Fine dining. Fine wine. And, surely, fine beer

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.

Jeff Pickthall suggests that “you’ll know it when you see it”. And Stringersbeer is convinced that it’s all solely in how the beer is made:

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)

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70 thoughts on “Fine dining. Fine wine. And, surely, fine beer

  1. I think that “innovation” is a poor word to describe the “craft beer” scene as it implies doing things that haven’t been done before.Tweaking recipes has always been done and all the “new” styles seem to be mirrored pretty well in old record books.It’s true that brewers have access to ingredients such as modern hop varieties which weren’t around in the past but that’s a matter of development.
    As for defining “craft” beer , this strikes me as a blind alley.What matters surely is the quality of the stuff in your glass rather than who made it.

  2. As I said in my blog just the other day, the conversation should stop being about what makes a beer craf, real or innovative and start being more about what makes a beer good, which is, at the end of the day, all we really care about.

  3. Beer is truly the people’s drink, and it is vital that it stays the people’s drink.

    I agree absolutely, and I think this is a big negative of using the word ‘fine’. One of my big hang-ups about “craft beer” is the way it seems to be associated with bars routinely charging silly prices and fans eager to justify them. As I said on this post, it’s elitist, it’s exclusive and it’s hard to justify (see the comment about Chablis Premier Cru in particular). Also, I can’t help feeling it bespeaks a very different atttitude to beer from mine. Quoting myself, My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff … My big problem with the £10 bottle is that it doesn’t bring that world any nearer; it may even push it further back, by turning campaigners for a good honest drink into connoisseurs of the latest, weirdest, rarest… and most expensive.

  4. Thanks for the kind words.

    On a gut level, I agree that “fine” has all kinds of Fawlty Towers gourmet club la-di-dah connotations.

    Your observation about pointing and grunting is a good one, though: I don’t really care whether we use the term craft beer, fine beer or just “beers in category X”, as long as there is a turn of phrase we can use to enable conversation. You’d think from the fact that we’ve found ourselves defending ‘craft beer’ that we really loved that particular term; well, we don’t, but it’s the one that’s in the process of ‘taking’, and we don’t want to waste time debating what we should use *instead*.

    It’ll do.

    • I agree with the sentiment and that the words used to describe it can sometimes loose the point to good beer -I love that ‘fine beer is all about what is in the glass’ -and totally agree -quality above ‘new’ or innovation is key. Same in cookery -sometimes the best recipes are ancient -or very simple.

      Playing around with it is good practice, and you might find a real gem doing that. But essentially good business is about pleasing a customer base -and the customer simply wants something tasty and satisfying every time.

      I visited Shepherd Neame last year, and found the processes interesting -they were proud to show they were better at -consistency- in the taste of each batch compared with other countries (they’ve taken on Asahi Japanese beer) -and they have a smaller mirco-bewery on site that allows people to work on innovation -but you can see their main efforts are with consistency and quality of their long-term brews, than bringing out new products on a conveyor belt.

  5. I think it’s far more straightforward than anything. If it’s british and scores more than 3.4 on ratebeer, it’s craft. If it scores less than 3.4 it ain’t craft. If it scores more than 3.8 it’s really craft.

  6. The term ‘fine wine’ is much abused too. A few years ago I worked in an Oddbins ‘fine wine’ shop – their definition was (loosely) anything that came in limited parcels, and so didn’t get to all the shops or become part of the core range. At the same time Majestic defined it as anything over a tenner. One particular wholesale line (probably £4 retail, £15-20 in a restaurant) used to come in a box proclaiming ‘Fine Wines From Chile.’

    Others define it as wine that is worth investing in. Spending your money not on something to drink (and much never is) but as a way to make more money. I really hope beer doesn’t end up going down that route.

  7. If I was at a pub advertising ‘fine beer’ I think I’d think twice about going in, Sounds like a gastrobar affection to me … If it said ‘decent’ beer or ‘proper’ as in ‘D-sunt!’ or ‘Proppa!’ might work if not a bit too Guy Richie … What’s wrong with ‘real’ again?

  8. Balls? Truly, Sir, you are a master of wit and repartee. We’re not talking about what makes a beer good. Or consistent, or any of those other desirable things. It’s always been simple. A “craft” product is made by a “craft” producer. I would contend that It’s necessary (but not sufficient) that a craft producer is small and independent, that craft is to be found in the process, which will be (typically) hands-on, small scale and not mass-production. This will not, of course, guarantee good beer. Any more than mass-production guarantees bad beer. But a good product from a craft producer, has value over and above other beers. The craft brewer may even be able to extract a higher price, or may be happy to deliver higher value for the same money. I’m actually not that bothered. I can see that the ground is now firmly held by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ll carry on doing the beer-making because I love it, and leave the writing about it to others.

