the term 'quality' deliberately to distinguish from the poor, tasteless yellow fizzy products which still dominate many bars.

In this context the pub manager is confusing the words 'craft' and 'keg' but for me a good cask beer from a smaller brewery is equally deserving of the description 'craft'.  Care and attention, small-ish production, high quality ingredients, no shortcuts, a brewer who has a name, and who you may one day meet and enjoy a beer with - these are the images conjured for me by the term 'craft'.  But above all else, the image is one of good beer: interesting beer, made with quality ingredients, a beer with something to commend it, something about it.  This for me is the essence of craft.

Brewdog (another word which has been known to divide opinion) recently called for a clear definition of ‘craft beer’, with a view to promoting ‘a clear legal definition for Craft protect a product’s reputation from poor imitations’.  Their suggested one line definition is: ‘craft beer is a beer brewed by a craft brewer at a craft brewery’.   But this doesn’t help us define what constitutes a craft beer or a craft brewer.

They go on to offer a proposed definition of a craft brewery, offering further clarity around authenticity, honesty, independence and commitment.  Intriguingly, their own previous inclusion of size of brewery as one of the criteria has was dropped from the revised second draft.  Perhaps there's a risk of Brewdog getting too big to meet the criteria, hence size no longer being considered important?

Given that many larger breweries are now jumping on the craft beer bandwagon - a clear indication that the phrase might add value to a brand - I'd have thought that a criteria around size of brewery would make some sense. Indeed there is a large degree of cynicism about recent moves by Marston's - who recently launched their 'Revisionist' range, which includes a beer called 'Craft Lager' - and Greene King - whose IPA pump clip now boasts that its 'hand crafted'.  GK have also recently invested £750,000 in a 30 barrel brewery for small batch and experimental beers - but is it possible for a brewery such as Marston's or Greene King to be 'craft'?  Well if the beer is good enough then why not?  On the other hand, Sierra Nevada are an example of a rather large brewery (in the top ten of all American breweries based on production) which still brews consistently and uniformly excellent beer, and which I certainly feel still deserves the description ‘craft’. So perhaps a size criteria is not so helpful after all.

In fact the more you think about a definition for The C Word, the more you can see that its extremely problematic to define: large breweries are certainly capable of brewing beers of exceptional quality; conversely, just because a brewery is small is no guarantee of high quality.  Using the word craft to mask poor quality, especially if this approach is married to a higher price, does nobody any favours and simply increases the risk of reputational damage to the brewing sector.

So for me, the label 'craft' isn't necessarily particularly helpful. My choice of beer is always determined by its quality, rather than because someone describes it as craft.  Having said that, when I hear of a bar which promotes itself as a 'craft beer bar' (such as the excellent new Flying Pig in East Dulwich - featured in one of the photographs) I am far more likely to be interested in finding out more. The reason? Because it's also far more likely that a 'craft beer bar' will serve beers of interest to me - offering that 'something different' I am looking for - a quality beer of interest.

Once again therefore we are back to The Q Word: Quality, which for me is the key.  Not the size of the brewery, not the method of dispense, not the artwork on the label, not the marketing budget: quality is everything - good beer is good beer.  

And the same thing also applies to that loaf of 'craft' bread!

An original version of this article first appeared in Chelmsford and Mid Essex CAMRA magazine 'Thirsty Times'.