Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Ideal: "Available to Ordinary Drinkers in Ordinary Pubs..."

This one is making the rounds: A thoughtful rant called Down with Craft Beer. It's written by a British cask ale activist, and comes only from that perspective. Phil goes through some pains to explain that the phrase "craft beer" might be perfectly appropriate for the U.S. given its history, but in the U.K. it has become something vaguely pretentious and snobby and he wants nothing to do with it.

Phil's argument is more relevant to beer scenes outside of the U.K., including the United States, than he would like to think.

A few points I'd like to make:

First: Why do we all have this annoying habit of trying to define "craft beer"? We're not tax collectors, so who cares? It's a reaction against bland or bad corporate beer, that's all. Meanwhile, what is and isn't craft beer doesn't have to be so clear cut. So there are a few breweries over which we can argue. I like to argue. It works for me.

And then: His view on what "craft beer" has come to connote in the U.K. reminds me a bit of my occasional ranting about the preciousness of the American craft beer scene. On the surface it appears as if everything is becoming five-course pairing dinners, high-priced rarities, and costly packaging. Ever more expensive, ever more alcoholic, ever more upscale, ever more special. There are more interesting things going on beneath the surface, but never mind that for now.

His rant also reminds me of why I fell in love with cask ale when visiting the U.K.: Because it was tasty and refreshing and affordable and available and it came in really big glasses. Now that I think about it, it had virtually nothing to do with the size of the breweries nor the method of dispense.

Tasty and refreshing and available and affordable. Why does that combination have to be so fucking rare? Now there's a campaign I could get behind. Quoting the Pub Curmudgeon, as Phil did, I'll note that one of cask ale's virtues is that it is "available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs." Shouldn't we have a similar goal for craft beer? Maybe we do have that goal but take it for granted. Maybe it's lost in all the news about special releases and high-octane booze-beers.

On the U.S. scene, I'd settle for more year-round session beers at reasonable prices. A local micro beer in every dive. A hoppy pale ale in every Thai restaurant. You get the picture.

Internationally--outside of the most developed Western countries, let's say--I'd be very surprised if craft beer gains much traction without being both drinkable and affordable. That'll necessarily mean local. Beer is heavy. Shipping and tariffs are a bitch.

What? You mean a craft beer scene exists outside of the U.S. and U.K.? Shocking. Sorry Phil, but that genie can't be crammed back into the bottle. We might, however, keep trying to shove him into more "ordinary pubs," in whatever forms they take around the world.


  1. I’m only a small-time home brewer in the UK, with relatively little experience, but I do have an opinion, so I hope you don’t mind me giving it.

    Like many things in the 21st Century, I find it’s all about public perception, marketing, call it what you will. To many of my age in the UK, the term ‘Real Ale’ harks back to the 70’s and conjures up the image of sandal wearing middle-age men, with beards, drinking something that resembles swamp water.

    As you mention, I’m not necessarily sure craft beer has anything to do with the size of the producer, or method of dispense.

    We’re at a time in the UK where pubs are closing at a rate of something like 50 a week. Clearly something was needed to arrest the flow. Something to get people interested in proper beer again.

    So, out with ‘Real Ale’ and in with ‘Craft Beer’.

    There also seems to be a current trend on these shores of downsizing, moving back to a simpler way of life - when products were hand crafted with love, rather than rolled off a production line in China.

    ‘Craft Beer’ fits in perfectly with that ethos. A natural product that’s been hand crafted is likely to make broad appeal at present. It’s the same product, with a more relevant title for the here and now.

    I get the feeling in our country, there’s also something less to be ashamed about liking ‘craft beer’, rather than ‘real ale’. Not least, that specific footwear and facial hair are no longer compulsory.

    If a bit of positive spin gets people back into pubs, drinking, and fascinating, over how four simple ingredients can produce such a rich diversity of flavours then it’s a good thing, whatever you call it.

  2. Cheers, Joe. Some of the responses to my post have said exactly what I wanted to say, only in fewer and less aggressive words, and this is definitely one of them. Just to clarify, the 'him' in your last sentence refers to 'the genie', not to 'Phil', right? Not that I would mind being shoved into "ordinary pubs"!


    It’s the same product, with a more relevant title for the here and now.

