What is Craft Beer?

What is Craft beer?

Andy Hamilton "cheers"
Andy Hamilton “cheers”

A wise wag once told me that real ale is made with four ingredients and craft beer is made with six. Real ale is made with water, hops, malt and yeast and craft beer has two extra ingredients twitter and facebook. It’s a neat little joke as it helps to illustrate that sometimes there is little discernible difference between them, other than perhaps their approaches to marketing. It’s no wonder so many of us are scratching our heads and wondering, just what is craft beer and where did it come from?

What is craft beer? – Is this the first reference?

The first reference I have found for, “craft beer”, dates back to 1995 where the New York magazine refers to it as, “a rarefied name for beer that has no cruddy adjuncts”. (although please do prove me wrong by posting in the comments below if you know any better).

Since then it has become such an institution in the States that, courtesy of the Brewers Association and the IRS, it now has a legal definition. Craft beer has to come from a small brewery with an, “Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less”, these “small” breweries also have be independent, with no more than 25% of the brewery controlled by larger non craft breweries or drinks concerns.

These craft breweries started to appear across the country during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, often referred to as microbreweries. They were set up by homebrewers so fed up with the bland mass produced beer that seemed to be the only stuff available. These homebrewers often turned to UK ales for influence and they grew in number. By the 90’s almost every American was within drinking distance to a decent brewery.

What is craft beer? Vince from Ashley Down Brewery and Michael from Wiper and True
What is craft beer? The stuff on the left or right?

One of the major strengths of these craft brewers is their inclusion and openness. Unlike the bigger breweries they freely share information and brewing techniques. This is a win win as it means brewers get good very quickly and punters can rely on good beer.

American craft brewers will take influence from historic beers just as they might from international brewing techniques. This pushes the boundaries of beer making to its limits. A great example of a craft beer style that helps typify this innovation and boundary pushing is a black Imperial Saison. A Saison is normally a cloudy pale beer, but here the black colour is an influence of the Black IPA‘s which have been popularised by craft brewers for a few years now, the Imperial means it’s strong in alcohol, its influence from the drinks that were once brewed for the Russian Imperial court in the 19th century and the Saison is a Belgium farmhouse style characterised by the peppery almost cider fruit flavour derived from its yeast. As you can imagine craft beers could certainly never be called bland!

What is Craft Beer? – The American Influence on the UK

The GBBF at Olymipia
CAMRA’s biggest beer festival the GBBF at Olympia

Over the last few years craft beer has travelled from America and it’s influence can be felt across the beer drinking world. Here in the UK this has been a bit of problem for some traditionalist due to one issue, the keg. In the States the cask is rarely used and instead they favour (or should that be favor), the keg. Cask beers use a natural carbonation and keg beers forced, being pumped into the beer from a canister when being served. When CAMRA first set up all the mass produced, pasteurised, bland beer they were fighting against was being served from a keg. This distinction made it very easy to champion cask beers and vilify the keg.

With advent of craft beer in a keg in the UK there is much debate due to this issue and CARMA stand against the keg even when its full of amazing beer. Personally, I’ve found CAMRA’s stance here odd especially as they will happily champion cider which last time I checked wasn’t made with hops or malt, in fact don’t they use apples! At least craft beer, however it is served, is actually beer. In CAMRA’s defence, and to stop a lynching next time I’m at a beer festival or CAMRA meeting, cask beer is something that is considered to be very British and it would indeed be shame if this method disappeared for the sake of a trend.

Petty arguments aside, craft beer in the UK pretty much mirrors American craft beer. The people brewing it are enthusiastic brewers who are generally former home brewers and work out of small barrel plants. They are make highly innovative, interesting beers with care and attention. If your local brewer matches this description, then you a have a craft brewer.

What is Craft Beer? Does it have a future?

However, craft beer is under attack or rather the term is in the UK as many of the huge breweries are getting in on the act and creating new styles that they are calling, “craft beers”. This muddies the water somewhat especially as, at unlike the U.S. the U.K. has no real legal definition for craft beer. If this trend continues I imagine that the term will have to evolve to match. Already drinkers are just referring to, “really good beer”, and there is even an organisation called CAMRGB (Let’s campaign for real good beer) to reflect this emerging trend.

Perhaps the term will change as, like a bad beer, it continues to be watered down. But for now most will agree what craft beer is a style of beer typified innovative styles and great brewing practices, something that came over from America and yet was influenced by the UK. If you haven’t tried a pint then I’d urge you to seek out your local craft ale pub as its the best thing to happen to beer since Enki (the god that first created beer).

This article was first published in the 2015 Good Pub Guide.