A lot has happened lately. Myself and Phil Murray have accidentally launched a contract brewery, SOBA‘s long running radler trademark dispute is awaiting judgement, and I’ve become enamoured of the delights of Melbourne during Good Beer Week. This blog update is about none of those things! Instead, I’m throwing in with the multitude of beer blogs around who are talking about the issue of defining craft beer and craft breweries.
I don’t like having to define craft beer. It bugs me in much the same way that I avoid record stores (“what are those daddy?”) which group music by genre, instead of alphabetically by artist. One man’s alternative rock is another woman’s electric folk. Who is correct? Does grouping like this serve any purpose? So too, I believe, with craft beer.
It has been suggested to me by the wonderful people at BeerMen.TV that it should be all about size. That definition is good enough for the Brewers Association in the USA, so why not elsewhere? Well, for a start I think that’s the wrong question. Not why not, but why? After all, if it’s based on size, why should that be proportional in an international market? Many massive breweries around the world would be considered craft by the BA standard. That standard was also recently revised solely in order to accomodate the Boston Beer Company. Now, while they do indeed make excellent beer – six million barrles a year – they are MASSIVE by non-USA standards. To put that into perspective, Lion Nathan brews just 7.7 million barrels per year. So Lion Nathan is almost a craft brewery?
No, if you want to define craft beer, size is a terrible measure in my book.
I also don’t like the conflation of separate political issues which come about whenever this thorny problem arises. There are many reasons to want to define craft beers and craft breweries, and just as many agendas to serve in doing so. The issue which most often comes up is “support the small guy versus the big guy”. Now, I think this is almost as innate in us as it is irrational. All big guys were once small guys themselves. With enough support, the small become big. What we are actually saying is “we support you, wee battler, until you reach a certain size, at which point you are evil, and beneath our contempt”. Insane? Yep. I prefer to judge all companies on their products and on their actions. If a company is making terrible products, well, I won’t buy them, and I’ll recommend others follow my example. If a company is torturing lithuanian orphans, well, I’ll kick up a stink about that and do the same thing. There is no rational reason for hating a big company other than for behaviour or product quality. Yes, poor behaviour does include passing your product off as something it is not, and yes big companies do that sometimes, as do small contract brewers. For the record, Brewaucracy doesn’t!
So we’ve decided that we do want to define craft beer or craft breweries for reason X. OK, how then? Intent is important, I think. Craft beer is beer brewed for the love of flavour. Craft beer can certainly be brewed to make money, but quality is never sacrificed. So, I guess we need to measure quality as a statement of intent. Quality is, of course, a very subjective thing once you get beyond cleanly brewed, fault free beer. The popular beer rating sites such as ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com throw this fact into stark relief. The same beer, from the same batch, purchased at roughly the same time, can receive drastically different ratings. Generally, over time, the consensus reveals the general opinion of the beer though. One thing worth noting is that almost no Big Brewing Company beers score well. Now yes, there’s a large element of bias here, but how’s this for a rough shot at a definition?
Greig’s Crack At A Craft Beer and Craft Brewery Definition version 0.1
Craft beer should be defined solely on quality, to be determined by a representative sample of consumers. To be designated a craft brewery, one must have most (75%?) of one’s products rated at or above the determined baseline.
Now, how to ensure a reasonable sampling of non biased consumers, and who decides what the proportions and scores should be… well, that’s somebody else’s problem!