Not one to miss the trends of the industry, lately I have been debating to myself whether we should start advertising ourselves as brewing ‘Craft Beers’ rather than Real Ales. It seems to be a term slung about a lot at the moment, from ‘Craft Beer Rising’ festival in London last month, to Craft Beer tastings on the television and many an article and advertisement on the best ‘Craft Beer’ around. But what is Craft beer anyway?
This week at SIBA’s (Society of Independent Brewers) AGM, one of the points on the Agenda is that they will define ‘Craft Beer’ for their members. I’ll be interested to read what they decide, but in the meantime, I thought I might do a little speculation of my own.
So, what is the difference between ‘Craft Beer’ and good old fashioned ‘Real Ale’? Well, firstly we have to define Real Ale I guess. In the early 1970s CAMRA coined the term 'real ale' to make it easy for people to differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was at that time under threat. Since then the terms seems to have become ubiquitous, even appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as ‘Cask-conditioned beer that is served traditionally, without additional gas pressure’.
For me, and I think for many, the term real ale has in the past meant a locally produced pint, crafted in a little brewery somewhere by a true enthusiast and I would expect it to be a bit different from something like a John Smiths – have a bit more flavour, a catchy name, a funky pump clip – popular with a certain type of older gentleman, who maybe sports a beard and a t shirt from an obscure local brewery. Maybe I’m just stereotyping terribly, after all, I’m a 30 year old woman... but admittedly I am wearing a t shirt from what some may consider an obscure local brewery.
But with the increase in the popularity of Real Ale, the term seems to have become a bit diluted and with breweries like Black Sheep and Wychwood doing so well, Real Ales are now almost as big and commercialised as the mass produced beers the term was brought in to differentiate them from.
Maybe this is why the term ‘Craft Beer’ feels like it has started to replace ‘Real Ale’ in popular vernacular? A craft beer to me brings images of something lovingly and carefully made by skilled artisans, maybe with a cool name and a funky label, but not necessarily in Cask and it doesn’t necessarily make me think of older men in flat caps in a traditional ‘pub’.
Craft Beer is actually an American term (which makes me personally like it a lot less all of a sudden?) and American craft beers, or American Style craft beers are all the rage across the UK at the moment. Brooklyn Lager, Flying Dog, Alesmith and other US Craft Breweries are becoming fairly household names over here. And not to be left behind, UK ‘super cool’ breweries like Brew Dog and Brewmeister are popping up all over the shop, with their extra strong beers and crazy named brews, being all punk and out there.
So how does American Beer differ from good old British Real Ale?
Well, it’s made the same way as most British real ale’s. They’re big on their hop flavours but anyone who’s been to a beer festival here recently knows that we’re not short on those accross the British range either. American beers do tend to come in Keg’s instead of Casks, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule...
The American Brewer’s Association has defined Craft Beer and a Craft Brewery as being Small, Independent and Traditional (http://www.brewersassociation.org/pages/business-tools/craft-brewing-statistics/craft-brewer-defined). Well here in Richmond, we’re all those things, but we’re not American... And this I think is the crux of this issue.
Craft Beer might be a lovely term and ideally describe us, but it’s American and ultimately, I think American brews do differ from British ones, greatly and more importantly, so they should. It’s mainly the cool hip branding, but also the taste – lots of hops, lots of deep golden colours – not very many good old fashioned bitters, porters, brown ale, red ale etc And the price? Well, you definitely pay for those cool labels and funky branding – in Birmingham recently I paid £7 for a 300ml bottle of American beer, as opposed to £3.60 for a pint of British Ale from the local brewery!
I for one am not the biggest Craft Beer fan. It’s all a little too cool for me and whilst my eye is certainly drawn by a funky label or an exciting name, I wouldn’t necessarily go back for a second once I’ve been punched in the mouth with the flavour that’s trying a little too hard to be different. For me, there is something wonderful in the good old fashioned British pint. A nice smooth red ale, a light pale ale on a sunny afternoon, a warming thick porter in front of an open fire... or two, or three...
So I seem to have answered my own question – yes Craft Beer is certainly the cool kid in the yard, but I’m happy making good, old fashioned, drinkable and affordable Yorkshire Real Ale.
And at the end of the day, wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we all just made the same stuff?