Does England Need a Definition of Craft Brewery?

1376502534148I’ve written before of the British movement for the revival of “real ale” throughout England. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a movement to both preserve, protect, and popularize traditional English ales. Much like the craft beer movement in America there is a sister movement in England to revitalize a brewing industry that has been dominated by uninspired, cheap mass market beers. A state of affairs that many British brewers and drinkers think is just unacceptable. Yet this movement in Britain has its own challenges that differ from its American counterpart. One such difference in a lack of a definition of what makes a craft beer.

In America the Brewers Association has defined what it means to be a craft brewery. This definition is based on three basic tenants; small in size, independent in ownership, and traditional in methods. While there is plenty of debate about both the nature of these restrictions and some of the beers that are inside and outside on the edges of this definition Americans can easily discover if the beer they are drinking is from a craft brewery.

In England there is no counterpart to the Brewers Association and thus no similar definition about what makes a craft brewery. James Watt and Martin Dickie of Brew Dogs last week posted on their website about the need for the United Kingdom to adopt a definition of craft brewery.

James and Martin write:

Why do we need a definition? 3 words: Blue Fucking Moon.

From my perspective, the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer. Sure, their definition is imperfect; it has it’s flaws and people can dig up a few exceptions or perhaps controversial omissions. However, it has undeniably served its purpose in that it has enabled craft beer to explode, that it has given new consumers a point of reference and enabled retailers to structure their offerings in order to promote great craft beer.

I think we need an official definition firstly to protect craft brewers and what we are building; secondly to guide consumers in this new and emerging category in the UK; thirdly to ensure that true craft brewers can charge a fair and sustainable price for their masterpieces; and fourthly to enable craft beers to grow as strongly in the UK as they have in America.

James and Martin went on quote the often polarizing yet certainly stalwart defender of craft beer, Greg Koch

Our friend Greg Koch from Stone Brewing agrees we need to define it;

“Craft beer is more than just awesomely delicious beer. It’s also a revolution against the insult of the industrialized notion of beer that has been preying on the populace for decades. And yet with the success of the resulting backlash of craft beer which has brought real choice back to the people, the mega-beer-industrial-complex wants to co-opt craft beer now too. We cannot allow this to happen or it will erode the very progress we have all worked so hard to achieve. And they know this. A strong craft beer definition, which has admittedly proved to be a daunting task, is critical in shoring up the defenses for this thing that is so very dear to beer enthusiasts. We should not let the difficulty of the task of clear definitions dissuade us. We need to allow consumers the ability to decide for themselves who they want to support, but in order to do that, they must be able to understand clear definitions. The big companies wish to obfuscate and confuse. It is to their advantage. The craft brewers wish to be open, honest and straightforward as it is to our advantage. A strong, clear definition allows for actual choice, and not just the illusion of choice. The difference is massive. Freedom!”

But this becomes an interesting issue when it comes to a self-made definition by brewers in response to the industrialization of brewing. You can see this definition become a self-serving classification to exclude the behemoths from besting smaller brewers.

Yes, America has had a revitalization in higher quality beer. Yet this popularity has had nothing to do with a proper definition of craft brewery. Has the average American checked to see if Angry Orchard ciders is a product of an approved craft brewery? Would the average American stop drinking Blue Moon if they knew it was a product of Miller Coors? Was the average drinker furious enough to boycott when Rolling Rock or Goose Island or Ommegang or Bass or Harp or Spaten or Heineken were bought up by massive brewers?

What exactly is Greg Koch and James Watt advocating for when wanting a firm definition of a craft beer? Is it simply that if their smaller, independent breweries are forced to compete with AB InBev they can pretentiously claim that they are “true beer” and AB InBev is not? Wouldn’t the rational response from mass market brewers be that your definition of “true beer” is defined by the very people who are competing with AB InBev in the first place?

It is difficult to see or know what influence a proper definition of a craft beer has on the market. I am not a fan that the industrial brewers are in some ways attempting to co-opt the craft beer movement in America. I don’t like that Batch–19 is a terrible lager from Coors is marketed as though it were a craft beer. I don’t like it not because it is from Coors but because it is a terrible beer and I don’t want novice drinkers thinking that Batch–19 is what to expect from craft beer.

My objection to Greg Koch and James Watt is that what makes craft beer superior to mass market beer? If Budweiser Black Crown were a delicious beer crafted with pristine ingredients, locally sourced, and brewed with traditional brewing methods should it matter that it was a product of the worlds largest brewery? Is it truly a travesty that Goose Island has been sold to AB InBev if it still produces magnificent beer?

I don’t want mass market breweries to attempt to pass off their terrible beer as good beer but I don’t want craft brewers to attempt to sell their beer as intrinsically superior because they are a craft brewery.  Just because a beer is from a craft brewery doesn’t make that beer automatically delicious.  (If only that were true my untappd ratings would be much different.)  I want to believe that the American drinker is becoming more sophisticated in their malted beverage palette and that they will demand a higher quality beer from all breweries; pico to mega.

I don’t think Greg Koch has a ton of ground to stand on in the American definition in the first place. It radically altered the upper limit of the size restriction to six million barrels of beer specifically to keep the Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams) as a craft brewery. The fact that this is six times the capacity of Leinenkugel’s means that it doesn’t match most definitions of small.

I guess the area is less cut and dry. I sympathize with what the craft brewing movement has built-in American and beyond and want to protect it from the massive influence of the mass market breweries and their often less honest practices. Yet at the same time I don’t want to encourage an environment of exclusivity where because a brewery has decided to pair with the distribution of financial support of a bigger brewery.

Basically what I want is an environment that helps encourage better beer from everyone for everyone. I’m not sure whether a strong definition of craft brewery helps or harms that end goal. What do you think?