    • Why does a good product from a craft producer have value over and above other beers?

      What if I don’t know it comes from a craft producer? Where do I find this supposed extra value?

      • Feeling the need to stick up for Jon a bit here.

        We don’t necessarily agree that beers made in a ‘craft way’ will taste better and, if we don’t know how a beer is produced, we judge it on its own merits.

        Once we do know, however, usually because the brewer is open, honest and communicative, we might well change our view. We might well value that beer more highly than a similar tasting industrially produced beer.

        Not logical, I know, but we’re easily swayed, and suckers for a story — in other words, human.

          • Hmm, not sure. I think I make a distinction between (a) bad beer but, ah, bless them, their hearts are in the right place; and (b) beer which is bad for cynical commercial reasons. But, yeah, those, I guess, are both subsets of “crap”.

          • “will not, of course, guarantee good beer. Any more than mass-production guarantees bad beer” You say “marketing” they say “retail psychology”, I say there’s a relationship between the maker and the consumer.. What it isn’t is “Balls”.

        • Well, we’ll just have to have a healthy difference of opinion about that. But believing a beer has something extra about it because it was made by a “craft” brewer is no less delusional than believing your T-shirt has something extra about it because it says “D&G” on it.

          • To be honest with you, I’ve probably had more bad experiences with “craft” products than I have with industrialized ones. Obviously, those few bad experiences are well worth the many wonderful ones I’ve had, so no true harm done. But I vehemently disagree that the “craft” tag automatically makes for a product that commands more respect or has more value than others. Size is irrelevant, and quite honestly, so is the demeanor of a brewer. I’ve been to quite a few brewpubs in the states, staffed by kind and gregarious individuals, yet making less than adequate beer. I haven’t returned to those establishments. That doesn’t make me heartless; it makes me a consumer wanting to pay for good beer, regardless of the means.

  9. Craft beer is a great word. It’s beer made with craftsmanship. A higher degree of hands-on involvement from the brewer than we see in factory-made swill. By someone who knows the craft. And work with dedication to the end product.

    Too bad that’s not what craft beer has been defined to be. Especially in the UK (and Germany even more so) perhaps, where proud local brewers brew conservative beer with all kinds of craftsmanship, but don’t care about innovation.

    Fine beer on the other hand is not going to do well with the (craft brewing) industry. In Denmark Carlsberg is doing two series of factory-made fine beer, while several small local breweries are still trying to deliver their first fine beer (by my taste). Plus I hate wine snobbery, so I’m never going to use the term fine beer.

    • “Craft” is also gluing some bits of rubbish together to make a bigger bit of rubbish. The UK has a chain of shops devoted to just this activity.

      When I first saw the phrase “craft beer” I thought of some hairy mean wearing nothing but a singlet and jocks sitting in a garage brewing beer in an old oil drum. (The end result of this could very well be a very good beer, that’s not the point – it’s am image & marketing thing.)

      If “craft beer” is going to be a “thing” in the UK then I don’t see how it can really be anything other than “a craft beer is one where the brewer calls it a craft beer (but you’re welcome to disagree)”. If Molsen Coors, or whathaveyou, decide to call Carling “craft” then fine… they’ll be laughed at and derided by the beer geeks but the vast majority will just absorb the marketing line and not really give a toss. (How many people would assume Blue Moon was “craft beer” if they didn’t know any better?) If “craft beer” becomes universally synonymous with “really good beer that people like” then it’ll be nicked by big corporates like everything else. Watered down and turned into marketing gibberish (though I think it might be that already anyway – the yanks have been there, done that.)

      If we all spent as much time trying to simply promote good old beer and pubs as we do arguing about some stupid terminology then the whole industry would be better off!

      • Fine is a good adjective, but I’d propose “quality”. “We sell quality beer”. Something about quality seems to exclude the class associations of fine which puts off some people. (True, the term “quality” is an old popular expression for the privileged class, but in North America at least you never hear the term used that way anymore except on re-runs of the Beverly Hillbillies, say).

