Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Defining the Undefinable







I mentioned that one of the recommendations of the Working Party on craft beer set up by CAMRA was to attempt a definition of craft beer in British terms. We thought that the best way would be to ask SIBA to join us in this, though nobody doubted that to achieve a successful outcome would be problematic, if not impossible. The main driver was to try and set some parameters and avoid large brewers jumping on the "This is Craft" bandwagon, as well as defining that beer could be craft beer irrespective of method of dispense. We didn't get that recommendation through and now, on reflection, it was probably just as well. There is little point of trying to close that door now. The term "craft" is now being widely used irrespective of provenance. Any streaky pig can and does call their beer craft.

Reading Boak and Bailey's viewsand the contributions from various people to their blog, shows clearly, that while most people know craft beer when they see it, when it comes to a common definition, there is little agreement and little to prevent anyone using the term "craft" in any context they like. Craft has always been a fairly meaningless term in a UK context and the whole thing is undermined by conflation with US craft definitions, which frankly, have little use here at all. In fact, it is the crossover, one to another that has created this daft situation where craft is either "beer I approve of" or good beer that isn't cask conditioned.

I know some don't like it, but to my mind craft keg is one definition that most people can understand. That is beer that is made with the finest of ingredients and then served by keg dispense. Real ale - cask conditioned beer - already has its clearly understood definition. It doesn't really need the term "craft". Keg beer does, to attempt to overcome the stigma it has achieved for itself over the years.

How about that then? Works for me anyway.

I commend Jeff Alworth's comments. He talks sense for a Yank trying to get his head round British peculiarities.

44 comments:

Mark Dredge said...

I disagree.

It's like trying to define 'bottled beer'. All you're doing is defining how something is dispensed. What you are doing is defining a process. It has nothing to do with the beer inside it.

The frustrating thing is that 'craft beer' is seen as this crazy or mystical 'other' when it isn't. We've just over-complicated everything. All that's happened is beer has moved forward, as it always would have done. Styles and fashions change and beer is no different. That some beer is now served on keg isn't revolutionary. One of the reasons we're stuck here is that CAMRA's view seems to be too deeply ingrained in the beer thinking of the UK - what other voice is there that's told us about beer in the last few decades? We've been told that cask is good and keg is bad for too long and there's not much end to that.

I don't think we need to define craft beer. I don't really like the term but think it works as an idea, even if it's thrown around in lots of different directions. What I dislike is when 'craft' only means keg or when it's used to elevate some beers over others because they are more craft than someone else.

Defining craft keg is the same as defining craft cask... then we're stuck back at the beginning again.

Bailey said...

There's the term as used by marketers which we, as consumers, can choose to play along with or not (we're not mugs); there's the term as used in casual conversation, where the meaning is usually either obvious from context ("Where's the best place to drink craft beer in Bristol?") or doesn't really matter all that much; and then are working definitions used by one body or another for the purposes of deciding policy. I can live with that.

Cooking Lager said...

"Craft" is a self applied term used to mean "quality". To paraphrase the big lebowski "that's a name no one would self-apply where I come from"

I see it in pubs used as an adjective to what used to be called "seasonal" beers by local regionals. All of it on cask. Whether customers do associate a greater value in the word "craft" or think it bollocks I don't know. The mates I booze with think it bollocks.

I also see it used in supermarkets to mean the beers sold singly for more the 2 quid that are "for punks" or some such shit.

My advice to Dredgie is to use the adjective "artisinal" to the goddamn awesome beers he knocks up at Camden. "Craft" is so last year.

jesusjohn said...

I'm with Mark and Bailey on this - in London there are now huge swathes of places marketing themselves as 'craft beer bars' (Mason & Taylor and The Fox in Hoxton come to mind - the latter incorporates 'Craft Beer House' into its logo) so I'd not want the definition to come to mean 'not cask'. I might add that save the BrewDog bar, self-defining 'craft beer bars' regard cask as an absolute necessity. So I'd say they're defining it for us and I'm glad it includes the best that cask and keg have to offer.

