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Brown: The craft of defining artisanal beer

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Craft beer: Does it even exist?
Craft beer: Does it even exist?

Related tags: Craft beer, The guardian, Ons

Beer writer Pete Brown learned a lot while on assignment recently, but despite asking experts and discovering those in the industry are unsure, his search for clarity on one subject goes on.

On Tuesday the week before last, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced it was including craft beer, along with e-cigarettes, in the basket of goods use to calculate inflation.

On Wednesday, while I was en-route to the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) conference in Sheffield, The Guardian​ newspaper phoned and asked if I could use this as the basis of an in-depth article on craft beer. I spent all day Thursday interviewing people at the conference, wrote the piece very early on Friday, and it appeared in the paper on the Saturday.

Column inches

While I was searching vainly (in both senses of the word) for a link to the piece on Saturday, I realised how many articles about craft beer The Guardian​ has published in the past few years.

“Remember when we used to moan about the nationals ignoring beer?” someone asked during an ensuing online discussion. Surely, no one can deny that good beer is now big news.

I was surprised how much I learned in those frantic few days.

Online

The first thing was that, while we pay a great deal of attention to debates online, in social media and on blogs and message boards, the heat in these discussions is not representative of how strongly people truly feel.

There’s something about sitting at a keyboard and disagreeing with someone that makes a red mist descend. Talk to them in person, and everyone is more relaxed. The gravity of the craft beer debate has probably always been exaggerated by the fact that it has taken place mainly electronically.

Secondly, I was surprised by the emerging consensus on craft beer.

Vague

Within the industry at least, most brewers, trade organisations and campaign groups seem to have accepted that craft beer may be a frustratingly vague and subjective term, but that it still stands as a shorthand for beer that tastes of something, is different from mainstream lager, and is probably made in small batches.

Before I reached this happy consensus, I had one final stab at trying to nail a precise definition. If craft beer is being measured by the ONS, I thought, then they must have defined it. Finally, we have a truly official definition of craft beer!

I contacted the ONS press office to find out what this definition was. I was neither the first, nor the last, to do this, and we all received the same answer. The ONS was
certainly NOT offering a definition of craft beer. It had issued a set of guidelines to auditors going around shops and supermarkets, but this reflected more a proxy measure of craft beer rather than a hard and fast definition.

Guidelines

Whatever your views, the ONS guidelines are full of holes: their scope of ‘craft beer’ includes traditional ales, but excludes wheat beer and stout. It covers anything in 500ml bottles, but doesn’t count imports or cans.

So are its guidelines any use at all as a definition?

Well, no. And that’s why the ONS insists it is not a definition. The point of its guidelines is that they direct an army of people with clipboards to roughly the right shelves.

Just a few days later, I was at the final judging day for the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards, where I was one of the judges of the Best Drinks Producer category.

For the first time in the history of this award, there was not a brewer among the three shortlisted finalists (though the shortlist selection went to a very close vote). I wasn’t too bothered by this: beer has always dominated this category, with a brewer winning almost every year. Beer doesn’t need the recognition like it used to, and it’ll surely be back next year.

Subjective

After we’d decided the category winners, the discussion moved to special awards for individual contributions to food and drink culture, and the transformation of the way we eat. In any such discussion, words like ‘craft’, ‘artisanal’ and ‘premium’ crop up frequently in relation to all sorts of food and drink categories. And it struck me, as I listened to people talk about them, that not a single one felt the need for a precise, technical definition of what craft meant in that sector.

Craft is an adjective. It is to some extent subjective, and by its nature, it relies heavily on individual talent and creativity, and changes during time.

As someone said in response to The Guardian​ piece, craft, like art, should remain only partly defined.

It’s time we all just relaxed and enjoyed some great beer, without a technical spec to tell us whether we are allowed to like it or not.

Related topics: Beer

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