        The term quality crosses the lines of craft, old U.K. regional, industrial brewers and any other kind. The onlyrequirement is they make fine-tasting beer in the estimation of he proffering the description. It excludes dross or run-of-the-mill made by any of them. A line of quality beer carried by a pub IMO could include Fuller’s London Pride, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Thornbridge Imperial Stout, Old Hooky, Deuchars IPA, Pilsner Urquell, and Delerium Tremens. They all have
        quality in the sense both of stability and palate.

        Gary

        • But Budweiser is a quality product, too. Whether or not you want to drink it is another issue, but it’s a well-made, high-quality beer in the sense of efficiency. I see what you’re getting at, but I think “quality” is a term that is too broad to narrow down the segment of beer we’re talking about.

          • There are two kinds of quality, basically, objective and subjective. If a beer (or any product, for that matter) reflects the intention of the brewer, then it is well made, and it’s good quality, period. And the Budweisers, Stellas, Carlings and any other mass produced thing we can all agree is crap, reflect the intention of their makers. That’s objective and hard to argue with. The subjective quality is how the consumer perceives the beer. People drink Budweiser, Stella, Carling because they like it enough to pay for it, and therefore, they perceive it as good, and that is also hard to argue with.

  10. I’m as guilty as anybody on here regarding arguing the wording of what is “craft beer” to the smallest detail, I’ve gotten bored of it now to be honest, and am happy just letting people define craft beer in their own way. Boak left a comment on the article of mine you linked simply stating that “personally I think it is ….” followed by 25 more words are the perfect definition on any term in 30 words.

  11. Over on this side of the pond the word to use is “premium.” As in, “Hamm’s is a premium lager.” And once that gets watered down by liars, er, marketers, then you go with “super premium”–you know, the stuff that tastes the same as Hamm’s, but has a much bigger marketing budget. And for beers even BETTER than “super premium,” there’s only one thing left: Bud Platinum. Everyone else might as well just quit making beer right now.

  12. I like the term “fine beer”! Lately, I’ve been tossing around “indie beer”, but fine beer hits the nail on the head. The negative connotation is there, but it’s balanced by beer – the common man’s drink. It’s like saying “fine hamburgers” or “fine Jeeps”. The term suggests quality. We all deserve quality, not just elitists. Plus, food and drink has become way more accessible than ever before. Sure, we will pay a premium, but it’s often worth it. Fine beer it is!

    • Sure, we will pay a premium

      Not all of us. Lots and lots of people can’t afford to pay a premium (and wasn’t somebody just saying beer was inherently the common man’s drink?). One of the great things about real ale has always been that a pint costs just the same as any other pint of beer; it’s the same thing only done properly (and sold at the same price), not the same thing carried to a peak of artisanal perfection (and priced accordingly).

  13. All these terms are just labels. Most labels one rarely comes across in real life. If I want to tell someone about a beer I liked (or didn’t) there are enough words available that I don’t need to rely on standard labels.

    Describing beer is really rather simple: those I like are good and those I don’t are bad.

  14. I hear beery types say a lot that they don’t care who makes the beer, they only care about the quality of what’s in the glass. Bullshit, I say. We all have values and they affect how much we enjoy something.

    One’s enjoyment of a bottle of wine can increase if he knows from whence it came, and this can increase further if he met the vigneron, saw the vineyard, has a good story to tell, and came home with a case in the trunk (or boot, if you will). It can decrease if he knows it came from a big faceless winemaking company that gets grapes from everywhere.

    It’s no different with beer. I can enjoy a beer more if I know where it came from, if I know its story, if I know who made it, and yes — even if it came from a small place instead of a big one.

    Naturally, it helps if it doesn’t taste like piss.

    • IOW, you are the target audience for the marketing staff. Oh, yes, sir, this beer was originally stored in pigs blatters and then lagered in mahogany barrels hung from bantu trees on a small island off the coast of the Isle of Man for 10 years and finally bottled in rare Rhodesian glass. Each bottle has a different label.

      Yes, bullshit, as you correctly said.

    • I think there is a difference, and it is quite fundamental to the difference between beer and wine. Sure you can go to the winery, see the vines, meet the winemaker and so on, but that really isn’t the case with beer. Yes, you can go to the brewery, see the grain, hops and even the yeast, meet with the brewer, but it is just one part of the chain. What about the maltster, the hop growers, their jobs are just as important (some might argue, more so) as the guy doing the mashing, boiling and fermenting.

