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.