That said, I also agree with Tandleman that as shorthand for those interested in beer, 'craft keg' lets you know it's decent and on keg; and he's right keg has had most stick over the years.

But I do think the whole definition thing is over complicated. We're all so keen not to come across as snobs that we're afraid to say craft beer in the UK context just means 'not Carling, Stella, et al.'

If someone wants to accuse me of snobbery for saying it, go ahead.*

* awaits tedious comment from Cooking Lager

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Just don't start calling it 'Boutique', I can't stand potpourri in beer.

Cooking Lager said...

@Jesus "Snob" isn't nuanced enough for beer geeks. I'm prefering the insult "parvenu" instead.

But yeh, it kind of means non mainstream. Not Stella. That's not necessarily snobbish, The term is not automatically associated with snobbery.

A fair number of people seeking that sort of thing will to all intensive purposes be snobs. Not all, just some. The term "craft" has a good chance of being associated with snobbery, but if you consume "craft" beer you will have to rub shoulders with others that do.

Real Ale has it's stereotype, I'm sure viz will get round to "the craft ale twats".

Do let me know if this is tedious enough.

Curmudgeon said...

"Non mainstream, and not necessarily cask" is perhaps the best definition of it. But can you define a "craft brewery" as well as "a craft beer"?

And excellent - the option to subscribe to comments is back! :-)

Alan said...

"...a definition of craft beer in British terms..." as a starting point sort of guarantees something less than successful. Taking the vague and twisting it with a mild case xenophobia is not going to help. I fear you have a pointless task before you. "Craft" is meaningless in North America, too, even if folk in the trade won't admit it. A marketer's term that has oddly been embraced by the overly selective who can't accept large breweries making good beer. I like the affirmation that "good beers exist which are not real ale". Until that can be accepted, however, everything else is a bit about rearranging the furniture.

Jeff Pickthall said...

"Craft Beer" is just a term used to suggest "We like/sell good beer but don't buy into CAMRA's anti-keg and anti-lager perspective."

It works for me. I've been using it for years. I've found it very useful in selling beer to the demographics that real ale struggles with - young people and women.

Jeff Pickthall said...

"Craft Beer" is just a term used to suggest "We like/sell good beer but don't buy into CAMRA's anti-keg and anti-lager perspective."

It works for me. I've been using it for years. I've found it very useful in selling beer to the demographics that real ale struggles with - young people and women.

Matt said...

"beer made with the finest of ingredients" is a subjective judgement. I'm sure Carling with their 100% British barley would claim to be using "the finest ingredients".

Tandleman said...

Alan. Nothing xenophobic about the observation that it is sometimes difficult to understand other people's beer culture. It is why I don't comment on Yankee blogs. Way too presumptuous. Also anyone that denies American influence on our thinking is an idiot. Pick the bones out of that.

Tandleman said...

Mark: Good to have you back commenting again.

I disagree with what you say and here's why:

"All you're doing is defining how something is dispensed. What you are doing is defining a process. It has nothing to do with the beer inside it."

So what? I believe cask beer tastes way better. To me the dispense method is very important and can't be blithely dismissed.

"The frustrating thing is that 'craft beer' is seen as this crazy or mystical 'other' when it isn't. We've just over-complicated everything. All that's happened is beer has moved forward, as it always would have done."

No. Read Ron Pattinson. Beer has moved backwards actually. Apart from odd ageing and maturing of beers, there is nothing new at all.

"Styles and fashions change and beer is no different. That some beer is now served on keg isn't revolutionary."

No it isn't. A lot of keg ale went away because it was shit. OK - we got smooth instead - that was new at least. The revival of keg just re-introduces better made beer that is as cold and gassy as it always has been. By no means revolutionary. We agree.

