The beerysphere (it’s like a bathysphere only more pressured, sometimes) has been rocking and bobbing again with attempts to define this drink that we love. Much effort has been put into digging ditches, and insisting that everything THIS side of the ditch, defined by methods of dispense, or size of brewing plant, or attitude of brewer, or some other criterion, is OUR SORT OF THING, while everything the OTHER side of the ditch is, automatically, BEYOND THE PALE (insert your own joke about “beyond the pale ale” here).
Over on the left-hand shore of the Atlantic they’re pretty rock-solid about what they like, and how to define it: the good stuff is made by “craft brewers“, and you can tell a “craft brewer” because (1) he/she will be “small” (although the US definition of “small brewer” is still around 12,000 UK barrels A DAY, which is more than many British small brewers make in a year), while the second most important criterion is that “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation.”
Now, I like innovation, and I’m delighted to see much more of it now that when I first started drinking beer. Hurrah for brewers who push the envelope, even if the envelope tears sometimes. But what I most want from a brewer isn’t innovation: it’s consistent excellent beer. I think I would actually give up all the innovation of the past 15 or 20 years, just to be guaranteed that the beers I found in every pub or bar I went into were of uniformly impeccable quality. So if the number one hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers isn’t top-notch product, but something else, then I suggest the wrong horse is pulling the cart.
In the UK, Sean Liquorish had a go at trying to tie down some definitions, using the terms “real ale” and “craft beer”, two expressions that seem to be inextricably knotted into any discussion about “minority interest malt liquors” in Britain. One commentator, Bailey (of the excellent Boak and Bailey blog), said he was beginning to think that
the phrase “craft beer” is more important to ordinary punters than industry insiders/beer geeks, just as “punk” was a phrase actual punks didn’t like or use much. Nonetheless, it gave outsiders a handle (no more than that) on something fast-moving and complex, which meant it could be discussed in the media, categorised in record shops, etc.
It’s a way of doing things, isn’t it? It’s in the making. It’s not, as such, a property of the made thing. It’s not a style, or kind, of thing. So why look for it in the product? It’s in the process.
Which is, alas, about as much balls (albeit hand-loomed, carefully woven, pastoral William Morris-inspired balls) as the idea that good beer can only come from someone producing less than 12,000 barrels a day. There is nothing mystic, or automatically glorious, about “the process”: the consumer’s joy can only reside in the product.
But as Simon Reluctant Scooper Johnson said, in a tears-as-much-in-sorrow-as-of-laughter take on the debate, “There will never – never – be agreement in the UK as to what ‘craft beer’ really means.” Dave “HardKnott Dave” Bailey sums up, I think, the pragmatic approach: “Craft is what you want it to mean. It may mean something different to what it means to me.” And the expat US-based Hebridean Velky Al commented:
I am convinced that the whole craft vs mainstream sideshow is precisely that, a peripheral exercise in semantics and hair splitting. Either your beer is good or it isn’t and bollocks to the titles.
And there, I think, is the distillation. Your tongue, and your nose, and your chorda tympani, and your nucleus accumbens don’t care whether your beer was made in a thatched brewhouse by happy, dancing brewers and brewsters with flowers in their hair, to the sound of lutes, sackbuts and cornetts, or in a shed on an industrial estate. They only care if that beer is tasty and pleasurable.
I’ve shown, I think, that “craft brewer”, and “craft beer”, are unhelpful at best as defining “what we like”: I haven’t even touched on the people who hate even the mention of the “c” word. But we need labels to stick on what we talk about, or we are reduced to pointing and grunting. So: is there a better expression that can somehow divide “mass market” beer from the stuff with aspirations that go beyond merely capturing as large a slice of the market as possible? I think so. In the worlds of eating out, and wine drinking, there is one adjective that mean “top end of the market”, “flavourful, high-quality ingredients, well executed”, “balance, complexity interest”, and that’s “fine”. Fine beer – that covers everything I like, it must surely cover everything YOU like, and what “fine beer” doesn’t do is bog us down in the quagmire of production definitions or any other irrelevancy: fine beer is all about what is in the glass.
Of course, there are (at least) two problems about trying to promote the expression “fine beer” as the term to use for the sorts of beers we love. The first is that “fine dining”, in particular, and “fine wine” to a large degree as well, have been skunked by associations of elitism and high cost, which as Evan Rail says in his excellent, and excellently written, Kindle essay Why Beer Matters (if you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so as soon as possible) are two negatives beer is almost entirely free from. Beer is truly the people’s drink, and it is vital that it stays the people’s drink. In addition, “fine beer” is pretty much, as someone punned elsewhere, in the eye of the beerholder. What I think is fine, you are perfectly entitled to believe is best poured away down the plughole.
All the same, I think we all know what is meant by “fine beer”, and the “campaign for fine beer”, I hope, is something every beer drinker who values what goes into their glass can put their shoulder behind.
(Picture stolen unrepenitantly from Beer Connoisseur)