      This is also one of my issues with the concept of “local beer”, yes the parts have been assembled locally, but where are the ingredients actually from. The brewery I work in from time to time gets grain from the US, UK, Belgium and Germany, hops from the same, yeast from the US, Germany and the UK, the only local ingredient in the brew is the water and that gets purified before having minerals added back into it.

      On the big vs small thing, the best beer I had over the Christmas holiday whilst in France was from MolsonCoors, Worthington White Shield, while the worst came from a 2BBL “craft” brewer in the French countryside, who I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to, his beer still sucked though. This is why ultimately the beer has to stand on its own two feet, and beer geeks need to be honest enough to admit that there are decent beers being made by the big boys.

      • “This is why ultimately the beer has to stand on its own two feet, and beer geeks need to be honest enough to admit that there are decent beers being made by the big boys.”

        I wouldn’t argue with that. This is not an either/or question in my mind. What I’m saying is that beer geeks also need to be honest enough to admit that context affects how much they enjoy what they taste. Context includes more than pub atmosphere, present company, and what mood we happen to be in. It includes every experience and everything we’ve ever learned about beer… especially the one we hold in our hands. This gives us perspective, a frame of reference. And it certainly affects how much we enjoy what we consume, and it can certainly enhance it. When folks suggest their opinions are above such things, I think they mean it. But I just don’t believe them.

        And Mike: Marketing conveys information as well as bullshit. It can be useful. If I found the hypothetical beer you describe, I’d be predisposed to hate it because the story is ridiculous. Maybe what’s in the glass would convince me otherwise, and I might try to be fair, but the absurd story would have an effect on me. It wouldn’t have an effect on how much you like or dislike the beer?

        • There are quite a few people who swear blind they’re completely unaffected by marketing/branding/glassware or any other contextual elements. Some of them, I think, are kidding themselves; others really are, perhaps, Spock enough to be that objective and, if so, good for them!

          Personally, I can only be compltely objective with blind tasting.

          • Blind tasting is great, though I wonder if it has much value when a beer you know well and love is part of the tasting?

            When we did our IPA taste off last year, Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo was in the mix and everyone identified it straight away, I wonder how much that skewed the results?

        • FWIW Mike, I didn’t see your original comment until after I’d posted mine. It looks I was calling bullshit on you directly, and that wasn’t my intention. I meant what I wrote of course but didn’t intend it to be personal or aimed at any one person.

        • When it comes to the importance of context, you are preaching to the choir with me. I firmly believe that context affects one’s enjoyment of a beer, and there have been times when I have enjoyed so-called megaswill because I was out with my mates, having a laugh and just bring social, just as there have been times when I have been surrounded by “craft” beer and been entirely non-plussed by everything I had, usually when I was alone and not really in the mood for drinking anyway.

          Our frames of reference are very important, take pilsner – my frame of reference is very different from many people I know here, but I lived in the Czech Republic for more than a decade. That doesn’t make my frame of reference necessarily better, but it does mean I have different expectations when a brewer calls his pale lager a “pilsner”, so my situation is not one of the beer being “bad” but rather my expectations not being met, and that is very difficult to overcome.

  15. I wrote about this topic a while back. I don’t like the term “craft term” for a variety or reasons, but mostly it’s because the phrase “craft” misrepresents itself. Then again, I still use the phrase craft beer, for lack of a better pharse.

  16. Pingback: By Definition « Building International Coalitions Through Beer and Pavement

  17. Re “fine beer” or “quality beer” etc., I like the phrase that Tim Webb uses quite a bit, “beers of character.” It implies that more character in beer is a good thing, a nice direction to be moving, even if we don’t agree with the particular character of a particular beer. It also implies a reaction to mass produced beers that lack character, even if they’re of technically high quality.

    • I prefer the term microbrewery, which was the term initially used to describe the new brewers popping up all over the country. I was a little tounge in cheek in the above post, but if it wasn’t for these new small breweries we would not have any british beer styles available in the USA. Some of these styles harken back to the colonial period and the years following independence.

  18. Wow, I’m really amazed at how much debate there is over this subject! I use the phrase “craft beer” for lack of a better one. When I ask a waiter at a restaurant “What beers do you have?”, I save them from wasting their breath (and our time) on telling me about Bud, Miller, Coors, Corona, Heineken, etc. At the most humble of dining establishments (here in the US), the waitstaff knows that “craft beer” means beer similar in quality to Samuel Adams. Whether you like Sam Adams or not, or whether you consider it “craft beer” or “fine beer”, it certainly has more flavor than a generic light lager!