"One of the reasons we're stuck here is that CAMRA's view seems to be too deeply ingrained in the beer thinking of the UK - what other voice is there that's told us about beer in the last few decades? We've been told that cask is good and keg is bad for too long and there's not much end to that."

Well it seems when we in CAMRA try and think beyond that, we get the same criticism that we get if we don't. Of course we are deeply ingrained in the beer thinking of the UK. And so we should be. That's where we live and drink.

"I don't think we need to define craft beer. I don't really like the term but think it works as an idea, even if it's thrown around in lots of different directions. What I dislike is when 'craft' only means keg or when it's used to elevate some beers over others because they are more craft than someone else."

Too late Mark. That has already happened and has taken root.

"Defining craft keg is the same as defining craft cask... then we're stuck back at the beginning again."

Maybe no bad thing if so many of those that like the term craft are such difficult bedfellows. It seems bending over backwards to try and be reasonable over all, to accommodate change, is a nil sum game.

I for one am tired of all this. I may well return to being a lot more hard line about it all.Couldn't be worse that trying to be reasonable. That clearly isn't working.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.

Alan said...

"Mild xeonophobia" is no insult. And I said it is no help by way of offering guidance for your conundrum. This is especially in a case where I am confirming the term is equally meaningless on either side of the lake.

You would have to be arguing for unique local meaninglessness but feel free of that is where you are going. With my dual citizenship status I can confirm that it,too, is not helpful.

Tandleman said...

Alan: Eh? I think my position is quite clear. It is "it is sometimes difficult to understand other people's beer culture."

Now you may feel perfectly equipped to overcome my perceived difficulty. That's fine, but I think you have an uphill struggle.

As for "You would have to be arguing for unique local meaninglessness" I could well be, as I have no idea what you mean.

Alan said...

Put it this way. I have no interest in being a jerk about it but we all have been in the "craft beer meaning" debate. There are debates over "style" and "small", too. What they have in common is that they are useless terms. "Real" is useless as well expect for the CAMRA appropriate to mean in rough summary "living" v "dead" beer not in a bottle... maybe.

What can be established is that good beer is better than bad beer but what is good or bad is up to the taste of the drinker. Taste is cultural but can be changed and elaborated with education but "craft", "real", "small" or "style" as single words ultimately add nothing to any of it except a branding opportunity.

More detailed explanations of the ideas referenced by those words are required to establish whether the concept has any meaning as a tool for communication between people, especially people who do not share a pre-existing lexicon that serves as agreeable conceptual shortcuts.

Tandleman said...

Agreed. Now I'm off for a pint!

Gueuzel said...

I’ve been lurking on this excellent blog for ages, and I’ve finally decided to break my cover, because the “craft definition debate” has been vexing me for some time. By way of background – so people know where I’m coming from – I’ve been a card-carrying CAMRA member for most of my adult life. I love real ale, and it’s the style that got me “into” beer. But recently I’ve been drinking more and more beer that isn’t real ale – starting with US bottled beers, and then moving on to keg offerings from closer to home.

My ultimate hope is that CAMRA can embrace and help promote some non-cask beer, but whether or not it actually can or should is a matter for another day. What I want to do now is to agree with others (including Tandleman, I think) who suggest that defining “craft” is an impossible task. More fundamentally, I wonder why having a definition in the first place is such an issue?

Tandleman’s suggestion is that the main driver behind a definition is to avoid brewers passing off their product as something that it isn’t (and by implication something that carries a certain seal of approval). This is laudable. But can’t this just be left to the market to make its own judgements? If brand **** (insert usual suspects here) advertises itself as “craft”, and there isn’t an agreed definition to allow anyone to prove or disprove the claim, then the following things will happen: the beer will sell (or not) on its own merits, will be bought by people who like it, and even a future CAMRA with a remit that embraces non-cask ale (in my fantasy world) wouldn’t promote it or sell it at festivals.

