A revolution has been brewing in the UK for the last few years, bubbling beneath the surface of the drinks industry. The craft beer movement is becoming more and more solidified in the hearts of British beer enthusiasts, and while some call it a hipster fad, the micro-brewing, hops-favouring, beard-loving British public just can’t get enough of the stuff.
If you’re serious about your beer, I’m sure you’re able to identify a craft beer when you see one. Yet it has to be said, the definition is rather blurred and vague. In America, where the craft beer revolution is also booming, clear parameters are set for what may class as a craft beer. However, in the UK we are yet to set any boundaries on what constitutes a craft beer.
What is the American definition?
The US Brewer’s Association (BA) defines a craft beer brewer as small, independent and traditional. According to their guidelines, a small brewer must produce 6 million barrels of beer or less per year. It also stipulates that less than 25 per cent of the brewery may be owned by an external alcohol industry player that is not a craft brewer. This means that a big drinks company cannot acquire a large stake in an independent craft beer business without it having an impact on the way it labels its products.
For this reason, Blue moon – which many people believe to be a craft beer – is in fact not one under the BA’s definition, because it is brewed by MillerCoors, who brew Coors and Coors Light. In order to capitalise on the success of the craft beer label, the company branded Blue Moon as a craft beer and placed Blue Moon Brewing Co. on their label instead of MillerCoors, which caused quite a stir in the US. A man in California even filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors in 2015. In June, 2016 the judge dismissed the claim, pointing out that the price and branding of the product are no more misleading than any other marketing campaign on the planet (not his exact words, but the sentiments were the same).
Why is this definition important?
According to Matthew Curtis, a bona fide beer writer, the UK could do with this sort of definition too. But why is this so important to brewers, and what effect could it have on the industry?
‘Without a method of accurately identifying a craft brewery in the UK we are making it incredibly difficult for ourselves to measure this growth. If we had a method of charting this, as the BA do in the US then not only will we be able to see how our sector of the industry is growing but we will be able to ensure that this growth becomes sustainable.’
These sentiments were echoed by Brewdog’s James Watt in a series of blog posts in 2013:
‘From my perspective, the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer.’
He believes we need an official definition in order to protect craft brewers, to guide consumers in their choices, and to ensure that ‘true craft brewers can charge a fair and sustainable price for their masterpieces’. Watt believes that this would effectively enable craft beers to grow as strongly as they have in America.
In 2015, Brewdog, Camden Town Brewery, Magic Rock Brewing, Beavertown Brewery and distributor James Clay founded the United Craft Brewers (UCB), an association that sought to define craft beer and unite craft brewers in solidarity.
So, what are we waiting for?
Like real ale purists, many in the craft beer industry are determined to protect their category (and their unique selling point). To an extent, defining craft beer would stave off the fierce competition that often comes from multinationals that have either bought or created beer with a high price point that masquerades as a craft beer.
However, craft breweries are businesses like any other and their main focus is the consumer, so despite the independent and artisanal nature of their products, surely they still dream of growth and profit?
Well, Camden Town Brewery are a great example of this. In 2015, they were sold to the world’s biggest drinks company AB In Bev (Budweiser, Stella Artois and Becks). This put a slight dampener on the UCB’s plans to join forces and put forth its set of values. Despite the impassioned mission statement, Brewdog stopped selling Camden Town Brewery beer and effectively took away their craft beer stamp of approval. As a result the UCB went rather quiet.
According to Richard Burhouse of Magic Rock Brewing, the main issue was not being able to come to a definition.
‘I thought we were making progress, but it sort of slipped away. It kept falling down on technicalities, like, what happens if you’ve outside influences and investors. What percentage?’
He goes on to describe the process as ‘nebulous’ and ‘hard to pin down’.
Here at Food and Drink Guides, we love craft beer for the delicious and diverse flavours it offers and we’re not so worried about how it’s brewed. The fantastic thing about the craft beer revolution is the abundance of choice and the many new and exciting breweries that keep cropping up all over the country. Defined or not, it seems that craft beer is here to stay.
For the perfect place to enjoy your choice of beer, hop on over to our website and request your free copy of a regional Food and Drink Guide here.