  19. It seems like a fuss about nothing, I personally don’t like or think “fine beer” will take off as a term it comes over as a bit smug. Who says its fine anyway? Having worked in the beverage trade I have tasted many hundreds of wines blind (as well as beers) and no one uses the term “fine wine” to describe a wine unless they are selling it to the public “…..our restaurant has a wide selection of fine wines…..etc.” it’s just puff and salesmanship. The definition of ‘craft’ is “an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill./ skill; dexterity:” That could be a broad category! I’m sure the brewer at Fosters would claim he used a special skill in his occupation, but his is not a craft beer.

    In North America there is a large gulf between the “domestic” brands and the “craft” beers. (ok Blue moon etc may muddy the waters a bit, but this is true for 98% of beer brands) The term “craft beer” has been a tremendous success in helping the customers to differentiate the two and in promoting the beers that fall into that category.

    I’m sure in the UK (where I’m originally from BTW) most drinkers who care about their beer, rather than using it just as an alcohol delivery system, would be able to understand what a craft beer is or might be, they don’t have to like the taste just that it is a beer made with a certain care and attention that the mega breweries don’t give to their mainstream beers. I agree that mega breweries can produce a craft product – the Worthington White Shield is the best example of this, as well as the Limited Release Granville Island beers. Both are owned by Molson Coors but the brewers concerned make a “craft” (or “fine” for that matter) product.

    Most people may not admit to liking labels (‘i just like good beer’ etc) but the reality is if have a store with a variety of beers and there was a section with “craft beers” writ large over the top, i think most people in the US, Canada and the UK would understand that Bud and Fosters would not be there and Meantime Porter, Sierra Nevada IPA or Driftwood Farmhand Ale might well be!

  20. What puzzles me about this whole debate is that, before it blew up, I’d been drinking bottled and canned beer for approximately 30 years and never felt any need for a term to distinguish hand-crafted wossname from mass-produced doobrie. Why did I drink bottled Old Tom? Because it’s a great beer. Red Stripe? Because it was the best thing I could get (at that particular club, generally). Why choose the bottle (or can) labelled Wadworth’s 6X over the one labelled Bass? Because I thought it was a good brewery.

    Where beer’s served at the bar there’s a difference between keg and cask, and everyone understands what that is (although we don’t all agree how much it matters). But when you’ve got two bottles or cans both containing brewery-conditioned beer with no secondary fermentation* going on, I honestly don’t think you can distinguish between them beyond saying that A is good and B is bad – and then explaining, and if necessary arguing about, why you think so. “Fine beer” is just another attempt to foreclose the argument – A is good because it’s fine beer, and we already know that fine beer is good beer – and I think it will fail for the same reason: the need to explain (and if necessary argue about) why this particular beer is fine beer.

    *I know what CAMRA were getting at with the RAIB slogan, but I wish they hadn’t. Lots of brewery-conditioned beer is great, and a significant proportion of bottle-conditioned beer is awful. IMO.

  21. Joe, not to worry – I didn’t take your comment as directed at me.

    First, on marketing: if they are conveying information, then they are not doing their job properly, or you and I have very different concepts of what constitutes information.

    Secondly, your comment: “I can enjoy a beer more if I know where it came from, if I know its story, if I know who made it….” And, if you are eating meat, say, if you know the story of the farm, the farmer and the animal, does that make you enjoy the meal more?

    Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “it’s only beer”? How about expanding that a bit: it’s only beer, not a religious object, nor a divine one.

    And, to expand on Martyn’s excellent comments on innovation a bit: aren’t we all (or mostly) familiar with the expression “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”? What was broken about beer that needed to be fixed? Personally, I feel the brewing of old, forgotten beers is the greatest innovation of the last 20 or so years.

    • Brewing of old ,forgotten beers isn’t innovation it’s reinventing the wheel.
      I’ve looked long and hard at the beer scene and can find little if any evidence of actual innovation, I hate to say this but perhaps nitro dispense is the latest “new” thing.

      • Peter, I would call it innovation in a specific sense: the availability of beers to consumers that had been off shelves, in some cases, for over a hundred years. Yes, it’s probably falls more in the marketing area of the business than the technical, but, as a drinker, I find it innovative and certainly welcome.

    • “And, if you are eating meat, say, if you know the story of the farm, the farmer and the animal, does that make you enjoy the meal more?”

