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The craft beer revolution is now ﬁ rmly on trend. But what actually is craft beer? David McPhee discovers that deﬁ nitions can be hard to pin down
O K, put down that pint of l at lager and check this out. There’s a new type of beer experience out there. It involves something called craft beer. Which, to its champions, is shorthand for beer with l avour. Those who make craft beer will, it’s believed, scour land, sea and air to i nd the next great ingredient to achieve l avour. They will happily spend hours, days, weeks and months researching it, testing it, tasting and brewing it to get it just right. As this phenomenon has grown, so have levels of consternation within the industry about the term ‘craft beer’.
‘We’ve painted ourselves into a corner,’ suggests beer writer and blogger Melissa Cole. ‘We needed clearer communication within the industry early on.’ Her feeling is that an initial strong and concise message from brewers may have headed off those who might wish to appropriate the term for their own i nancial gain.
Before ‘craft’ came along there was, of course, ‘real ale’. A rallying call for true beer lovers in the late 20th century, in more recent times real ale had undoubtedly been suffering from a mild image problem (think of John Major supping on a l at warm pint and you get the picture). Yet those who brewed real ale share similar objectives to those who now produce craft beer and many are happy with the dei nition. ‘We brew beer in which l avour is the overriding consideration and that is true to itself,’ says Jamie Delap, director of Fyne Ales. ‘Craft beer as a term does mean something to our customers or else they wouldn’t be using it. Presently it’s the only term that makes sense.’ Brewers commonly use dei nitions such as ‘authentic’ or ‘honest’ when describing their processes and products which clearly suggests there are ethical considerations associated with them. However, this doesn’t help the humble enthusiast much in understanding what the true essence of craft beer really is. Fortunately there are ways to navigate
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the lack of a true dei nition and, to an extent, there is a consensus in the industry as to what ‘craft’ should mean. Daniel Rowntree of the Craft Beer Rising festivals maintains that ‘l avour is directly related to the human inl uence associated with the product’, and many agree that a mass-produced beer masquerading as ‘craft’ is easily identii able through taste.
It’s impossible to have this discussion without mentioning BrewDog. Their scale of operation certainly doesn’t appear to interfere with the quality of their product and the process in which it’s made but their constant use of the term ‘punk’ and their claim to be ‘sticking two i ngers up’ to what has come before does not sit well with the integrity associated with the craft beer philosophy. For many of their ‘punk’ devotees (and individual investors), the revelation that BrewDog supplies to Tesco surely provoked similar reactions to those witnessing Iggy Pop’s foray into insurance sales.
If craft beer, as an entity, is simply clever marketing, then it can understandably leave the consumer somewhat bemused. What does it really stand for? Gavin Meiklejohn, director at Tempest Brewing Company, contends that pride in your creation is part of the overall process. ‘You need to be in complete control of your product,’ he states. ‘It should be small-batch and should have production and quality control right down to packaging and the best quality ingredients possible.’
As the obvious dichotomy present between passion and proi t is unlikely to be resolved, it’s intriguing to see some are now considering alternative dei nitions such as ‘hands-on brewing’ or ‘hand-crafted beer’. Whether you’re carving – or crafting – out a niche or redei ning the public’s understanding of what they drink, the name game is an ongoing challenge. ■ Craft Beer Rising is at Drygate, Glasgow, Fri 4 & Sat 5 Sep.