Craft Beer – Once More With Feeling

One of the questions which regularly preoccupies many who write about beer is the meaning of “craft beer” and whether the term is still useful. Craft beer, as an expression, has become standard to describe the kind of beer that arose in the last generation in reaction to mass-market light beer or other well-known “commercial” brands. This alternative beer was rich-tasting and often hoppy from generous quantities of bitter or aromatic hops. Since the small businesses associated with the beer revival often made this kind of beer, and small meant hands-on and one of a kind, the term “craft beer” arose (20 years ago or more) to describe the kind of beer they made. The term then became generalized to describe the good stuff.

This was always a simplification, but business and culture need simplification to facilitate sales and the spread of information in a coherent fashion. There is nothing wrong with that.

An initial spate of talk ensued about the craft beer definition when large breweries, concerned by the market rise of the little guy, started to make their own craft-type beers.

Now that a growing number of craft breweries have been bought out or are taking heavy investment by mega-brewers, concern arises again what craft beer is and whether the term is still useful.

Add to this that brewers’ trade groups often have their own classification (or not) of the industry, and the consumer beer media have editorial policies how to describe beers and breweries in their publications.

Just today, beer writer Stan Hieronymus revisits the definitional issue and links some recent writing of interest.

Since starting up here over the summer, I believe I haven’t written on this issue, although I’ve opined for years on it before that on others’ blogs, so I’ll add this now.

In 1982, all these beers functionally occupied the space “craft beer” does today: Chimay Trappist Ale in Belgium, Ballantine India Pale Ale (U.S.), Ind Coope Burton Ale (England), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (U.S.), Anchor Steam Beer (U.S.), David Bruce’s Firkin beers in England, Cooper’s Sparkling Ale in Australia, Pilsner Urquell (the then Czech Republic).  I could add a few hundred more.

Some of these were made by large (national) companies, some by old-established regionals, some by boutiques, some by quasi-boutiques such as Anchor Brewing.

Some were pasteurized, some were not, some were all-malt, some were not.

A beer was recognized as valid by its inherent quality, of taste that is. Today, in the semi-post-craft beer era, we are slowly but surely returning to that state. This is salutary, because that is where it began and the criteria applied then by the small knot of world beer fanciers have never been improved.

There were, of course, arguments whether a beer really rated in the league-table, some thought e.g., Labatt IPA qualified, some didn’t, same for Yuengling Porter. Same for the unpasteurized Coors Banquet Beer. By the same token, numerous microbrewery beers of the time, as they were generally called then, were pretty dire: often oxidized, yeast-infected or otherwise poor quality. Just because they were from small independents didn’t mean they were truly craft, a term that always implied a certain quality level. Thus, the term had an inherent ambiguity from the beginning, but this has grown recently due to the acceptance of craft beer as a permanent part of the market and the acquisition trend lately manifest.

Quality of flavour and fidelity to style, or if you are going to create a new style, then the inherent interest it offers, are all that matter to the question of good beer. The rest, e.g., what a trade association says, or the editorial policy of a consumer beer magazine, may be of interest but are not determinative of the quality issue for a consumer.

Because quality of flavour is subjective and there are many beer styles out there (some of which offer a fairly bland taste), there will never be agreement what constitutes a great, middling or bad beer. I know what I think about it, though. And so do you, the informed beer person reading these notes. And that’s all that matters.