When I named my brewery Ramsbottom “Craft” Brewery it was done for all good reasons. Not perhaps as some might think to capitalise on the “craft” brewing momentum. For some time already I had been creating beers in small volumes. I had been creating beers initially for pure enjoyment using all manner of ingredients available on the market, both traditional brewing ingredients and other ingredients that would commonly be found in a kitchen. In my eyes there was no doubt that I was crafting these beers; inventing my own recipes from scratch. As there had already been a Ramsbottom Brewery that had ceased trading it was also a good differentiator from the previous entity whilst still bringing a local feel to the brand by keeping Ramsbottom in the name. Who wouldn’t want their town name as part of the name for their brewery and on the label on the beer they are making in the town. Beer has historically been a local product due to its weight.
Craft already corrupted
Not long after naming my brewery a “craft” brewery, it was pointed out to me that the core market to whom I was appealling to with my ales were likely going to be put off by the “craft” tag. Most of those ales drinkers who want “real ale” will not buy craft beer apparently. I dismissed this as an over-reaction. If it’s served on a hand pump it’s clearly real ale even if it is tagged “craft” isn’t it? But most drinkers are not that knowledgeable on beer and how it is made and what makes it “real”. You wouldn’t expect a consumer to know that. You can have a real lager after all. Brewed roughly like an ale but with a different yeast. In most respects its a wholesome product. If you have ever been to Germany you might have had a locally crafted ‘small’ batch lager.
That label of craft was 3 years ago. And times have moved on even further. When I started brewing there was a real craft beer scene in America. Forged from the revival of craft brewing at home, creating small batch adventurous beer in your garage thanks to the proliferation of the home brewing wholesale market. Finally home brewing was not about making from a tin. All of the ingredients available to large scale breweries were not only available to micro breweries but also to home based nano breweries and non commerical home brewers who were now expert in “all grain brewing”. No kits here! And that’s exactly how Ramsbottom Craft Brewery was born. Out of a love for creating beers that you wouldn’t find commercially. But even then the larger micro breweries in the US who were emulating real craft brewing and making it commercialised were to be frank no longer craft brewers by the dictionary definition.
Processing rather than crafting
Since then we have seen “craft beer” totally commercialised. Money makers are trying to get every penny out of this boom they can. Now what you will see on the shelves marked “craft beer” is 100% removed from the pure wholesome brewing that genuine craft brewers are brewing at home and that which a small minority of small microbreweries are making. So far removed that it now comes in cans. Little cans on the shelf or big cans in the cellar. It doesn’t make any difference to me. This beer has been processed. When I say processed I mean more processed than the simple nature of brewing.
– Secondary fermentation
– Open and serve
Anything that includes steps above and beyond this simple ancient process is interference to the purity of the product.
Processes such as
These serve only to enable the beer to be stored for longer and to be served clearer.
Provided the supply of beer is local and can be managed just in time there is no need for this. It’s also obvious to any bottled ale drinker that bottle conditioned ale is superior in flavour. However, and especially with hoppier beers the “just in time” ideology is even more important. Genuinely hoppy beers do not travel well (despite the history of IPA). That is if you enjoy fresh hop taste. Modern hops have been bred for great flavour while the beer is “green”. Which is why I have always been saddened by US beers being imported to the UK when there are breweries who produce similar beers equally well right here in the UK. The same bottle of beer tasted here 3-6 months after bottling in the US will not be a patch on the beer drunk fresh in the US 4-6 weeks after bottling.
Limitations caused by size
Anyhow I digress. The point is commercialisation is not possible for exceptional beer. Once you start supplying to multiple retailers your margin is squeezed so badly it is not possible to make the beers that craft brewers at home make. The sheer size of the tall conical fermenters and the flow rates that commercial breweries must use within the brewery affect flavour. And accountants demand lower cost ingredients be used in the beers. Craft brewers use a range of malts and hops that large scale breweries could only dream of. It doesn’t pay to have a complicated stock inventory.
So I want to reclaim this word “craft”. Especailly as your every day brewers who are famous for the every day beer that has been drunk in pubs for decades are now on the bandwagon. The beers they peddle under “sub-brands” – designed misleadingly to look locally produced and by small creative brewers – are the exact opposite to what craft beer is about. If the public think this is really craft beer the craft scene will be killed. As far as I am concerned – for them to call their beer craft beer – is misleading advertising and should be reported.
So what is “craft”?
Oxford English Dictionary:
Definition of craft in English:
1.An activity involving skill in making things by hand: e.g. the craft of cobbling
So lets think of some things that would be considered to be “crafted”
– thrown pottery
– hand made cakes
– hand blown glass
– wine made by trampling on the grapes
– wood carving
Brewing? Well at the smallest scale of things there are things done by hand.
– Conditioning the malt
– Milling the malt
– Stirring the mash
– Controlling taps to regulate flowrates
– Measuring temperatures
– Throwing in hops and stirring them
– Harvesting yeast manually
– Filling the casks and priming them
and many other things too….
When the hard work is taken out of beer so too can the flavour
In a big brewery all of this can be automated and often is. So I believe craft, yes, can include some machinery (e.g. milling machine), but it is pretty obvious when things are processed rather than crafted. Even if hands press buttons it’s not crafted. One stir of hops with a giant paddle is not crafting a beer. Creating a recipe is not crafting a beer. The crafting is in its creation by hand and labour, born in the process, not in a theoretical recipe.
In contrast to automation, a beer made by hand is monitored attentively by the brewer. A watchful eye keeps things on track. This attention to detail is indicative of craftsmanship. Once you have an automated process, the process is master and not the brewer. It is very difficult to change things dramatically when a giant process is designed. There is limited flexibility by the nature of designing the process because it is designed to give consistency.
Hand crafted things show an element of humanity in them. Humans are not perfect. There will be small variations from batch to batch and this enhances the value and charm of the products.
So in contrast to the above list the following are not crafted
– mass produced porcelain, even if lightly hand painted. Yes a piece with artistry could be seen as crafted.
– concrete pieces mass moulded in a factory
– cakes made by big food companies e.g. Mr Kipling
– automated glass moulding
– automated wine making
– mass machined wood toys
I wouldn’t see Mr Kipling claim he ever makes handcrafted cakes. No one would believe it. But the big breweries seem to be getting away with labelling mass produced beer “craft beer”. Maybe some consumers need to challenge these descriptions with local Trading Standards Officers and the Advertising Standards Authority. Without any challenge why would they stop?
Nothing is ever black or white. There are degrees of craftiness I would agree. But surely when we get to the size of a company like Brew Dog we can agree that regardless of the integrity in the product there is little similarity any longer with the image of a carpenter carving a decorative mirror surround, or a patissier decorating a showpiece celebration cake or a home brewing craft brewer painstakingly stirring his pots and creating his own unique beer.
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