      Well, basically… yes. Sometimes it’s a conscious thing, sometimes it isn’t, but I do think that knowledge can increase the pleasure of consumption. If that makes me a weak romantic then I’ll accept the insult, I guess. I don’t think I’m alone, though. I know a pig farmer in Missouri and without really knowing much about his process, I’ve really enjoyed the barbecue we’ve made with his pork. It’s probable that we’ve enjoyed it even more because we know the guy and where it came from.

      The example I was thinking of was a garden-grown tomato. If it came from my garden or a neighbor’s garden, I might enjoy it better than a (hypothetically) slightly superior tomato from the supermarket. A shitty tomato is still a shitty tomato, but things being roughly equal knowing where it came from would affect how much most people would enjoy it.

      There is some sleight of hand involved here. It might be the same trick that makes food-drink pairings fun, even when they don’t work. Thinking about where the food (beer) comes from sort of tricks you into paying more attention to what you’re tasting. If what you are tasting is any good, then paying more attention to it is a step toward greater pleasure.

      • Oooo reading your post I agree, you do pay more attention to the qualities of the product when you know the story of the product -the personal touch to its production. Tomato is very good example. You don’t see many people sniffing the ‘Finest’ tomatoes in Tesco -but if you get it from a farmers market where you meet the producer, or your neighbour -suddenly you want to smell it and to savour it -and notice those extra qualities.

        But, the back-story wont convince you a sub-par product is really good, we’re not that stupid surely?

        Seeing it’s story probably does help a brand to give that connection to the consumer, when simply making a quality product in this age is not enough on its own -as consumers are spoilt for choice with good quality products. -Think about Jack Daniels recent poster adverts.

        You have to sell ‘values’ as well as a good physical product these days.

  22. Joe, I wouldn’t call you a “weak Romantic”, I’d say you’re in full bloom! And I certainly don’t mean it or see it as an insult.

    For myself, the milieu makes its own contribution to the experience. Beer is not an isolated experience, it can be best enjoyed with the accompaniment of good friends (new or old) and a sympathetic environment. To me, that’s the full monty.

  23. I’m not a big fan of arguing by analogy, but that appears to be the language spoken ’round here so I’ll give it a go:
    Consider:
    “no less delusional than believing your T-shirt has something extra about it because it says [logo] on it”.

    OK, let’s (for the time being, and for the sake of argument) let this stand. Can we conclude from this that: (a) shirts do not / cannot have logos on them?, (b) no machine exists which can apply logos to shirts, (c) no-one wants logos on shirts or (d) logos don’t exist?

    I’d say not. If the purchaser finds the shirt more desirable because of the logo then, at the least, it has the extra property of being desirable to that purchaser because of it. This extra something is a real thing, even though it’s not an inherent property of the shirt. It’s in the relationship (psychological, social) between the purchaser and the shirt manufacturer, the trademark owner, the people who see the purchaser in their new finery. And we know that these psycho-social factors do make people enjoy / value the product more. It’s measurable. It’s science. It’s not some woolly wishful “William Morris-style bollocks”. This is why faking logos is big business.

    Similarly, (I hate analogy, but what can you do), when you imply that craft is delusion, you don’t show that (a) beer can’t be brewed with “craft” (I’m starting to hate this word), (b) craft brewers are mythical creatures, (c) no-one values craft, or that (d) “craft” is meaningless.

    This is why pretending to be “craft” is big business.

    • Jon, I find it very difficult arguing with you, because you constantly take my words and run off with them in a direction I never meant. What are you on about, “Can we conclude from this that shirts do not/cannot have logos on them … logos don’t exist”. None of that has any bearing on any point I was trying to make, and I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make.

      • OK then, I’ll quote you more fully (it’s only up there you know):
        “believing a beer has something extra about it because it was made by a “craft” brewer is no less delusional than believing your T-shirt has something extra about it because it says “D&G” on it.” That’s what you said.

        The point I make (reluctantly continuing with your analogy) is that logos add to the value of the product for those consumers who value them. This real, extra value exists because of psycho-social factors that don’t reside in the shirt itself.

        Similiarly (with a disclaimer about analogies), the knowledge that a drink comes from a craft process can genuinely add value for a drinker who values such things. This extra value is in the process, the information available to the drinker, etc. blah. blah. Not IN the DRINK.

