This craft-beer debate saps the fun out of ale

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Craft beer Beer Craft beer co

Pete Brown: Tired of the craft-beer debate
Pete Brown: Tired of the craft-beer debate
Serious beer bores are in danger of turning the wider public off great ale, writes Pete Brown.

If any readers of this column are encountering my writing for the first time — hello! I should perhaps make it clear from the start that I believe in treating beer with both the respect and irreverence it deserves.

Beer and pubs are crucially important to our wellbeing as individuals and as a society, hence the respect. But, more than anything else, the pub experience is about having a laugh, enjoying the benign anarchy of good friends relaxing in an informal environment — and there's the irreverence.

These two approaches should be kept in a fine balance. Last week, for example, I was at best being only half-serious when I suggested someone should open an Alien Sex Fiend theme bar in Guildford. (Judging by some of the comments, this was perhaps not as clear as I intended.)

With all the challenges facing our industry, I'm increasingly worried that the debate, discussion and banter surrounding it is becoming too serious, and that's depressing.

Last week, for example, I was in the newly opened Craft Beer Co, the latest offering from Martin Hayes, licensee of the Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico, and winner of best tenanted/leased pub at this year's Publican Awards. Hayes' new gaff boasts 18 cask ale hand-pumps and a selection of rare beers from around the world that is overwhelming in its scale and exoticism. Hayes is revealing himself as some kind of unhinged genius, a mad professor of beer retailing.

On my last visit, I'd just ordered a pork pie to go with my 7% ABV oak-aged lambic 1001 IBU Mongolian Black IPA (or whatever it was) when in walked the actor Richard Schiff, famous for his role in The West Wing.

The former fictitious White House communications chief took a great deal of care and attention choosing three different craft beers to share with his friends.

Then, he spotted my pork pie on the bar and said: "Hey, what's that? I'll take one of those too."

Toby Ziegler, out of The West Wing, saw me eating a pork pie and then ordered one for himself!

I was so pleased with this desperately lame claim to fame that I decided to make it the centrepiece of my blog post about the Craft Beer Co. Other bloggers had already reviewed the place and I had few superlatives to add, so I decided to write a funny piece instead — a bit of info, with generous lashings of that old irreverence.

Hours later, I was wishing I hadn't bothered. One or two commenters had got the spirit of the piece and enjoyed it. But most of the comments thread was taken up with a crashingly dull discussion about the correct definition of the term 'craft beer'.

Which brings me, more than halfway through, to the point of this column: 2011 is turning into the year of the great craft-beer debate — or at least it is in the beer blogosphere. The term 'craft beer' seems to be causing the greatest upset in beer circles since the Great Cask Breather Malarkey. And I honestly don't see what the problem with it is.

To me, 'craft beer' is an imprecise but useful term implying that a beer has been created on a small scale by someone with a passion for brewing rather than a minimum wage button-presser. It suggests (but doesn't necessarily stipulate) that this beer will be more flavoursome than mainstream beer, and is more likely to use traditional methods and ingredients, or conversely, experimental ones.

I don't need any more definition than that. I know, for example, that Thornbridge Jaipur is a craft beer and Stella Artois isn't. I'd say pretty much any cask ale is a craft beer, but John Smith's Smoothflow is not.

But many real-ale fans disagree with me. Craft beer, for them, is another newly imagined enemy, a threat to real ale rather than a fellow traveller. They can't cope with the fact that it doesn't have a precise technical definition like cask ale does. They say it's a meaningless term, and get genuinely angry with people who use it. (I suspect much of this anger comes from a worry that craft beer extends notions of legitimacy and quality to beers that are not cask or bottle-conditioned, but that's a different squabble.)

Many craft-beer devotees are just as bad. In America, where they need precision in everything, craft beer is defined strictly according to the volume output of the brewery. Become too successful at selling craft beer, and suddenly, with no change whatsoever to brewing techniques or recipe, your beer is no longer craft.

And so, any discussion of a wonderfully exciting new development in beer is crippled by bores on either side droning on about whether it technically exists or not, and another great opportunity to interest a wider audience in good beer dies a lonely death.

Sure, it's important that we have some definitional framework for beer, and that we address important issues with the gravity they deserve. But this dogged seriousness about beer, this unremitting, irony-free pedantry about everything from beer styles to pub trivia, is driving me to drink.

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