What’s In A Name: How defining ‘craft beer’ is a tricky business

Definitions are tricky things – when US Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked that ‘I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it and this movie (Louis Malle’s ”Les Amantes” ) is not pornography’?” he was setting a precedent that a definition didn’t need to be a statement of the exact meaning of a word but rather that on seeing (hearing, smelling or tasting) a ‘thing’ it has a degree of distinctiveness.

Like hipsters and hover boards, craft beer just suddenly seemed to be a ‘thing’ – and craft beer aficionados didn’t need a definition, they just knew it when they saw it (or tasted it).

The US Brewers Association defines three tests of ‘craft’ – to be defined as a ‘craft

  • Small – Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.
  • Independent – Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
  • Traditional – A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.

Furthermore, the Brewers Association tries to define some characteristics of a craft brewer …

  • Craft brewers are small brewers.
  • The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.
  • Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
  • Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events.
  • Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
  • Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.

Are the definitions above actually helpful? And with no actual definition in the UK, has the term “craft” slowly lost it’s meaning to the purists?

Let’s look at some examples …. is Meantime a craft brewery (anymore)? Bought and sold by SABMiller in the space of 12 months it fails on tests 1 and 2 – it’s no longer small, it’s no longer independent but does it not meet all the other characteristics set out by the Brewers Association? Camden Town another poster child of the craft movement bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev – the same outfit selling Meantime – again fails for a lack of independence and scale, but that’s all isn’t it?

Commenting on the sale, Camden founder, Jasper Cuppaidge noted that “Opportunities like this come rarely. We believe we must have the ambition to grab this opportunity and turn Camden Town Brewery, and the quality it stands for, from being an outstanding London brewer to being a world famous one”. And during Meantime’s initial sale to SABMiller last spring, the chief executive of Meantime, Nick Miller, stated that he thought the term “craft beer” was now redundant, and he was sure the word would eventually disappear; “I think it’ll become the norm that we have craft beer whether the brewer is big or small. If you stay true to what you believe in, which is high-quality premium beers…I think the drinker will welcome that”.

And that is what is interesting about the Brewers Association 3 criteria – it is really about ‘otherness’ … a definition that is simply designed to separate small from large. There is nothing in this about taste, or innovation or quality or premiumness … just big versus small. Does a craft brewer have to be small?

To craft beer ‘purists’, “craft” means so much more. These consumers are enthusiasts, they perceive themselves to be experts, beer aficionados. The passion is unmissable. They buy into the story, the branding, the unique range of tastes. They’re more likely to stay true to their local producer … more likely to try beers from their hometown. They take time to consider who they’re supporting when purchasing the pint; the little guy, or the giant conglomerate. These craft beer enthusiasts are the ones who believe that once ABInBev or SABMiller swallow up a traditional ‘craft brewery’, it is no longer ‘craft’ – whether or not the beer stays the same or not.

Some believe that being bought up alters the taste. Back in 2013, Molson Coors visited Dublin looking to acquire a craft beer brand to add to their portfolio. Rumours are, they made plenty of generous offers- but they had a hard time finding a brewery willing to sign a deal. Eventually, Franciscan Well from Cork signed, and the beer started to appear in more pubs, all over the country. That’s the advantage of selling, the parent company often has a wide sales market and distribution network which can help the brewery gain more recognition. But at what cost? Although a lot of money is maybe spent on PR and marketing to ensure the brand message of “small and craft” stays the same, many argue that the taste would have to change. The logic goes that it is nearly impossible to replicate a beer when it’s brewed in larger quantities – scaled up from a small batch – and possibly brewed ‘off-site’ with potentially different water. BUT to counter this … prior to its sale to AB InBev, Camden was forced to outsource some brewing to Belgium after sales jumped from £2.5m in 2012 to £9m last year, and not too many people batted an eyelid

Defining ‘craft’ in a way that is relevant and meaningful is a challenge, and if Nick Miller is to be believed a potential waste of time. Corporate giants were caught off-guard by the growing popularity of craft beer in recent years and are scrambling to catch-up – usually by buying small independents. The jury is out as to whether these acquisitions will see a ‘dumbing down’ of some leading lights of the craft beer movement, or if they prove to be the means of bringing the same great tasting craft beers to a wider audience – enabling ‘craft’ beers to out-sell their more mainstream brethren. But when great tasting craft beers become mainstream – that sense of ‘otherness’ is lost. But should we worry?

How do smaller breweries compete with this? Continue to innovate, continue to produce great tasting beers, continue to (have and) tell a compelling brand story. But maybe don’t rely on the technical definition of ‘craft’ to protect you – using the ‘otherness’ of the definition to somehow cast the likes of Camden and Meantime out into the ‘craft wilderness’ may not be a sustainable long-term strategy.