    Except that the big buzz among "craft beer" boosters in the UK at the moment is around keg.

    I get the feeling in our country, there’s also something less to be ashamed about liking ‘craft beer’, rather than ‘real ale’. Not least, that specific footwear and facial hair are no longer compulsory.


    This reminds me of nothing so much as the way the press write about any new folk artist - lightyears away from the wispy beards and aran jumpers of the old-style folk scene. I got into traditional music a few years ago, and I can tell you that the number of wispy beards, aran jumpers, pewter tankards etc you'll see at the average folk club is basically nil. Those "not like the old folk scene" writeups do the same job as BrewDog's "positive spin" - they say "ignore all of that stuff, it's boring and old - try this, it's new and exciting!" Great for making converts to one particular artist (or brewer), lousy for getting people into the whole scene.

    People who appreciate what CAMRA defines as "real ale" should be challenging those preconceptions, not perpetuating them.

  3. Mark's comments highlight for me something that ought to obvious: In the U.K. there is gigantic overlap between "real ale" and "craft beer," as those handles are commonly understood. So I would be leery of any attempts to create an artificial conflict between them.

    Craft beer should not mean keg beer, not necessarily. But those who advocate craft beer--and not just in the U.K.--tend to have a holistic view of the stuff. Pleasurable beers can come from all sorts of recipes and methods of dispense. And most of us tend to love cask too.

    Phil, how much of your hostility toward "craft beer" comes down to the fact that a lot of the American beers that make it over there really ARE unbalanced and relatively undrinkable, and that there are a whole raft of British-made products inspired by them? Because you might be surprised how many of us Yanks would agree with you on that count.

  4. It's a combination of things. I think what the way that the term 'craft beer' gets used in the UK* suggests to me is a self-enclosed clique of brewers and their fans, all congratulating themselves on being radical and progressive (and not like those boring old farts who keep banging on about real ale), and showing how radical and progressive they are by bringing out ever weirder (and ever stronger) beers.

    It's an odd sort of quarrel, because when you get down to it I actually like an awful lot of the beer that these people make. But I think, in the UK context, the emphasis on "craft" (and on making something radical, different, weird etc) is absolutely the wrong emphasis. For many years now, cask ale has been in decline in its natural habitat - ordinary pubs - and I think if all we do is celebrate weird and wonderful craft beer, we're fiddling while Rome burns.

    *My original post should really have been titled "Down with the way that the term 'craft beer' gets used in the UK!", but I thought the shorter version was catchier.

  5. I just deleted a comment that could've been a blog post on its own.

    Anyway, it seems to me that the small, passionate brewers with good products still seem to have a couple major problems. First, it's always going to cost more to produce their products than the factory-made beers, so paying a bit more shouldn't be a surprise. Second, the big boys have massive distribution channels and money/influence to bully. So, if there's a trend out there that is meant to differentiate the bullies from the bullied and get people to pay a little more to keep the good stuff flowing, so be it.

    Sure, the craft beer trend has its pretentious extremes along with those trying hard to fit in and ride the trend, but it's still one of the very few trends that I'm happy to back and hope it keeps going. I'm less sure about white kitchens.

  6. Phil: If you're right about the impression that "craft" gives most folks in the U.K.--"radical, different, etc."--then maybe we can just blame Brewdog's successful marketing and call it a day. But I think it's a mistake to think of properly made cask ale or simple but flavorful session beers of any sort as anything other than craft beer. Assuming they were not made by computers.

    Darin: One day I ought to clarify my tirade against high beer prices. Just to be clear: I don't think micro beer needs to be as cheap as macro beer. The economies of scale are obviously totally different. But I do think really savvy micros ought to give us different price points. Sometimes we might want to pay more for something special, other times we want to pay less for something to drink in quantity.

    My problem is that on the shelves in the U.S. I've been seeing too much special and expensive, and not enough drinkable and reasonable.

  7. Hey lookie over here. In the US, we can get a breakfast sandwich from a multinational franchise drive-thru on artisan bread. Artisan bread! Can you imagine?

    Please fix this craft beer thing. I patiently await your answers because I really really like Mark's, "natural product, simpler way of life" ideas combined with Joe's, "tasty and refreshing and available and affordable".

    UK people: It's still not too late to fix "gastro-pub" by the way.

    Thank you!