I can see a parallel here with CAMRA’s existing operations. As has been pointed out eloquently by Des de Moor and many others, CAMRA already campaigns for things that aren’t real ale: the two most obvious being cider / perry, and pubs. Now the former are well-defined. But does CAMRA’s support for pubs rely on there being a definition of what is actually a “pub”? If a grotty, unfriendly bar with no character that served real ale in consistently poor condition markets itself as a “pub”, then the following things happen: it succeeds (or not) on its own merits, it is frequented by people who like it, and CAMRA doesn’t “promote” it either by including it in the GBG or mounting a campaign to save it if it were going under.

So it seems to me CAMRA already devotes considerable resources to promoting great British pubs, without there being any perceived need for definition of “pub”.

Apologies for the length of post but I’ve been troubled by this for a while. All I need now is for someone to produce the ratified CAMRA policy document which defines “pub”, and then I shall make a graceful retreat back to the world of lurking.

Bailey said...

Gueuzel -- that's a really interesting observation. The pub is a classic example of something we know when we see it, through experience and shared dialogue.

Anonymous said...

pub
— n
1. chiefly ( Brit ) Formal name: public house a building with a bar and one or more public rooms licensed for the sale and consumption of alcoholic drink, often also providing light meals.

Just to save us reinventing the wheel.

Bailey said...

Anonymous -- sounds like a bar.

Curmudgeon said...

Of course that opens up another can of worms - what is the difference between a pub and a bar?

Tandleman said...

Thought I'd explained that. Why you no listen?

Bailey said...

Should say at this point that, interesting as we find these conversations about meaning (others don't, we gather...), I don't seriously think that pub/bar needs defining or redefining; just that it's good to be reminded that lots of terms are poorly defined, but it doesn't stop them being useful and meaningful. Pub's just had longer to bed in than 'craft beer'.

Rob Nicholson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Nicholson said...

So have we got anywhere with all of this? I'm still confused.

Rob Nicholson said...

>Of course that opens up another can of worms - what is the difference between a pub and a bar?

Dunno but the criteria we use for inclusion on www.whatpub.org is "Can you go in order a drink without a meal?". Covers a wide range of premises.

Tandleman said...

Rob: I've got somewhere. I'm sick of it.

Gueuzel: Welcome to the blog. You said:

"So it seems to me CAMRA already devotes considerable resources to promoting great British pubs, without there being any perceived need for definition of “pub”."

Indeed CAMRA does and must. It is only in the pub (to all intents0 that you get cask conditioned beer. The two go hand in hand. So to all intents again, a pub sells cask beer. But that is of course (slightly) tongue in cheek. But only slightly.

Cooking Lager said...

Pub is a poorly defined noun but if I use it, every English speaker in the world will know what I mean.

If I attach an adjective and say "good pub" then my definition of a good pub is different from yours. My definition has big telly & football. It is only useful if we have a common frame of reference for "good", or you understand my meaning and how it is different from yours.

Likewise "beer" is a noun. I know what you mean by it, but still it could be any kind of beer. "Craft" is another of those adjectives that whose meaning alters the noun but only in so far as we have a common frame of reference. Its less useful than saying "lager beer", "bitter beer", "brown beer", because when you use "craft" I kind of need to know more about you, like when you use the word "good".

Rob Nicholson said...

There does seem to be somewhat of a circular argument here. Ian Fozzard challenges us with statements like "Imagine if in 40 years time we’re
still campaigning for real ale as currently defined and deriding other beer styles?" and the answer is to which "Of course we can't". So then you try and define what else we should campaign for beer wise but struggle so around and around we go.

Ian then goes on to talk about helping the pub and to a certain extent this could be the answer to the above challenge. We're already not just campaigning for real ale as it's currenty defined. We campaign for the pub and consumer rights. For me, I'm quite happy for this to be my get-out-of-jail free card. It allows us to just support "the pub", all who drink in it and everything they drink. Should CAMRA support a pub that doesn't sell cask ale but is the heart of the community? The answer for me is "yes" but I suspect that sits uncomfortably with some CAMRA members.

