It’s no secret that the world is currently in the midst of a craft beer explosion. Long gone are the days when your drink options started and ended with the same old lagers. Now, small pubs and home fridges alike are filled with the produce of craft breweries – whether they’re hyper local or brewed somewhat further afield.
This does, however, pose something of a question: what exactly is craft beer? Yes, it’s tastier, produced in smaller batches and typically a little pricier, but where does the line start and end? Is Sharp’s still a craft brewer following the explosion in popularity of Doom Bar? What about Meantime and Camden Town breweries, have they made the jump yet?
Craft beer: A definition
Before we go any further, it’s pertinent to get a solid definition of the term ‘craft beer’ and the breweries which produce it. America’s Brewers Association claims that the definition of US craft breweries are: “small, independent and traditional.” This means they must produce 6 million barrels or less every year, the business must be less than 25% owned or controlled by an industry member that isn’t a craft brewer, and they should use traditional or innovative approaches.
This definition is seen as currently the best option – though it still has its flaws. Many people see it as the least worst option, rather than anything definitive. Among the critics are James and Martin of self-proclaimed “punk brewers” BrewDog. They note that the US definition has allowed the industry to grow, but it has flaws in the form of “exceptions or controversial omissions”.
BrewDog’s founders took the definition and expanded it somewhat, in the hope of removing some pinch points that plague the US version. They say craft breweries should:
Be small – brewing less than 500,000 HL annually.
Be authentic – by brewing at original gravity and not using rice, corn or other adjuncts to lessen flavour and reduce costs.
Be honest – publish ingredients and place of brewing on the label. All the beer must be brewed at craft breweries.
Be independent – not more than 20% owned by a brewing company which operates any brewery that’s not a craft one.
James and Martin acknowledge that their definition is “the starting point for an open discussion rather than the end definition”, but proffer one that’s fit for their UK market and slightly more in-depth than the US alternative.
It’s certainly more in-depth than the famed Reinheitsgebot (or ‘purity order’) that stipulated in 1516 that German beers could only be brewed with three ingredients: water, barley and hops.
Any notable exceptions?
The most frequently raised problem with the US definition is that some bona-fide craft brewers are omitted for a small irregularity. Meanwhile, others that wouldn’t ever be considered craft find themselves included within the remit by happy coincidence.
So what of BrewDog’s definition?
Sharp’s would face exclusion here, as a BBC report from 2015 noted that the bottled ale is actually brewed in Staffordshire, with only the cask version made in its historical home of Rock, Cornwall. Also, Sharp’s is now owned by drinks giant Molson Coors.
It’s a similar story for London’s Meantime Brewery, which was acquired by SAB Miller in May 2015 for an undisclosed amount. Similarly, Camden Town Brewery became a wholly owned subsidiary of Budweiser firm AB InBev back in December 2015.
BrewDog itself could soon move beyond its own craft definition. Recent growth has prompted the company to increase its total annual brewhouse capacity from 160,000 HL to 1.5 million HL. Once this new total reaches just a third capacity, BrewDog would move beyond the 500,000 HL mark. However, James and Martin note that their definition of craft could, strictly speaking, make a similar point with no reference to size, meaning their status wouldn’t change.
Some recognisable names that would appear to fit wholly within the definition are Siren Craft Brew, Wild Beer Co, Purity Brewing, Beavertown and Dark Star Brewery. So, if you have a session comprising Undercurrent, Redwood, Mad Goose, Gamma Ray and Hophead, you can be confident that everything is strictly craft!
Should there be a definition at all?
For all of the above, some beer aficionados think there shouldn’t be a definition at all, be it because it excludes people from what should be an inclusive industry, or simply because finding one that everybody agrees upon is so difficult.
Among these is beer writer Mark Dredge, who authored ‘The Best Beer in the World’. He noted that, before even getting into the nitty gritty of set definitions, some people have issue with the delivery method, saying that anything in a keg is craft and anything on cask isn’t – something with which he vehemently disagreed.
Dredge went on to say: “Craft beer is just a name; I don’t think it’s an actual definable thing and certainly not in any meaningful way… I simply don’t think we need to define craft but I do think we need to kill the misunderstanding between craft and cask because we need to appreciate that they belong side by side and that one isn’t trying to replace or undermine the other.”
BrewDog’s James and Martin aren’t convinced, though. They argue: “Craft beer needs a definition, and that definition needs something tangible and solid. Everyone who brews, drinks and cares about great beer will be stronger as a result.
“We want a definition to be recognised by both CAMRA and SIBA and also at a European level by The Brewers or Europe Association.”
So it seems a universally agreed definition is some way off yet. Certain people don’t even want one to exist at all. What are your thoughts? Should there be a set definition or not? If so, what would you include?