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Haven’t we met before?

February 3, 2011

Ever get the feeling that something you’re experiencing is something you’ve experienced before? There’s a French phrase that describes it; Deja Vu. Or that might be the Gangsta Rapper my eldest listens to. No, that’s DJ Foo.

What exactly is 'craft' beer?

Let’s talk about Craft Beer, shall we? What is really meant by the term Craft Beer?

That’s right; we’ve already discussed this at length. But it has raised its head above the parapets yet again as a result of the results of The Local Taphouse’s Hot 100 2010 Poll. In each of its three years the Taphouse Hot 100 list has managed to provoke debate and discussion among beer lovers of all sorts upon its Australia Day release.

This year saw triple the entries with somewhere around a thousand punters nominating their five favourite beers of 2010. A total of nearly 500 different beers were nominated and this, in itself, is a good sign for the industry as a whole – how many of you reckon 500 different Australian Craft beers could have been named five years ago, let alone crafted into a ‘Top List’?

But, of the beers that made the top 100, many have been deemed ‘unworthy’ of wearing the label ‘craft beer’ by bloggers and commenters on various online forums. It seems there is a reluctance to accept certain brands as ‘craft’ and a level of confusion as to what actually qualifies as ‘craft’. Is it brewing methods, is it ingredients, does size matter and is provenance and ownership relevant?

It’s interesting to read the comments as they shine a bright light on the perceptions in the beer world in this country as well providing indicators of the health of the Craft Beer sector. That certain beers or brands are seen as ‘corporate’, ‘commercial’ or in some other way ‘evil’ by the average punter and hence unwelcome in any listing of craft beers shows that emotion is alive and well and that beer still holds a valuable place in this nation’s culture. Better to be talked about than ignored, eh?

As discussed here previously, there are many different attitudes to the whole craft terminology. Brewing methods, company size, parent company status and ‘perceived’ intentions are all relevant factors. And if we ever get some sort of consensus do we then use it to compare our industry to that of other craft brewing nations or do we just use it to measure ourselves against where we were 10 years ago? Will we ever be on par with the scene in the States? No? Then why look to them for relevant comparisons?

In addition, if the brewers themselves have differing views on what constitutes a craft beer, then what hope do we as an adoring beer drinking public have in determining worthiness? Is it at all possible that the beer itself is what determines ‘craft’, rather than the ‘machine’ that brewed it or the ‘machine’ that signed off the invoices? If the liquid in my glass ended up there because someone wanted me to enjoy the fruits of their labour irrespective of what that labour cost or who picked up the bill for it, isn’t that just fine?

Let’s look at lists like the Taphouse Hot 100 and feel pretty darned chuffed that we have the beers we have brewed by the skill of craftsmen and women all around this wide brown land. If the beer in your hand is one that you enjoy, then who really cares what anyone else thinks? We could always spend less time over-thinking it all and more time drinking it all, couldn’t we?


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6 Responses to Haven’t we met before?

  1. Mark on February 4, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    these things always come unstuck as soon as we try to define it…the rules eventually kill creativity.

    Having said that, there’s a lot of beer competitions around the world and I like the idea of a local beer comp that can only be entered by brwery brands which are Australian owned to the core. As too what is craft and what is not, I’ll let the neo beer snobs argue that.

    I’d also really get behind comps and events that promote 100% independant brewers. As someone who’s worked in marketing for a while I’m fully aware how easy it is for bigger brands to highjack these bespoke awards (though I don’t think it happened in this case).

    For me, comps like this are meant to celebrate the hard work of brewers who’ve risked their own cash to do something great and whatever parameters keep this at heart are a good thing.

  2. Brad Iles on February 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    The US Brewers Assoc has a wordy definition that summarises as small, independent and traditional.

    Small: Obviously the annual production quantity would need to be scaled down (and metricated) by a factor of about 14 to account for differing populations. At some point though, economies of scale become too small.

    Independent: This is the bane of much contention in Australia. The big question is does it really matter if the other two criteria are met?

    Traditional: This is the most important of the three criteria as it directly impacts the taste. Perhaps we could make this 50% threshold a lot tighter to compensate for being less stringent about ownership.

    PS Gotta agree with Frozen Summers about the music comparison. I recently heard of someone refusing to drink Brew Dog any more because it’s now stocked in Dan Murphy’s.

    • Editor on February 4, 2011 at 3:36 pm

      Great comment Brad. One thing I don’t understand, and it’s a commonly made comment, is why should the size be scaled down just because our population is smaller? If ‘craft’ is used to denote quality, the inherent character and quality of a beer is not changed in anyway by the number of people in the market. Why should the volume that we deem to be worthy of being considered craft in the States be any different just because it’s brewed in Australia?

  3. Aaron on February 3, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Shall I light the match to this straw man?

    It’s important to have a definition for these things as it helps to build a taxonomy. That way we know we are talking about the same thing when we say “craft beer”. It’s the same argument as the one for having defined beer styles. They are not there to limit beer but to give you a way to talk about beer.

    I’m not the authority to write the definition but there is nothing wrong with arguing and talking about it. It’s not unimportant to be able to define things to aid communication.

    My personal argument was that there were a number of brewers that didn’t match what I would define as craft. Further that we should define craft and as a start it shouldn’t include the two largest brewers in the country. I’m not saying they are evil. I’m not saying their beer is bad. I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy their beer. I’m not saying they are not cool. I’m saying I don’t think you can define them as craft brewers. There isn’t a simple black and white definition but I don’t think you can call the two largest brewers in the country craft.

    • Editor on February 3, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      I just get hung up on the whole, Foster and Lion Nathan can’t brew craft thing. To me it is the essential and inherent quality of the beer that matters most, not who owns the brewing plant or pays the wages. The ownership thing stems from the US craft beer definition. The structure of our industry is very different and if you exclude a very good brewery like Matilda Bay it’s the first pull of a thread that ends up with very little of the jumper left. If their beers are made from natural ingredients and brewed traditionally, why are they not craft? If because of ownership, at what level do you set the bar? Is Little Creatures out because of it’s sub 50% ownership by Kirin? If so, is Stone & Wood excluded because its 20% owned by Little Creatures? Do you include beers that are contract brewed. If not, why not. If you don’t include them, does that mean you don’t include the beers from brewers such as Mountain Goat, Murray’s and Lord Nelson that are brewed in larger facilities under contract? If not why one form of contract and not another. Do you include beers made by accepted ‘craft’ breweries to a more ‘macro’ style, such as Mex by Mash and Bighead by Burleigh Brewing? Why not if their other beers are?

      Definitions of ‘craft’ beer are useful for gathering industry statistics, which is where the US definition stemmed from. It is also useful for setting qualifying parameters for polls and competitions, but if you follow the logic for the exemptions proposed by some people to logical conclusions, you’re not left with many good beers eligible to be called ‘craft’.

      And a lot of the ones excluded I would welcome in my glass any day.

  4. Frozen Summers on February 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    I really only care whether a beer tastes good, not who might actually own it.

    It seems like the same kind of hipster/indie superiority complex you get in the music scene. As soon as something gets popular or on a major label it is no longer cool and must be shunned.

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