Greater clarity as to what craft beer is can only be helpful

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If I have to hear one more argument about what ‘craft beer’ really means, I’m going to drown myself in a vat of Coors Light. It’s as futile as trying to have a serious debate on the ethics of vegetarianism with an indifferent house cat.

Everyone’s got an axe to grind. Ask the UK’s small, indie brewers and they’ll tell you it’s about production, independence and flavour. Ask the big brewers and brand owners, and they’ll tell you every major beer brand was once considered ‘craft’ before it had the resources to go national – a cop-out perhaps, but technically a valid argument.

Ask the legion of beer fanatics out there on the internet, and the answer becomes even less clear. Perhaps it’s time to end the debate, once and for all. If only for the sake of my sanity.

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America may currently be run by a man who can’t string a simple sentence together, but the way our transatlantic neighbours categorise their beer makes a lot of sense.

The US Brewers Association (BA) strictly defines craft beers as brands with annual production of six million barrels or fewer, less than 25% ownership by an industry member that is not itself a craft brewer, and whose beers’ flavour “derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation”. This week it launched a new seal for said brewers to use on their packaging – a marketable, honest-to-god attestation of their craft credentials

The BA’s rules are tough but fair. The UK’s Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) has launched an accreditation scheme similar to the BA’s, which has seen a slow but steady uptake so far among its members. To be considered a craft brewer on SIBA’s terms, a brand’s production must be below 200,000hl, and it must be fully independently owned.

With predictions that our beer market will become increasingly like that in the US, as craft establishes a greater market share and shoppers become increasingly savvy, we could do well to limit ambiguity around the category.

Tightening the definition of craft would give genuinely independent brands a point of difference and a potent marketing tool to distinguish themselves. While the majority of supermarket shoppers don’t religiously check bottles to ensure they’re not owned by Dutch conglomerates, it could help guide the select few who do to products that meet their demands.

And let’s be realistic: it wouldn’t be the end of the road for brewers whose businesses have grown past the craft cut-off, or been bought by multinational outfits. After all, being craft may win cool points, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the beer is good. I’ve drunk countless £7 pints in trendy bars that tasted bland at best and nauseating at worst.

Say what you like about passion and independence, flavour – and price – are ultimately what will bring shoppers back to the BWS aisles time and time again. Brits may be drawn to a brand because it has a swanky, graffiti-adorned can, or because its CEO rants about its admirable values on Twitter, but if it doesn’t live up to its promises on taste and costs too much, all that can fall by the wayside.

The beer world and its politics can be messy, and too often fraught with needless debate. More clarity can only be a positive.

Readers' comments (1)

  • And whilst at it, the UK should be defining the term sourdough, for exactly the same reasons. And what baking means ... and what a bakery is. Six month-old frozen croissant, anyone? We can always add some sourdough flavouring if you like ...

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