Of rooms and the elephants who dwell therein


I’ve been taking a break from blogging, and indeed writing in general lately. I don’t really know why. I’ve just struggled to find something that hasn’t already been said, and usually more eloquently than I could say it. I’m not averse to some deceased equine beating, I just think that it pays to have something to add to a debate before saying something.

The old “what makes beer craft beer” debate has been bubbling up from under again of late. Unlike some, I’m not tired of this debate. I’m glad it keeps coming up. This post is in part a way to continue it and I hope that enough people still bother checking in here that it will get some discussion.

Historically I have weighed in on the side of the debate that says craft beer is beer which is brewed because the brewer enjoys it, and thinks others will too. I don’t believe that rules out wanting to make money from your beer. Making money is an old and noble pursuit! I just believe that the brewer has enough self-belief to say “I love this beer I’ve made, and I’m sure others will love it enough to want to pay for it and thus afford me a wage”. I believe this can be the goal of big brewers and small ones without a conflict.

The pachyderm alluded to by the title of this post is that SOBA, and indeed most “pro consumer” organisations were founded as a reaction against the perceived dumbing down of mainstream beer. This means that we (SOBA) often tend to attract those who feel pretty passionately that the big boys are the cause of everything that is wrong with beer. SOBA’s official position is closely aligned with my personal one on that. Since I helped found the organisation, I guess that’s not too much of a coincidence. This view is that SOBA celebrates and advocates for good beer, no matter who brews it. Lately it’s a view I’ve found harder and harder to defend in practice, even though it couldn’t be easier to defend morally.

It’s not just one sided either. While I am utterly sick of the same cynical and predictable marketing and product range of the big guys, I am equally tired of paying $9 for a pint of craft beer and getting a barely drinkable glass of something vaguely resembling beer, and feeling like a traitor to the cause if I give an honest opinion about it. Why does this sub-par beer get to be included in the “good beer” category we call craft, but the excellently brewed Kingfisher I enjoyed recently get excluded?

So, what am I trying to say with this rambling post? I guess I’m saying that I’m a little uncomfortable with “us” (be it SOBA, CAMRA, AHA, or just the passionate and unaffiliated local beer nerd down the pub) building entire campaigns around a notion that we can’t even define clearly. Does this mean we shouldn’t fight for good beer? Hell no. I just think we need to be a little careful who we champion and equally, who we write off as “rubbish”.

If a brewer has sold their soul in the name of marketing or not dumping a sub-par batch of beer, I believe that said souls can be purchased back for the price of a few good pints.


7 thoughts on “Of rooms and the elephants who dwell therein

  • Stu as "Stu"

    Beautifully said Greig… here is an area where I believe we can totally agree. I’m a big fan of Mac’s beers, of plenty of industrial lagers like DAB, I even quite like Stella Artois and steinlager (especially on tap)… Every Lion Nathan Brewer I have ever met has been a gem of a person. And the few DB ones I’ve met have been cool too.

    Anyway, to cut to the chase… your opinion is right!! ;-) I hope a lot of people read this and it would be great to think that it might change someone’s mind.

    Love you long time, and wishing I saw more of you
    Stu

  • Jono

    Right on! Just because a brewery says they’re “craft” doesn’t mean we should accept everything they brew like the Second Coming of whatever religious icon each of us may worship.

    And just the same, there are mainstream breweries make good beer. Like Stu, I’m more than happy to drink Mac’s beers (Sassy Red my top pic).

  • Danielson

    Well put Greig, I still enjoy a decent bottle of Grolsch now and again and the ridiculous, but joyful, ritual of popping the cap. I think the point that irks me most about the ‘big boys’ though is the rise of bandwagon beers. I’m quite happy sipping on a beer that’s mainstream, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

    It’s the whole cloak and dagger/pea soupy information surrounding the likes of the DB ‘Black Dog’ and IL ‘Boundary Rd’ that puts me off far more than the gimmicky furry beer handles and crappy graphic design, even before I’ve tried them.

    You make the point about honesty, that to me, is all it needs.

  • Kelly Ryan

    Well said, Mr. McGill!

    Speaking of Sassy Red… had a pint up in Auckland last week. Super impressed and one of the better Amber/Red brews I’ve had in a long time! That new brewery they have up in AKL is doing wonders for their beers. (Couldn’t have said that when I was on the DB payroll back in the day!)

  • greig Post author

    Thanks for the kind words guys. I’m still thinking about this, and it’s an interesting process.

    I think now (as I did in 2006, but for different reasons) that the answer is to simply make it simpler for the consumer to decide what good beer is to them all, individually. For that to happen, we need to show bar owners that it’s not in their long term commercial interest to lock themselves in to any brewery, be it big or small.

    As always, that needs to come from the consumer, and will be best achieved by “keeping on keeping on” with what SOBA et al are doing. Keep the snobbery out, keep showing drinkers that there’s so much more to the beer world than they thought, and keep asking bar owners to stock a wider variety, or to rotate a smaller number of taps more often.

    It’s weird when you approach a problem with two very different world views (me in 2006 and me now are quite different, philosophically speaking) and arrive at the same conclusions!

    Anyway, that’s a bit of an onanistic reply, but I’m just thinking in type here!

  • greig Post author

    In a parallel universe (well, the UK) Boak and Bailey wrote this which adds a semi-rational argument to the small-over-big argument.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t still judge beer without taking into account who makes it, but it does go some way towards explaining why we tend to do that. Food for thought anyway.

  • Edward Valenta

    I LOVE opening up this can of worms! hahaha I’ll have you know the same debate continually pops up in the States and the lines are blurred and gray as usual. The Beer Advocate supporters are probably the epitome of geeks bashing mainstream beer in the US (the bloggers not the bros) and it never sits well with me. Heck they even bash craft breweries that get too big! Good on Greig for sticking his neck out a bit. The thing I really don’t like is breweries pretending to be something they are not. Craft labels and logos with no mention of who brews the beer, while stocking grocery shelves and filling pub taps with stock market dollars don’t win points with me. They generally make decent beers; creative with no flaws but I try not to vote for them with my money if I can help it. The US has Blue Moon (Coors) and NZ has Boundary Road (Asahi) who ran a nifty PR campaign to “find” a US brewer to “save” NZ from boring beer. NZ doesn’t need saving, you;re doing a fine job by yourselves! But as Kelly says, just be up front with the info and if people are ok with what you are… then that’s great. Enjoy the beer you spent your hard earned money on. And YES, tied houses suck… ala the UK.. and NZ… sometimes! Yeah for quality beer… no matter who makes it. And my batteries are dead. HA!

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