Last week, my latest column for the Publican’s Morning Advertiser focused on the response to craft beer by the giant, global brewing corporations that dominate the beer market. It was inspired by a new project at Guinness which has produced some beers I consider to be very good indeed. I suggested that maybe we’re getting to the end of the usefulness of the term ‘craft beer’, because it disguises the fact that breweries of any size can and now sometimes do make really good beer.
The response to the piece was mixed, from sentiments along the lines of ‘Damn right, it’s all about good beer, whoever brews it,’ to ‘No! Big brewers are shit by definition and we will always need craft brewers to stand against them.’
The more I thought about these differing views, the more I realised they were arguing about different things.
The narrative of craft beer is a familiar one: global brewers make boring bland beer because they are trying not to offend anyone, they always want to cut costs, and they sell style over substance. Craft brewers saved us from mediocrity by brewing more interesting, flavourful beers, operating a more nimble business model, driven by passion and flavour rather than shareholders, marketers and accountants. Medium-sized brewers – such as regional and family-owned real ale brewers in the UK, or brewers who were craft but have grown huge, sit somewhere in the middle and generate most of the argument about what is and isn’t craft.
It can be expressed as a linear continuum along which you can plot your favourite and least favourite brewers and beers:
I think this is how most of us see the issue. But it’s rather too simplistic. If it ever was right, things have moved in beyond it.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think every beer created by a craft brewer is good – there are some awful beers out there from passionate beer advocates who simply aren’t very good brewers, or who might be walking the craft beer walk but are in reality just as cynical as the big brewers, but operating on a small scale hoping to get rich quick from the latest craze. And on the other hand, there are big brewers who have bought smaller brands and haven’t (yet) screwed them up. And there are the occasional beers – such as the best ones I tasted at Guinness, and Carlsberg’s Jacobsen range – that are simply very good beers made by brewers employed by a global corporation, that in a blind tasting would be considered good craft beers.
So it would be more accurate to look at the market on two axes rather than one continuum, like this:
Now, if you were to plot every beer brand in the world on this chart, the vast majority of global brewers’ brands would still be in the bottom left quadrant, and the majority of craft beers would probably sit top right. But there would be notable exceptions, so I think the reality of the beer world today probably look like this:
When you look at the market in this way, your emotional response to it will tell you what you really care about in beer, and different people care about different things at different times. That’s why we sometimes talk at cross-purposes in debates about craft versus big.
Given a free choice, I’d prefer to drink in the top right quadrant. I prefer to drink good quality beer brewed by a small, passionate company. I’m sure most of you would agree. But if these beers weren’t available to you, would you rather have a very good beer brewed by a big, nasty corporation, or an inferior beer brewed by a really great guy under a railway arch just down the street?
If the quality of the beer is the most important thing, you’ll happily drink a great beer from Carlsberg or Guinness. But if that thought makes you angry, then you aren’t actually thinking about the beer at all. You’re thinking about the craft beer movement, and your decision is driven by your beliefs, politics and morality rather than your taste buds.
I’m not knocking either approach. What I am saying is that if we confuse arguments about beer quality and flavour with arguments about an unfair balance of power, the importance of supporting small local businesses and the excitement of feeling like part of a movement, we end up sounding stupid. Anyone who genuinely believes big brewers are incapable of making and releasing good beers simply doesn’t know anything about brewing. And anyone who thinks any small-scale craft beer is automatically good because of where it comes from has their head in the sand.
This made me think about where I stand as someone who makes a living writing about beer. If I discover a great beer made by a big brewer and I refuse to write about it, or I say it’s shit when it isn’t, I’m not doing my job properly. I can choose what I want to focus on in the most detail, but I do have a duty to report interesting stuff that I find out in the course of doing my job. If I was thinking purely as a fan of beer, I might have a different view.
The craft debate will rumble on. Beer gets under our skin precisely because it is many things – that’s why I started writing about it in the first place. In most cases, it’s not just about the quality of the beer – it’s about expressing who we are, making choices that say something about us. It is politics and fashion and identity as well as flavour. In reality, it’s these aspects that are driving most of the current debates about the future of craft beer.
It’s your choice what you drink. If you choose to boycott any beer made by a large corporation, no matter how good it is, I’d have some respect for that point of view. Just don’t tell me you’re doing it because the beer is shit.