Is it ‘craft’, really?

Few can have failed to have noticed, read about or become embroiled within the debate about the definition of ‘craft’ beer. A veritable game of semantic ping-pong or something much more serious, central to the very existence of independent, quality and taste-forward brewers? Yet, rather like many terms in business, ‘craft’ has moved from becoming something aspirational and positive, to something that is now merely an ‘amplifier’ – slipped on to a word to add weight and a veneer of artisan connotations to a brewer’s otherwise (likely) mundane credentials.

Most come at this debate through the lens of small, independent brewer defence: how dare these global multi-nationals (falsely, they say) claim our territory? These mass-manufacturers with their cost-orientation, process and efficiency fetishism, brewing imitations of the real deal. These profit-inebriated numbers machines that are only bothered about Executive remuneration and shareholder return. And damn them, these hard-nosed, ruthless bastards who have determined they can’t win the battle through imitation, so are intent upon gobbling up true craft brewers either through stealth or manifest over-bidding.

Switch views though. Plop yourself in the seat of a start up brewery, doing well, say three or four years in. Launched the company through skill and passion and vision. The head brewer is perceived to be the face in the brewery tap, but in reality he or she is putting in 16 hour days, with little help;  up with the lark to prepare the first brew of the day, and then lost in a fug of measuring, tasting, scrubbing out, washing down, problem solving, fire-fighting and customer-handling before having to down tools and go out and sell to pubs where there is no shortage of choice, enjoying an effective over-supply price war and frankly, such variable standards of serve that you have no guarantee that what you’re brewing will taste anything like i’s intended to. It’s no game for slackers; and that raw, nerve-tingling passion and drive can only take you so far when the only thing you are truly drunk with is the creeping, imperceptible fatigue of non stop graft.

What are the options then? You sell out; or you drive growth, efficiency and mind your costs.  Take a moment to read this extract from Four Pure Brewing’s recent blog on their upcoming expansion:

The heart of the expansion will be a state of the art 4 vessel Craft-Star brewing system from GEA. The Brewhouse is best in class for automation and beer quality, it’s the first of its kind to hit the UK and places us at the forefront of what is an increasingly demanding industry. In addition to production capabilities, it also supports our long standing commitment to sustainability and reducing the environmental impact by deploying outstanding credentials from water use and energy saving to heat recovery and vapour condensing.

The investment also includes the purchase of some additional pieces of the quality puzzle including an upgraded centrifuge, a precision carbonation module, malt and spent grain silos and 12 shiny 200hL fermentation tanks.  All of this equipment will be installed over summer and producing beer in September.

Determined to lead in education, efficiency and quality control, we’re not just focused on our brewing and packaging capabilities, there is a real drive to optimise process and practices across the business

This is no gibe at Four Pure, whose plans are exciting and heartfelt. Keeping brewing in the Capital; reinforcing sustainability, increasing capacity. But really look at it. The truth is that change the name and the scale of the fermentation vessels and you have a large, transnational brewer. This is the language of process and efficiency; heavens above, even the word “optimise” is used, and that’s a Four Pure10 pointer in our game of Business Bullshit Bingo™ here at Tinted Towers.

So, is this ‘craft’? Really?  How can we spend our time debating what ‘craft’ means when the ‘craft’ brewers are doing what the big brewers have been doing for years – recognising that making profit in brewing is damned hard and to be successful, you have to brew consistently excellent product, as efficiently as possible and brew it right, in terms of your people and the planet.  Wait! Did I hear you scoff?  Sure, corporate programmes of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ may be some politically correct window dressing for some of these companies, peppered with buzzwords and shrouded in a cloak of ebullient social feeds, but don’t doubt that these companies don’t mean it; and don’t doubt that they won’t make a difference.

The point is, big or small, you have to run your business well. And the ‘craft’ brewers who don’t will fail. It’s a tough, unrelenting and unforgiving beer world. There’s no point being a poet about it.

And it also shines a light on what we must protect in beer – what 30 years ago had almost been lost entirely. Because there clearly are significant differences between these up-and-coming ‘craft’ brewers and shareholder owned, profit-driven multinationals. Sometimes it’s the soft, intangible factors: a purpose or ‘credo’ as Brew Dog would have it. Often it’s about the manifesto that these companies have for their people; how they deal with one another and their customers. But the truth is, the real discriminator can only be one thing: that at the heart of the business, like a Framboise Supernova, is the beer.  Really at the heart of the business; not fancy words and nice pamphlets for the company induction days. The commitment to brew beer that is true to itself, is incisiveness in pushing the boundaries in technique and taste, is vehemently aggressive in protecting flavour and how that flavour is arrived at.

