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Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

November 7, 2011

But what is craft beer? Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, we’ve discussed this. It has been written about in this very corner of the interwebs and picked apart specifically on the second episode of Radio Brews News. In addition, it has been argued about over pots in Melbourne pubs, it has been sliced up over schooners in Sydney clubs and untangled over ‘Tens’ in Tasmanian taverns.

Is it really that difficult to define? It’s beer, remember – not wine. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously, is it? It’s sociable and approachable and generally unpretentious and all-welcoming. It’s made by brewers for drinkers and you either like the taste or you don’t. It is represented by a myriad of styles yet it seems to serve a single purpose – to bring people together.

Craft beer is a term that has gained traction in the vernacular over the last five years or so and has probably grown out of what we used to refer to as ‘boutique’ then ‘micobrewed’ beer. ‘Boutique’ was properly reserved for small shops selling women’s clothes and ‘micro’ was a term that appeared constricting – we all know size isn’t everything, don’t we?

‘Craft’ as a descriptor just seemed to sum up the key issue – the beer in the glass. It set this type of beer aside from that made by suburb-sized machines controlled by flashing computer panels and sent to packaging lines by robots to end up stacked ten-high in beer barns at ‘2 slabs for $70’ – ‘mainstream’ beer, if you will. Craft beer came to denote a beer that was made with the drinker in mind rather than the shareholder alone and was brewed up to a standard, not down to a price. But it was about the beer.

The issue of a conclusive definition of what ‘craft’ beer is has been raised again with the formation of Craft Beer Limited, a national association of brewers charged with fostering and promoting good beer around the country. It seems that, for some, it’s not the beer that is of paramount concern, but business economics and politics. Craft beer is being arbitrarily divided into sub-camps of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ craft beers depending not on the quality or provenance of the beer in the barrel but by the bums-on-seats in the Boardroom. There is a feeling in some quarters that who pours the money into the business is more relevant than what is actually poured from the bottle.

Based on these assumptions, Matilda Bay, Malt Shovel Brewery, Little Creatures and Stone & Wood do not brew craft beer of any sort and should not be welcome in a Craft Beer Association. Presumably any other brewer, who draws any investment from any source which is not a bona fide craft brewer would, similarly be excluded. Arguments about volume also creep in with brewers allowed nominal outputs before they, too are kicked off the team.

I mean in no way to simplify the arguments for either side, nor do I wish to downplay the value of the opinion of those who can’t see the beer for the business model but let’s sort a few things out.

How do we define craft beer? Why does it matter to the end product that someone other than the brewer pays the bills? If a brewer makes a ‘craft volume’ of beer it can be called ‘craft’ but if it is so good he sells ‘too much’ the same beer is no longer ‘craft’. If the bloke who pays the bills and signs the cheques really that important to the definition then what is the alternative? Because, make no mistake; beer needs a body. It needs a voice. It needs unity and strength and focus. Just like wine has.

It needs people writing nice things about it and needs converts to its wonders to have a means of having their questions answered and their pathways pointed out. The CBL just might offer these. What beer probably doesn’t need are well-meaning individuals shining spotlights on issues that, in the end, don’t affect the quality of the beer.

So let’s get the conversation started. Again. Right here, right now.

Please respond politely in 25 words or less. More paper is available upon request.

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19 Responses to Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

  1. Craig on January 6, 2013 at 2:12 am

    I feel that all beers should have a full and comprehensive list of the ingredients contained inside the bottle. If that list contains anything, and I mean anything other than natural ingredients it does not pass the test of weather it is a craft beer or not. Of course natural ingredients like herbs, spices and other natural flavours can be let through the gates. That’s what craft beer is about. Not the people who pay the bills etc. if a brewery can produce a beer that is totally organic, true to the wants and needs of the craft beer drinker, then… I’ll give it a go. But I will also do my research and find out who and where my local craft brewers are and try my hardest to support them. It comes down to a matter of taste and loyalty really. Maybe the term craft beer needs to be redefined. Maybe we need a class of beer that is inclusive of all beers that are made in an organic and natural way. Or we go back to using the term microbrewery for the little guys, keeping craft beer/brewery for a beer that is made with all natural ingredients.

