Category Archives: Editorial

What does craft beer mean to you?

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.

Evening Beer

The other week during the recording of one of our podcasts, we started to discuss the concept of Evening Beer, and what it meant. After a bit more thought, this could become a definite category for ales – more or less the exact opposite of Session Beer, that great British invention. I mean that sincerely by the way – the traditional 4%abv beer definitely still has its place, even if some more modern brewers look down their noses at the thought. A visit to the pub – surely one of the great things about being British – requires a few hours (unless it’s lunchtime). Drinking lower abv beers is really the only option, unless you possess a lead-lined stomach.

The new wave of American or US-inspired breweries may not like the idea, but session beer still has a concrete place in the British pub-going setup. That’s not to say we’re a nation of effeminate 3% drinkers, unable or unwilling to tolerate flavour – there’s just a time and a place. This is where Evening Beer comes in. When drinking at home many people I know would prefer one or two full-flavoured stronger beers, rather than attempting to replicate the pub experience and have half a dozen bottles of Cairngorm’s Trade Winds and a packet of dry roasted. So the criteria for an Evening beer are along the following lines:-

Pack a punch
This can be either pure alcohol strength, or simply a hefty taste from a specific ingredient. Session Beers are usually rounded and moreish, Evening Beers need to give you that bang for your buck if you’re only having the one. Anything from Stone for example, such as their Supremely Self-Righteous Ale (8.7%).

Go overseas
Certainly pubs are now very different to ten years ago – even average boozers will have a few imported bottles or (dare we suggest) foreign lagers. The good ones will have a range of US-imports or Belgian sippers. At home of an evening, the wallet’s the limit – time to break out the Westmalle Tripel (9.0%), assuming you’ve got the correct glassware.

Something exceptional
The pub is all about the experience, outgoing, sharing. As Evening Beers are usually drunk alone, and in a more refined setting than somewhere with sticky carpets and strange smells from the toilet – time to break out a collaboration beer, or a limited edition. BrewDog Abstrakt AB:02 for example, a mighty imperial red ale. And at 18%, not one for the weekly darts night at the Red Lion.

Go seasonal
Again, the modern British pub should give you a range of golden ales in the early summer and porters once the clocks go back, but for that one-off wonder at home, get it right. Saisons, Harvest ales, Pumpkin ales – match it to the season and find that bottle opener. Sierra Nevada Estate (6.7%) is king of the harvest ales.

It’s up to you
Having said all that, the prime criteria for an Evening Beer is that it’s whatever you say it is. If you’re at work and looking forward to that one bottle once the kids have gone to bed, it doesn’t really matter what it is. Drink a Dark Island Reserve in summer. Pair a Goose Island Matilda with lukewarm fish fingers and chips. Take a Westvleteren 12 into the shower. You’re the boss, after all…

Something on top, sir…?

They say size matters – and to us Brits it certainly does with regard to beer. Those last couple of centimetres (inches if you’re old school; or fingers if you tend to peruse the spirit shelf now and again) can change the entire formula of the drink. CAMRA types will be keenly eying up the level, daring the bar staff to leave their pint a couple of sips short. Northerners will be looking for that thick creamy head we all apparently love, whilst Southerners will be hoping there’s no pesky sparkler dispensing that bubbly wastefulness. And those about to grapple with a round are hoping the surface tension holds until they can get all the pints back to their respective destinations.

But there’s another class of people out there – that never really get taken into consideration on websites and blogs about beer. What about those that like to leave a gap at the top of the pint for a dash of something else? I’m not talking about the students battering their braincells with a ‘depthcharge’ (or Poktanju for our Korean readers). I’m referring to shandy drinkers. Even the name has developed into urban slang for someone who’s a bit soft, the stigma of ordering something weakened, something diluted. But when you think about it, is there anything wrong with asking for a dash of fruity mixer to be included? I remember my (then new) girlfriend asking for a Kronenburg tops in a classic Edinburgh real ale pub – and we’re still together. Although when it’s Kronenburg you’re diluting, I say go for it.

Anyway, all this came up the other month when we were in a back street pub in Stirling and I overheard the conversation at the next table. A group of old soaks were discussing a mate of theirs who had developed a taste for – what has to be the most Scottish ‘thirst quencher’ I’ve ever heard of – Irn-Bru tops. So, of course, that got me thinking about how it could possibly taste. And there’s only one way to find out, of course. So I’ve been doing some digging and have come up with some mind-boggling recipes. Although they are all for another time, not for today. Instead, some actual imported bespoke Belgian ale – albeit one that resembles lager tops.

Mystic Citron Vert (3.8%) is an unfiltered Belgian blanche flavoured with added lime juice produced by the Brouwerij Haacht (also available in Cranberry and Cherry versions). Combining the “light tingling of the lime fruits with a pleasant sweetness”, it “ends in a deliciously refreshing aftertaste.” Well, we are fans of Belgian beer here on the BeerCast. It pours a hazy yellow with a vague greenish tinge, and the overwhelming taste is sugar. It’s colossally sweet, lemons and sugar – oddly I got more lemon than lime out of it. At under 4% there was never really going to be a beery-ness to it, and as expected it tastes like diluting juice, or maybe Lemsip. It might be nicer warm, actually.

Mystic Belgium