What exactly is craft beer? Find out here »
From James Smith, the expert author of The Great Australian Beer Guide
Contributed articles and stories
Craft beer has been growing at a huge rate and there are now estimated to be over 300 breweries around Australia. There's more talk about mainstream versus craft or boutique beer but just what is the definition of craft beer? James Smith has been immersed in the industry since 2008 and has written a great deal on the topic including two excellent beer guides.
This excerpt from The Great Australian Beer Guide may help explain the discussion around the term craft beer.
In some ways, this has been the craft beer world’s million-dollar question: just how do we define what we are and what we aren’t? Associations in different parts of the world have come up with definitions that lean on parameters such as ingredients, size or ownership. In Australia, the Craft Beer Industry Association's (CBIA) definition favours the abstract – ‘craft beer is born of a mindset, an idea between art and science executed by the dedicated skill of a brewer’ – which leaves anyone wanting to understand who is on the bus and who isn’t, little the wiser.
In New Zealand, Epic Beer’s Luke Nicholas has argued that it may be wiser to define ‘industrial beer’ – that produced by ‘big mega breweries’ whose ‘near beer’ wort streams he calls ‘a disgrace to the history of all brewers’. Craft beer, maybe even beer itself, is what this is not, he suggests.
Take any of the parameters used by those seeking to define and it becomes possible to pick holes in them. If independence or ownership is important then did Mountain Goat’s beers stop being craft beer once the business was sold lock, stock and Belgian quad-filled Lark Distillery whisky barrels to Asahi?
If it comes down to ingredients and flavours, then what about the rare occasions a brand bought from a contract facility by one of the country’s supermarket chains and given prominence – and a far cheaper pricepoint than the beers it mimics – tastes good? If it comes down to size, you end up with a situation like that in the States where the Brewers Association has to keep raising its upper limit so it can keep the biggest breweries that meet all of its other criteria in the club.
In 150 Great Australian Beers I favoured a line from beer writer-turned-Seven Sheds brewer Willie Simpson. In trying to capture what craft beer was, he quoted from The Castle: “It’s the vibe.”
Certainly, if you do care about beer on levels other than whether it’s cold, wet and will make you feel warm and fuzzy, and have some knowledge of the beer world, then you’ll know what he means. There is a vibe, albeit one that is defined differently from person to person, as each drinker will have their own parameters for what is acceptable to them. Like any purchase, some people will just want the cheapest or most readily available, while others will look for qualities such as locally made, organic, sustainable and so on.
Like many brewers who include ‘love’ as an ingredient on their labels, I believe that love plays an integral part in craft beer too: love for your business, your beer, the way it’s presented, the wider industry as a whole. But, without wishing to get too cosmic, how can we ever really know someone’s true intentions and whether a claim of ‘love’ is little more than a marketing ploy?
What’s more, there will be brewers out there who pour love into their business and beers but might also have a beer they knock out as cheaply as possible as a volume shifter to prop up the stuff they really love. Right now, the term ‘indie beer’ is gaining credence, particularly on the back of the takeovers of leading craft brewers.
To those who care about the provenance of their beers and where their money will end up, this declaration of independence is perhaps most useful of all. I would suggest that the ultimate solution isn’t to try to define at all but to leave the decision making in drinkers’ hands.
For this to happen, there would need to be absolute transparency and honesty applied to the labelling of beers. Brewers should list all ingredients, who owns the brand or business right up to the top of the chain (as Lion does with its sub-brands now), and where the beer is brewed, be that by the brewing company itself or under license for them by another.
This way, a discerning drinker has all the information they need to make a choice. Is it made with all natural ingredients? OK, that’s acceptable to me. Is it owned by a small, independent, local company? OK, I like that too. And do they brew it themselves? Yes. Great, let’s hope it tastes awesome.
Most drinkers don’t and won’t care, but for those that do take an interest in what they buy, this provides the information they need to make their decision. Then it’s up to a brewer to ensure that the beer is good enough that they come back for more.
For now, however, while many scribes have taken delight in declaring the term ‘craft beer’ dead – and at some point in the future it probably all will become just beer – I believe it still has great relevance. We may not know or agree with exactly what it means, but we do know that it is something that barely existed 30 years ago, after the local beer industry was crushed of all diversity and colour, and which well and truly exists now, more diverse and colourful than ever.
As a result, today’s beer world really is a place where four ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast – combined with a brewer’s ingenuity, can create endless possibilities.
This edited extract is reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.
The Great Australian Beer Guide: Your Guide to Craft Beer and Beyond by James Smith is published by Hardie Grant (August 2016, NSW; HB, 248pp, RRP A$29.99). It is available nationally at all good bookshops and can be found online via booko.com.au here »
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