  2. BeerandBrew on November 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Firstly, Craft is an American Term, but looking past that.

    Secondly, the only people who care if a beer is ‘craft’ are the ones trying to sell it. Consumers don’t hunt for ‘craft’ beer in the same way they don’t look for ‘premium’ products. As a rule, anything that says it is ‘craft’ or ‘premium’ is spending too much time on marketing and not enough on producing a great product consumers will buy regardless of the pretty label.

    All of that aside. Having say, Squires lumped into the same category as say, Brewboys is ridiculous. One actually cares about what they are making and selling and the other cares about what they are marketing and their share price. One makes an honest product the other adds yeast derivative to their pale ale to imitate other beers. Carry on with the parallels between your biggest ‘premium craft’ example and your local micro.

    My problem lies not with who is craft – who cares? My problem lies with big big breweries pretending to be small so they can trick consumers into buying their product. If consumers understood who made / owned what this debate could calm down as they would be free to make their own minds up free of spin. I suggest if people could see through the murkiness their purchasing habits would be different. As much of the push towards craft lies in people wanting to support smaller, innovative and interesting industry which is being mirrored in purchasing habits such as slow food and farmers markets.

  3. Tom on November 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Craft beer is beer produced by the manual labour of a brewer throughout the brewing process with focus on producing a quality product.

    I.e. craft beer is crafted by a craftsman, which I mean in the gender neutral form ;)

    If the brewing process is mostly automated, the beer is not being crafted and the result is not a craft beer. What about the master brewer who operates the automated machinery at the beer factory and understands the finest details of the entire brewing process? Master brewer, not craft brewer. The quality of the product and how much you like it doesn’t come into it, in the same way that you can find a high quality table that you like at a large furniture store that obviously wasn’t produced by a craftsman.

    An automated brewery can produce quality beer, in which case the result is quality beer. An automated brewery can produce beer that you like, in which case the result is beer that you like. A craft brewery can produce insipid quaffing lager, in which case the result is insipid quaffing craft lager.

    A craft brewery can have a good story. You can talk to the brewer and hear stories about their journey. A craft brewery can be local and personal. A craft brewery is almost always small, because craftsmanship and creativity don’t scale well. Those are some of the best things about craft beer.

    My beer journey is about seeking out interesting, flavoursome, bold and complex beers. A beer I like could be produced by a brewery of any size using any method, but if it happens to come from a local craftsman with a genuine love for their art and a good story to boot, then the beer is all the better for it.

    I’m going to call beer that I like “good beer”, and I’ll be as subjective as I like in dishing out that term.

  4. Dr. Dortmunder on November 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    The free market extremists here seem to think devil take the hindmost and beer is beer. I ask you to read a few months worth of the American craft beer association’s magazine and tell me what the majority of their time and money is spent upon. It won’t take long (hopefully) for you to see that EXCISE TAX RELIEF for craft breweries is a huge part of their raison d’etre.
    The big breweries already have an organisation :http://brewers-association.net.au/site/ Can a nano-brewery join this group? What are they there for? Have they pushed for tax relief to give independent breweries a bit of a leg up? Or are they so comfortable in their decades’ long duopoly that this issue doesn’t rate.
    Should the average drinker give a damn about this pedantry? I ask you to look at the history of strong arming and acquistion in the Australian beer duopoly and wonder if giving puppet entities of SABMiller/Fosters and Kirin-Lion Nathan a greater say in what beers are available to you as consumers is a good idea.

  5. Adam on November 7, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    How a brewery like Coopers, who for a long time were the ONLY bastion of ‘craft’ beer in Australia for a long time can be excluded from CBL is beyond me?? Hipsterism…..sure is.

