Craft and consolidation

I’ve thought long and hard about a Tinted perspective on the ‘craft’ debate. Industry insiders and writers of all denominations here in the UK, in the ‘States and elsewhere have chipped in to make this a rich vein of beer column inches. Should I join in?

The answer I reached is no. And not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s already too late. “Craft” as a word is already baseless, devalued. It’s become so over-used, so stretched that not only has it lost any useful meaning but it’s crossed the line and become unhelpful and confusing. At its bluntest it is a false amplifier, used to cast a positive halo on something questionable; at it’s most sophisticated, it adds no value to the more knowledgeable drinker who’ll work out for themselves what’s good and what’s not.

If we truly think that ‘craft beers’ are motivating for many drinkers then what do we think craft means? Or more to the point, what should it mean? Surely, you would imagine, it should involve some craft, some learned skill, human artistry, or personal flair. I like ironwork when hammered and hewn by a smith; or glass art, igneously brought to life by the likes of Jo Downs. To me that is a ‘craft’. One piece, similar on face value, is totally different from the next. Each with its own unique fingerprint.

For me ‘craft beer’ should mean this too. A while ago, I visited the Žatec Brewery in the Czech Republic. It was fairly tumbledown, apart from where investment had been made in key places: in the copper room; in fermentation, in yeast propagation and in new lines throughout. In the main, Žatec brew familiar Czech, lagered beers, not the mega hop profile of a West Coast pale ale, or the counter-intuitive thinking of a black IPA. But their beers are craft: the ingredients are picked, selected and loaded by hand. Fermentation is judged to be completed by the brewmaster not the stopwatch, maturation also. There is some slight variation in the end result, precisely part of its charm. They’re now half owned by Carlsberg, but are they any less craft?

Likewise, I recently visited Westons cider mill in Much Marcle. The vat shed there is one of the wonders of British cider making; there must be over 50 oak vats, all old, all named, unique in height and girth, strapped together with iron belts and carrying titles as varied as ‘Gloucester’, ‘Worcester’ and “Aston Villa’. But every drop of Westons cider spends time in those old oak vats. There’s just no way on earth that each batch can be 100% consistent, yet alone the fact that much of their product is ‘vintage’ so will vary enormously from one season to the next dependent on the fecundity of the harvest. Surely, this is craft? Yet within cider circles, merely because of their ‘scale’ (medium-large in cider terms, modest compared with many breweries, minuscule compared with brewing multi-nationals) many commentators claim that they can’t be described as such. They remain wholly family owned and independent.

Yet equally, I have been round a number of craft breweries who use spankingly new, gleaming stainless steel equipment and whose brewing process features automation (grist loading, hop addition for example) and is run from an iPad. Is this craft?

Our perspective has become cock-eyed. What we have to nurture is something entirely different. What we have to nurture is the human desire for variety, to be curious, to discover and try new things. A desire that in the late 60s and 70s was almost suppressed. The role of ‘innovation’ in proper beer remains as important today as it has ever been. On the one hand, we have the major international brewers putting much of their focus into mass-produced hybrid products (part lager, part spirit, often mixed not brewed) that do little for the brand other than confuse and are, in essence, a way of supplying easy drinking, relatively low cost alcohol to young adults. Conversely we have a push for discovery and rediscovery in genuine beer from national brewers to micros (and even, more patchily, with some multi-nationals) that matches this human trait and is breathing new life, new vigour back into beer. This is what we must protect, through our inventiveness and as drinkers, through out wallets.

Because have no doubt. The threat of mega-consolidation is a looming large now, dwarfing any petty questions of how to define ‘craft’. The economics of acquisition demand cost and efficiency savings. Savings mean cuts, closures and simplification. Brands will die; brew streams will be reduced, provenance will count for little. And as in turn, growth slows, so the eye of the multinational looks out into the world of burgeoning smaller brewers and eyes them lasciviously. Once they’re ‘synergized’ into their networks, the clock on them being able to carry on brewing in the way that the Founders intended, the way that built the brand and brought them success, is ticking. Tick follows tock follows tick.

So call it craft if you want to. Call it ‘interesting’. Call it ‘flavoursome’. Call it what you will. To me, it doesn’t matter. But whatever you do, support independent brewers who continue to innovate and brew with principle. A dark shadow is growing.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

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