What does craft beer mean to you?

Posted by on Feb 11, 2011 in Editorial | 5 Comments

Following this post by Mark Dredge, today has seen a series of interesting discussions on whether the American-born term ‘craft beer’ has any meaning in the UK. Mark argues that it could have a place in the British beer terminology if enough people adopt it – but as the comments on his post show, there are plenty of people who feel the term is pretty pointless. The key difference here is the history the term has in the States – and the controversy it has generated there recently.

The Brewers Association are the trade body for small US breweries, and were originally established in 1942 to fight for issues that affected small producers – such as getting the tin needed to make bottle caps. Their big victory came in 1976 when they secured tax relief for their members – brewers who released under two million barrels a year would get a tax differential on the first 60,000. To decide who could qualify for this, the Brewers Association laid down a definition.

Not only did the brewer have to produce less than 2m barrels per year, to gain the ‘Craft’ tag they had to be ‘independent’ – less than 25% ownership of the brewery by non-brewers, and also ‘traditional’ – they were required to have an all-malt flagship, or over 50% total production volume containing malt or “enhancing adjuncts rather than adjuncts that lighten flavour” – I think we can all think of a few brands that would fall foul of that rule.

So far, so good. The number of defined craft breweries rocketed from 8 in 1980 to over 1,600 in 2010. But last year the success of one of those producers caused a big problem for the Brewers Association. The Boston Beer Company – brewers of Sam Adams – one of the pioneers of the US craft brewing movement, announced their annual output was going to exceed 2m barrels. That would put them out of the definitions, and into the Macro producers. Without their enormous sales, the Brewers Association’s figures would take a big hit.

So they simply changed the definition. In January they amended their code to read a craft brewery is one that produces less than 6 million barrels a year. The Boston Beer Company are therefore still classed as craft brewers. Beer writers questioned the moving of the goalposts – but the Brewers Association are a lobbying group, and the Sam Adams figures are too large to pass up. So although the Boston Beer Company probably don’t need the support of the Brewers Association anymore, they are too valuable an asset to let go.

When the American system has to be amended in this way – and I can totally see why they would want to do so, to keep one of their largest members – it does slightly undermine the craft message. All beers are crafted – some more than others, obviously – but when the organisation that created the term has to fudge the definitions, the limitations become apparent for all to see.

If ‘craft beer’ is a term that is becoming increasingly confused in the USA, it is being increasingly used over here. But in the UK it has no real meaning – unless we apply it to producers who qualify for Small Brewer’s Relief and the lowest level of Progressive Beer Duty – but that would rule out BrewDog and Adnams, two producers who use the term on a regular basis.

Beer writers and bloggers in the UK may be using the phrase more, but with no real historical background to the term here, ‘craft beer’ might be on a hiding to nothing. Earlier today I visited Evin O’Riordain at the Kernel Brewery – who could be a poster boy for British Craft Brewing, but with no defined ideals of what it means over here, it will take a long time before it enters general use. Looking at the problems the Brewers Association are having in the States, that might actually be a good thing.


  1. Baron Orm
    February 11, 2011

    I love Sam Adams beer – I lived in Boston for 18 months and drank very little else!

    Even though they are large they still produce quality products and haven’t skimped or ‘sold out’ – The Sam Adams available in the UK is imported by Shepherd Neame and not brewed under license unlike some people believe.

  2. craig
    February 12, 2011

    You know im not sure the moving of the Goal posts is so wrong.
    When the goal post were set at 2M the market for Craft vs adjuct mass market was quite small. But this market has grown, and thos so has the room for Craft brewers grown to match this.

    The growth is in 2 ways, brewers getting bigger, and new breweries opening. But if the market has vastly changed over the year, then so can the definition

    Though personally im not a fan of the name as you an read in my blog 🙂

  3. Richard
    February 13, 2011

    I should say I wasn’t having a go at the Boston Beer Co – they have done fantastically well. The problem with the term craft beer was tying it to a fixed set of definitions – the greatest coup of the Brewers Association was also their toughest moment.

    At the point when the first brewer – whoever it was – breached the 2m barrel limit, they were always going to have a problem. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with moving the goalposts if it’s your stadium, but it just dilutes the message of what craft beer means, maybe.

    Ultimately it doesn’t really matter of course – and this is why I don’t think the term will catch on in the UK…

  4. John
    March 2, 2011

    to me, the term ‘craft beer’ when used in a British context, doeshave relevance. it describes those brewers that leading the new wave of beer production in this country, like kernel and brewdog. The term craft beer here may not have a historical relevance but does follow the way the americans have experimented and not followed the rule book.

    British beer has traditionally been weak with subtle flavours. British brewers are now taking on that tradition in the style of their American counterparts. In fact, this may even be due to the the growth of strong hoppy american beers over here.

    I like the term craft. I perceive it to mean a product that is hand made with skill. Brewdog may produce large volume in contrast to Kernel, but you cant argue that they dont do it with the same ethos and enthusiasm.

  5. Richard
    March 4, 2011

    Thanks for the comment John – I suppose at the end of the day it all comes down to semantics – and personal choice. If craft beer as a term in the UK means beer that is skillfully made and with real passion then absolutely Kernel would be included, and BrewDog too, although both go about their brewing very differently.

    But it could apply just as much to the brewers making 3.8% cask ales with comedy pump clips – they are equally hard to make (trying to balance the flavours without much room to manouvere at >4%), and I’m guessing the people at those breweries don’t just bung in the malt without bothering if it makes a decent product – if they did they’d go to the wall pretty quickly as the standards of their beer dropped.

    I think ultimately fans of the new British beer movement who refer to it as ‘craft beer’ really mean ‘beer I like’ – those producers like Kernel who are always on the money, or BrewDog who have the enthusiasm and marketing to pummel their message home. Don’t get me wrong – this is exactly the kind of beer I love – and I’m proud to write about the new wave who are influenced by a more global outlook on brewing. I just think that all beer is crafted – and to use the American term to apply to beers I feel are crafted ‘a bit more’ is misleading.

    But whatever we want to call it, these are good times to be drinking British beer!

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