    • Editor on November 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      As a member of the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand with DB, CUB and Lion Nathan, I don’t think Coopers see themselves as a craft brewery.

  6. Jeremy on November 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    I think the necessity for a definition of craft beer comes back to excise. Speaking to brewers, most seem to agree that excise relief for craft breweries is not going to happen and far more likely is an increase on beer excise. This is, hopefully, when a national body like Craft Beer Limited will show their worth – mounting a strong case that any increase should not be applied to craft breweries.

    For this reason, we need to define what craft beer is, and volume is the simplest way to do it. Very hard to make legislation based on something as subjective as taste.

  7. Luke on November 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    This may seem like I’m being obtuse here which isn’t my intention… but why?

    CBL is a fantastic initiative and their goals are spot on, but I think continuing to try and define ‘craft’ is really getting things no where. Choice and variety is really the best outcome here. If people want to look down their nose and Little Creatures and co, then that’s their own hangup.

    • Luke on November 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm

      Whoops, was supposed to reply to the Prof.

      • prof pilsner on November 7, 2011 at 5:37 pm

        Some will always have something against a brewery that is owned by ‘The Big House’ and therefore cannot brew craft beer. If we switch the focus to the PRODUCT and not the POLITICS then it will hopefully clear the waters. At the end of the day it’s the beer itself that attracts the newbies – they shouldn’t care who owns the brewery.

  8. Barney on November 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Keep squabbling….it really just helps the big boys out! Meanwhile, the doers will pave the way for the people crying in their beer trying to argue that ‘small means good’.

    Failing that, read this http://www.thestreet.com/story/11271102/1/craft-brew-founder-widmer-savors-results.html

    • Editor on November 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm


  9. BenMS on November 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    This whole thing smacks a little bit of hipsterism. While wanting to protect craft brewers and give them a voice is a good thing, wanting to exclude some brewers because they’re “not craft enough” or because they make too much beer (as if there’s such a thing) seems counter-

    I don’t divide my own personal beer drinking up into “Craft” and “non-craft”. All I divide it up into is “beer I like” and “beer I don’t like”. I don’t drink things that fall into the “beer I don’t like” category. It’s not a lot harder than that.

    • Editor on November 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm

      That works on a personal level…bit hard on the poor brewers trying to market a category of beer called Beers Ben Likes!

  10. Dr. Dortmunder on November 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Small brewers don’t have the marketing budgets or distribution channels that James Squire, Matilda Bay, etc enjoy. “Craft”, i.e. small and indpedent, is what we have to work with to appeal to our customers. If it didn’t mean anything, why are the big guys trying so hard to co-opt the term?

  11. Editor on November 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Please note, we are quite happy to post your comments anonymously, but require that commenters provide a valid email address to enable us to moderate the site appropriately. Ed

  12. Luke on November 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Does it need a definition? Do fine dining restaurants sit down and try and work out who is ‘fine dining’ and who isn’t? Do wine producers? (do they?)

    I think as the beer scene evolves, as it has been recently, we will realise that continuously trying to pin a title or a name on it, is pointless. I don’t want to be a ‘craft beer’ drinker… I’m a beer drinker and I’m happy with that.

    • prof pilsner on November 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

      It’s not so much a question of need as it is delineation. To make a craft beer association work, some guidelines need to be attached so that all comers can see what the inclusions/exclusions are and what criteria they are based on.

  13. Dr. Dortmunder on November 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    1. Big breweries continue to use borderline anti-competitive practices to lock smaller breweries out of the market (tap contracts)
    2. There is a precedent overseas for the definition of “craft” which has served that market well, in particular to secure tax breaks for small brewing businesses.
    3. ‘Independently owned brewery which prioritises production of flavoursome beer over shareholder profits’ is too unwieldy. If “craft beer” has been compromised, what should we call it?

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