In my heart, I'm a member of the campaign for the british drinker, the brewer and BTW, I happen to think that more often than not, cask ale is the best style of beer.

PS. Re "deriding other beer styles" - that's an easy one. CAMRA must not do it. If we do, then "Real ale twats" is a deserved title.

John Clarke said...

Rob

I agree with your PS but you must admit that sometimes the sloganising and other stuff in Out Inn Cheshire does rather do that.

Erlangernick said...

Hurried ramblings follow.

As an expat Yankee homebrewer, I nearly wince when I hear real ale referred to as a "style", other than specifically as a "style of conditioning/serving". Be careful, it's a dangerous world out there.

And as a Yank who's rolled his eyes at the term "craft beer/brewery/brewed" since first hearing it probably 20 years ago, I'm sorry you lot "have" to deal with it now. At least in the US, the term has some vague sort of utility, if not real meaning: to distinguish the beer brewed by microbreweries, brewpubs, contract brewers at big beer factories (and even some beer brewed by the megafactories) from the adjunct-laden, bland, post-prohibition industrial lager that the rest of the beer-uninformed world associates with "American beer".

I say you people simply don't need a new term, unless it's something like "awesome-US-microbrewery-inspired" beer. Whether bottled, kegged, or cask-conditioned is irrelevant.

I've said for a long time now that since it's so hard to define what "craft" is, we should talk about what it isn't, if we must use it at all: it isn't adjunct-laden, bland, industrial lager.*

And it is very hard for this Yank to wrap his head around the argument of whether a cask ale is, can, or should be "craft". Where I'm from, cask beer is ONLY produced in brewpubs or by microbreweries of the awesome new variety.

What's especially distressing is seeing the term used among certain new German brewers. Not only does it have to be translated, it has to also be explained that it's not a well defined term to begin with.

(*)Unless a "craft" brewer crafts such a beer with intent and love, of course, perhaps out of nostalgia for the rotgut of his or her youth.

Erlangernick said...

To wit, a promising pale ale from Häffner Bräu in Baden-Württemberg, single-hopped with Citra:
http://www.ratebeer.com/beerimages/143156.jpg

Not perfect, but a very admirable attempt for someone who's probably never been to Oregon. The batch I tried from last summer just needs more hops, basically. And a bit of cleanup with the yeast.

Tandleman said...

Nick. I assume your irony lessons are coming on apace by the repeated use of "awesome". Well done.

Erlangernick said...

I saw on the twittosphere that a recent email from BrewPup used the a-word no fewer than five times. To think of it as an Americanism is new to me. I used to always think of it as a stoner word.

Speaking of BrewWhelp, the canned Punk and the Hardcore (as well as Meantime Chocostout) are on the menu of a posh-sounding countryside hotel restaurant not far from me in Franconia, of all things:
http://landgasthof-fiedler.de/restaurant/kulinarisches.html (Check out the PDFs under the Bierkulinarium and Bierkarte links.)

The not unattractive lass is Franconia's first Biersommeliere. We shall have to pay a visit.

Cooking Lager said...

"awesome" is at least a clearly understood adjective that has a common frame of reference.

Some of the better ones here.
http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=awesome

wee beefy said...

Re "I nearly wince when I hear real ale referred to as a "style", other than specifically as a "style of conditioning/serving".

At the risk of sidestepping some important, perhaps emotional standpoints, can't we use craft as a definition of serving and style exclusively?

Real ale is a recognisable appreciable term, although often abused, whereas craft, as demonstrated across the Blogosphere, is a liquid term undefinable outside of its uttered context. Tandleman is correct to say that craft could(does)help(s) to distinguish fine quality "keg beers" from the wearisome dross that we used to find in that dispense category.

It would therefore be an improvement if Craft could be a term attached to keg dispense to identify its origins and provision.

Real ale breweries (and i get that there is cross over) surely have enough marketing weight with real ale - rightly or wrongly, I consider that anyone describing a craft brewery to me is referring to a keg only operation. Is this disastrous?