        You say in your original piece “the consumer’s joy can only reside in the product.”. And come back to this by asserting (in your D&G™ comment that finding value in a process aspect is delusional.

        I show how this is untrue.

        Of course, we’re both using product in a rather narrow, old fashioned kind of way. Typically, nowadays, the idea of “product” will include the branding and information aspects as well as the actual stuff in the bottle.

        I’m afraid I don’t know how to put it more simply. Hope this helps.

    • The problem with your analogy is that it’s not analogous. Craft beer is a label (a concept of the user) whereas a t-shirt (with or without logo) is a physical object.

      Secondly, I don’t believe that the label is delusion, but what you yourself wrote as your final thought: it is a strictly commercial consideration.

      • So the label “craft beer” is not analogous with the label “D&G”? Sorry, but they’re absolutely identical: an attempt to “add value” to a product by slapping a label on it that makes no difference at all to the physical object (beer or T-shirt) and the effect of which is entirely in the consumer’s mind.

          • Absolutely, using skills in brewing. And I won’t deny that you can “add value” to something, for some people, through smart marketing: clearly you can, or a T-shirt with D&G on it could not be sold for more than a plain T-shirt. Similarly, experiments have shown that if you give the same wine to two different groups at a tasting, telling one group that it’s a Premier Cru selling at £50 a bottle and the second group that it’s £3.99 plonk, the first group will give the wine a higher rating after tasting it than the second group will. I’m sure you’d get exactly the same finding if you gave a beer to to groups at a beer festival, and told one group it was from a small artisinal craft brewer, the other group it was from AB InBev. Ultimately, however – I know of no experiments to test this, and it would be very difficult or impossible to set one up – I believe that “halo effect” will wear off, and over a period people will adjust their appreciation of something, be it a T-shirt or a wine, to conform to their real experience of it, rather than the experience as mediated through marketing. As an example of this, Marks & Spencer used to have an excellent reputation for the quality/value of its basic clothing, but a few years ago they started reducing the quality, and people noticed, and their sales suffered despite their reputation. You can call something “craft beer” and people’s subjective experience might be enhanced to begin with, but if the product is no good, it doesn’t matter how much back story you load onto it, that product will ultimately fail.

  24. Re: “(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)” — To be sure, that’s also more than most U.S. small brewers make in a year. But the U.S. definition of “small brewer” is based on tax rates that are tied to amounts produced. Not that how the competing associations define “small” makes things any clearer.

    Re: “fine beer” — I guess I’m with the folks who see “fine dining” and “fine wine” correlating highly with “expensive” (regardless of how good or poor things taste). So “fine beer” doesn’t really work for me.

  25. An interesting proposition. Being in the US, I feel that Craft Beer is here to stay for quite some time, but I wouldn’t mind seeing you guys in the UK come up with something different that is a better fit for your industry.

    I’m actually not much of a fan of the term here but I’ve accepted that it has hit critical mass and fighting it at this point is only counter-productive to the interests of the small brewers’ segment of the industry (of which I am a part, though not a sales/marketing person, but a brewer with no say in our marketing for the most part).

    I always boil it down to this: is craft beer a tangible thing with inherent qualities, or is it something made by a brewery that we call craft because of a set of criteria (which also have something to do with their product, but not completely). So basically, can a mega-brewer make craft beer? In the US, you are automatically craft if you are small and don’t brew adjunct -agers, so I guess this is a foreign argument versus the cask/craft dichotomy.

    • That’s a good point about there being a plenitude of quality products today. I am sure in the 1700′s-1800′s much of the beer was not very good, you can tell from travelogues and other sources of the day, e.g. the well-known comment in Tizard’s text that much porter in England was “shockingly bad” with a list of defects depressingly listed. I was just reading again a 1721 travelogue where the writer comments on the beer at various inns in England and half the time it is “bad” (not just weak, he notes that separately).

      Today, we are fortunate to have mostly stable, good-tasting beer albeit it divides up to the various consumer “preferences”.

      This does put pressure on all producers to distinguish their products and recourse to the language of tradition (ironically) or to superlatives in general is inevitable. This is for the market at large and from a seller’s standpoint: I think most dyed-in-the-wool beer fans choose based on the flavour/price ratio and not on particular ad campaigns or label designs or that sort of thing.

      What craft brewers everywhere and many old regionals in U.K. and Europe do is combine the best of the old with the best of the new. This means using traditional ingredients in generous quantities but with modern technology including refrigeration.

      Gary

      Gary

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