The thorny issue of ‘craft’

Over a quiet beer or two, I have been wrestling with a dilemma.  Actually, no, that’s not right, as a dilemma is something you can’t satisfactorily resolve.  Rather, a thorny issue:  when is craft craft or not craft?  To stretch it further, are big brewers who sell ‘craft’ beer simply responding well to the drinker trends in the market, or are they being just plain crafty?

The Motley Fool ( – a network of bloggers offering advice and gossip on companies and share performance – recently penned an article on US craft beer sales. It made for interesting reading:  although craft beer is only 6% of the market place, they are growing strongly, up 14% in the last year according the American Brewers’ Association – in an overall market where per capita consumption is declining.  Interestingly, the big brewers’ performance within this was marked. Miller Coors’ Blue Moon brand grew by 50% between 2009 and 2011, and Leinenkugel’s grew by 20%.  Anheuser Busch is also a player. They have bought Goose Island and also launched their own craft brand, Shock Top, the latter growing 70% year to date*. In comparison, more established players – the genuine craft brewers it is argued – are growing much more slowly.

Raspberry WheatWe drank Shock Top Raspberry Wheat in the Salty Dog in Sarasota – with no idea it was an ABI beer. Inspired marketing or a confidence trick?

There are two really interesting dynamics going on here.

First, that there is a debate going on about ‘craft’ at all.  Big companies get big for a whole host of reasons – luck, daring acquisitions, market expansion, exploitation… and brand building skill.  If they spot an opportunity to sell brands to drinkers, they’ll do it, and endeavour to do it with scale.  As far as I’m concerned, if a drinker is happy that a beer is a craft beer, then whether we agree on principle or not becomes purely academic: it is. Get over it, and start competing.

Second is the debate about what constitutes craft?  The answers are invariably couched in a hotchpotch of measures: volume brewed; use of adjuncts purely for taste, independence.     This is missing the point – a point bigger than beer. What manifests itself in beer as ‘craft’, is a slew of market trends impacting right across food and drink products: national, regional, local, provenance, authenticity, passionate producers, natural ingredients, interesting tastes & textures, original recipes – I could go on.  It’s popping up in tea, coffee, wines & spirits, across all foods from fresh meat and veg to ready meals and snack foods.

So what’s the connection?  These trends are tapping into our desire to emotionally connect in some way to our roots – however we define them as individuals.  This could show itself as national pride or local knowledge; it can show itself as truly authentic or re-interpreting the past, but importantly it doesn’t define itself by scale.  Look at Rachel’s Organic or Yeo Valley – organic, touchy-feely, yes. Niche – no. Or Tyrell’s Crisps, Red Sky or Kettle Chips.  Made from potatoes (not substitutes), interesting natural flavours, lovingly fried in kettles, yes. Niche – no. Or Sam Adams, Blue Moon, London Pride, Doom Bar – interesting, unusual, brewed with care? Of course.  Niche – no.

It’s good news all round for brewers, but as it’s about more than just the beer – it’s great news for brewers great and small.

*Clearly, that’s in the year to the date of their earnings release, not the year to date this year.  Mind you, January sales up 70% would be no mean feat.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, February 2013

The Session #65: You’re never alone with a Strand

the session beer blogging fridayIt’s funny, drinking alone.  For many of my friends it just isn’t done; an admittance perhaps that your socially failing.  Another example of modern day liberal mindedness gone too far though I fear.  My father in law has set off for the pub by himself, every Sunday, most weeks of his adult life, and possibly a few before that.  He doesn’t ring around in advance to ask who will be there; no checking of social media sites or text messages and no sending of pigeons either come to think of it.  He gets up late; has a shower and heads off.  He will sit at the bar and drink a pint of whatever takes his fancy, but is within the bounds of his respectable repetoire.  Bass, yes.  Old Speckled Hen, yes. Landlord, yes. London Pride, no. Bank’s, no. Greene King IPA, nay, nay and thrice nay. Pedigree, pub dependent.

But of course, the beer is of little relevance in this scene. Sure, it’s part of the pub currency… a pub currency that has linked these visits from the time he started. Memories of beers that have come and gone; of public houses now just houses, and Landlords now lording it under the land behind the Church. And sure, despite what he says, the pint itself matters even less when most of the time he sluices a Gold Label into it anyway.

Because in reality, he never does drink alone. John is someone who is an institution in his village in a way I can never been in mine – he has lived there all his life; his business is there; his family are around him. And his extended village family too – people he has known all his life; or their children, new bucks he gently teases about their effiminate ways… even if he wanted to be alone, he couldn’t be.  And while he may complain about this from time to time, he knows as well as everyone else that he wouldn’t have it any other way.  If the pub has no other customers, then he chats to Tom, the Landlord; if he knows no one in the bar, he either introduces himself, or much more likely, is introduced. So, even though he is by himself, he is most definitely not alone.

I’m different. Sometimes I need my space. Once or twice a year, I really do need to be alone and just let the cobwebs that have accreted over the passing months get blown away.  I’ll go to the hills and walk, or set off on my bike.  But this isn’t the everyday me.  I have what I deem to be an curious individual trait, which of course, is common to most:  from time to time, I like to be alone in others’ company. the hustle and bustle around me; the chatter; the greetings; the people-watching.  I observe it directly or in the corner of my eye as if floating like an invisible orb above the scene, but actually being in it is critical.  Because I can choose to participate if I want to.

And beer doesn’t always feature here.  Before I had children, the occasional Sunday newspaper, bag of crisps and a pint was more occasional than not; today, it’s more likely to be a snatched 30 minutes between the parental taxi duties. Not that I’m complaining.  Because the shimmering image of those Sundays, sitting at a big oak table, with a broadsheet spread out in front of me and a pint of …ooh, let’s say, Broadside, my accompaniment, is always there. It may take me until retirement to live that dream frequently again, but I can dine out on the thought of it happily until then.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012