I spent much of this week in Sheffield at The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Beer X. Firstly judging their national beer competition, then visiting trade stands and attending seminars at an event which is essentially the British equivalent to the Craft Brewers Conference held annually in the USA by the Brewers Association. Indeed Bob Pease, CEO of the Brewers Association was one of the speakers at Beer X.
I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Bob in Sheffield and we discussed craft beer here and in the US ahead of his Beer X speech in which he suggested it was ‘too late’ to declare a formal definition of ‘craft beer’ here in the UK.
I’ll be publishing an interview with Bob about craft beer – from which I gleaned he knows what he’s taking about – but I think his assessment that it’s too late for a definition of craft beer in the UK isn’t entirely accurate. Rather it’s still a case that there’s no organisation carrying enough weight that can a) agree – among all of its members and staff – what craft beer means, and b) be bold enough to declare this the official definition of craft beer – with anything else being ‘other’. (Unlike in the US where the Brewers Association defines it as made by small, independent and traditional breweries and has no qualms about the handful of really enormous breweries it deems ‘other’).
The beer writer Pete Brown wrote an excellent piece in The Guardian yesterday about this pegged to the fact that craft beer has hit the headlines this week because, along with e-cigarettes, it is now apparently one of the items in a ‘basket of goods’ used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to calculate the rate of inflation each month.
So someone has defined what craft beer is in the UK. Here’s what the ONS told me when I asked how they determined which beers were craft beers.
“…the sort of beers produced, for example, by micro breweries and … generally purchased in single bottles*. They are not mainstream beers, are usually well packaged and are sometimes considered to be of higher quality. They must be UK brewed. Fruit/wheat beers, ginger beer and lagers are excluded from the collection.”
Unfortunately the ONS isn’t apparently at liberty to say which breweries’ beer is considered craft. It’s left to individual collectors to decide, presumably based on the above, but once the choice is made they have to stick with it and continue to collect that brand while it is stocked in the shop.
But at least we now have a definition of craft beer! Except we don’t… because the ONS got nervous once I started asking for a bit more detail, such as what do they mean by ‘mainstream’. They quickly backtracked, insisting, “[W]e have purposely not attempted to define a craft beer.”
Indeed in the ONS document about the how the basket of goods are selected – which includes news of the new categories – they don’t call the category craft beer. It’s referred to as ‘speciality beer/ale – bottled’ and the term ‘craft beer’ is only used incidentally in explaining why it’s been added, “… reflecting the increase in shelf space devoted to craft beers produced by speciality and micro-breweries.” No mention of mainstream there though – just micro.
In trying to get them to confirm their definition I seemed to have only succeeded in persuading them in the opposite direction as they subsequently told me the beers, “could be produced by a micro brewery or a major brewer but should not be one of the standard brands,” and the prices they were using in their calculations were for, “a single 500ml bottle* of beer.” (So not BrewDog beers then…that’s odd!)
But here’s what craft beer is NOT (and note they don’t think it is lager, wheat or fruit beer either) – according to the ONS: “Four cans of bitter, four bottles of premium lager, 12-24 cans of lager, 12-24 bottles of lager and 4 cans of stout.” These items are also in the basket but are counted separately to the new ‘craft beer’ or speciality/bottled ale category. Perhaps a definition of what craft beer isn’t would be more useful than a definition of what it is?
The crux of the problem isn’t so much the definition. It is what it stands for. The world of beer has undergone a huge and wonderful change. Sales are up; people are interested in how beer is made and what it’s made from; it’s being taken more seriously as a drink to pair with food and it is being sold in more and more outlets – both off trade and on – so there’s a choice of beers (not merely a choice of very similar lagers which is no choice at all). This is called progress – and some have dubbed it the Craft Beer Revolution.
Whether or not we agree on what the term means we need to ensure the progress made continues – so the beer boom does not become a bust. But the jury is still out on how important a UK definition of craft beer is for that…
I’ve written about what craft beer means in this month’s Great British Food magazine. Pick up a copy to read my definition of craft beer!
*Note – this is about ‘off trade’ beer – not beer in the pub or other licensed premises where sales of cask ale and craft beer are still outflanked by mainstream lagers.