Tandleman said...

wee beefy: I started off thinking that way, was talked out of it and now am more convinced that it is the only solution that makes sense in a British context.

99% of the time, those that espouse "craft" in the UK, mean keg. (Putting bottles aside - I don't think they are an issue in definition terms).

John Clarke said...

I think Wee Beefy may have inadvertantly come up with the best definition in the UK context:

"a liquid term undefinable outside of its uttered context"

I think that will always be the case.

Anyway I think this particular horse has long since bolted and that "craft" has really become as much a be all and end all word as has "traditional". It can mean what the user wants it to mean and I don't really think any amount of thrashing around in the blogosphere* is going to change that. Let's not forget that Hydes have been calling their bi-monthly specials "craft ales" for years now.

At the end of the day I have to say that I've still not seen a convincing explanation as to why it needs defining. Or to put it another way - does it matter and if so why does it matter?

* and given that Martyn Cornnell has suggested that the blogosphre has perhaps no more than 5,000 dedicated readers and that this argument seems to be confined to a tiny fraction of those this does seem to have the appearance of a storm in a teacup (or given the context perhaps that should be a storm in a 2/3 pint stemmed glass)

jesusjohn said...

I'm with John here - I don't see a pressing need for a definition either (as I say, insofar as there is one, it's 'not Stella, Carling [insert macro lowest common denominator brand]').

Any attempt to brand craft as keg only is dead on its arse; as craft (as Jeff Pickthall pointed out correctly) has been useful as a term to win over more women and yoof - anecdotally, I'd say successful ventures aimed at a broader market put 'craft' front and centre (Craft, Clerkenwell; Mason & Taylor, Port St, Manchester 'Craft beer from here, there and everywhere') - I'd not want cask excluded.

jesusjohn said...

I'll just quickly add I think it's wider-media and customer attitudes such as the following that mean CAMRA should move more quickly to hug decent keg close before it loses influence with beer geeks, brewers and wider industry voices (my theory is CAMRA could lose influence to protect cask even as it gains members beguiled by JDW vouchers and think they're joining a beer club):

'We live in a post-CAMRA world where beer is at its most exciting not in pubs but in a growing network of urban craft beer bars. In their enthusiasm for US and world beers, strong beers, stylistic hybrids, bottled and keg beers, these bars constitute a definitive break with traditional real ale culture.'

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2012/mar/06/craft-beer-now-served-cool

Tandleman said...

JJ. You can see the trouble though when we try. See above to remind yourself.

The other point is that these places are few at the moment and don't scratch the surface of real ale. My point is yours I think, but I'm not quite so beguiled by mood of the moment geeks.

jesusjohn said...

I certainly didn't wish to associate myself with the sentiment in that quotation, as I suspect you understood Tandie.

I just take the view that what is often fringe at first is actually indication of early-adopters that will roll out. As I've said, premiumisation likely means pubcos will identify those pubs that have had success with greater flexibility on guest ales and move forward with that on kegs. It's beginning already with the greater rollout of Urquell and will snowball from that to Meantime and - before you know it - keg Jaipur will suddenly be everywhere. If I'm wrong, shoot me.

On your point that ecumenical CAMRA types such as yourself are damned if you do and damned if you don't, I heartily sympathise.

I still advocate my warming, sweet-tasting fudge that CAMRA ought to give consideration to decent keg where the brewery involved has a permanent cask range. That would still leave my favourite example (Taddington Moravka) outside the tent - but then maybe it would persuade them to do a cask lager in order to have the main brew win CAMRA's keg award?

Such a stance would mean breweries diversifying their range would still see real merit in sticking with a forward-looking CAMRA. CAMRA could honestly say such a position was one that put cask first.

Tandleman said...

"I certainly didn't wish to associate myself with the sentiment in that quotation, as I suspect you understood Tandie."

Understood. Hence my qualification.