Take a look at how the big brewers products change over time and track them. What you see that beer is peripheral to their businesses. It’s just a tool for printing coinage.  Product flavour profiles changing; alcohol levels falling for the savings; ingredients bought more cheaply or switched for inexpensive or more high-yielding alternatives; processes shortened and switched to squeeze more out of the metaphorical tea bag. In fact, you can guarantee that the tea bag brewing process is currently being pursued – so much easier to clean the Copper.  It doesn’t mean that these companies can’t brew great beer: of course they can. They’re brimming with talented, passionate people who want to do the best they possibly can. But they’re knowing or unknowing puppets to the profit machine and personal beliefs and integrity around beer count for nothing.  That’s what’s under threat from the rafts of ‘craft’ acquisitions currently gong through. It’s the culture and commitment to beer that goes, enshrined in independence that protects what’s really important. When that’s gone your beer will not be far behind. A threat then to your beer; not today, not tomorrow and probably not next year but soon, very soon.


the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is hosted by Ding at Dings Beer Blog ( and his question is this: ‘What’s your role in the beer scene?’ Are you simply a cog in the commercial machine if you work for a brewery, store or distributor? Are you nothing more than an interested consumer? Are you JUST a consumer? Are you a beer evangelist? Are you a wannabe, beer ‘professional’? Are you a beer writer? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? Where do you fit, and how do you see your own role in the beer landscape?

For twenty years I worked in ‘big beer’. Working my way up from a green-gilled management trainee, selling cases of Lamot Pils in Liverpool or Launceston, Tennent’s Gold Bier in Partick or Pencaitland, to a marketing person launching brands or making their adverts to the heady heights of running innovation or sitting on the Board. My role was clear: and it was commercial. To sell more beer, more profitably. To impact the share price in a positive way. To help the business earn bonus.

HaloBut always there was an itch to scratch, a lack of fit. That business was run by accountants. It thought at one point it listened to consumers, at others that it was customer-centric. But it was neither. It was run for the money, nothing more. That’s fine, but it meant that sometimes, beer was actually a loser. Some brands, remarkable in their longevity were actively run down (‘cannibalised’ is the business term) to grow focus brands, often which had less real potential – except for leveraging the money machine further.   And the itch grew itchier. Before the world of work, at University, my knowledge and passion for beer grew. I was never a homebrewer (it never really crossed my mind to try to be honest, I had no role models who did it) but I was interested in beer, both as a drink in itself and as, without sounding naff, a drink of the people. This was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Jilly Goulden was expectorating about poncey food on the box and all the focus was going on wine. On exclusivity. On snobbery. On one-upmanship. And it wasn’t for me.

So I became interested in beer and travelled and drank widely. I watched ‘The Beer Hunter’ and I bought the books. But I went to beer cultures too: notably Germany and Belgium and saw what reverence for beer really was. It fired me up.

Then two decades in big beer slowly killed it… yet, not quite. The itch is there and today I scratch it; with abandon, without fear of the need of aqueous cream. I can immerse myself in the world of beer again without any guilt, without any feelings of corporate betrayal. And oooooh. It feels good.   Almost three years ago, on the back of a general desire to write, but not yet having the plot for my novel agreed, I decided to write about beer. More than anything for myself, and for the practice of finding my voice. I blog on other things too – but beer is my first love.

So does that give me a ‘role in beer’? Until the question was posed, I had never given it much thought, and truth be told I am not wholly sure. I have spent my working life in business involved in some way with beer, so I bring a commercial and branding angle to beer that is missing from many craft operations. Perhaps that is my role: but no, I am not trying to be a craft brewing consultant*. Perhaps I am a beer writer, after all I write about beer. But no, in the main I loathe beer reviews and am too critical of my own writing to take it too seriously. But what am I is pro beer. I want all brewers to up their game; to realize that brewing good beer is important. That branding your beers well is just as important. That retailing beer in the right way, serving properly, in the right glass, is important. Because that way more and more discerning adults will be pulled back into beer’s sphere of influence. That can only be a good thing, can’t it? I am, in short, a beer zealot.

* although to continue the  ‘Simon Zealots’ / Jesus Christ Superstar theme, to paraphrase,  “You might as well take it, my rates are good”

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014