Friday, 14 July 2017

Declaration of independence

A key element of the craft beer movement, starting in the USA, and now transplanted across to this country, has been championing small, independent brewers against the multinational giants. Not surprisingly, the news of craft brewers being bought out by those same mega-brewers has been met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth and claims of a sell-out. In response to this, SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) has begun a fightback by launching a scheme to indicate which beers come from genuinely independent breweries.

Now, I'm all in favour of transparency in terms of who brews what, and of standing up for independent producers. But it must be pointed out that all this will do is to show whether a brewery is a member of SIBA. Many independent brewers of both the family and tiny micro varieties aren't, but that doesn’t make them any less independent, or their beer any less good. It’s just a membership badge for a trade association.

It also has to be questioned how many drinkers are really that concerned about who brews their beer, as opposed to what it tastes like. Consumers are more sophisticated that they’re often given credit for, and I don’t believe that they’re genuinely being deceived into thinking that Camden or Goose Island come from independent producers. They’re entirely comfortable with the fact that big companies have lower-volume, specialist offshoots. Most of the finest Scotch malt whiskies come from distilleries owned by multinational drinks companies, but that doesn’t make them inferior, or deter people from drinking them.

In the early years of CAMRA, while it stuck up for the independent brewers who had kept the real ale flag flying, it always acknowledged that plenty of real ale, some of it very good, was brewed by the Big Six. Any kind of precise definition of “craft beer” is notoriously elusive, but are SIBA really saying that it cannot be produced by a multinational company, full stop? Not to mention the fact that there’s no shortage of low-quality slop made by small, artisanal brewers. Small isn’t always beautfiful.

10 comments:

  1. I agree. I like to know these things, but ownership by a large corporation would not put me off drinking a beer; to state the obvious, it's the flavour. Price too, but only insofar as I don't like feeling I've been ripped off.

    The one reasonable ground for concern about a favourite brewery being taken over by a huge company is that history might repeat itself. As you'll fully be aware CM, so many of our old local breweries were taken over by members of the Big Six, notoriously Whitbread, too often resulting in the brewery being closed down and the recipes changed beyond recognition, probably by the use of cheaper ingredients, or possibly because they didn't give a damn. Some people declare that Doom Bar has changed since Coors took it over.

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    1. There is a difference, because the takeovers in the first twenty years of CAMRA were mainly driven by getting hold of tied estates, whereas the more recent ones are about acquiring the brands themselves. Obviously it's in the buyers' interests not to devalue the brand equity too much, or people will stop buying the beer, although the jury is still out on whether that will be achieved.

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  2. Artis anal brewers? Tut tut. I am a real ale brewer. I set up Angles Ales Ltd. with my business partner Paul, back in March 2006 though we only started brewing in late December of that year and in earnest since January 2017 and selling it since February. We focus on old English and Scottish style bitters/best bitters using traditional English hop varieties. They don't leave the cold store unless they are a quality product. Our latest is an (East)India pale Ale, a real one at 7.4% ABV. I brewed this for beer festivals, but it has gone mainstream and is 'on' at the adjacent village pub tonight in Glatton. I love brewing. www.angles-ales.uk

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    1. The EIPA is called HMS Glatton after the warship that saved Nelson's bacon at Copenhagen and commanded by Captain Bligh. All our beers have a back story on the website. Please check them out. Happy drinking. I am off to try some tonight in a lovely pub atmosphere rather than our cold room!

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    2. March 2016 dammit. No edit button.............

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  3. All boils down to the question of craft. Can craftmanship exist in a large company? Not just beer.

    We would all accept IKEA furniture is not a work of craftsmanship? Yeh? It may be well designed, functional, high utility, well priced, but craft? In terms of craft we would all accept the robot built mass produced car is likely to be a more reliable vehicle than the hand built crafted exclusive car, and a good piece of design but not a product of a craft?

    In terms of a crafted product, you really can't make such a thing in a mass produced by an automated process. It requires a crafts person.

    I think people wrongly equate craft with quality. Many mass produced beers are better than many beer geeks would accept. Many small micro brewers are not craftsmen & are just knocking out mediocre bitter for a market that wants a cheap local bitter & they manage it with lower duty.

    A question for the crafties is, accepting that when a craft beer achieves a mass market & becomes a mass produced automated production line. Whether bought out by a multi national or in the case of brewdog becomes a multinational. When does the no longer craft beer cease to be a quality beer? At what point is it noticeably not as good as it used to be?

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  4. It'd be daft to assume that all beer produced by small producers is good, or that big brewers don't produce anything good. But I approve of moves like this one because they add to the information that's out there; what use people make of the information is up to them.

    Sharp's is an interesting case - they had a pretty good name before the buyout, but the beer (not just Doom Bar) has gone right down hill since. How many people who aren't beer hobbyists know that Sharp's isn't independent, or Meantime for that matter?

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  5. In response to the above,good though some craft undoubtedly is,the term has been widely used to indicate/intimate quality & small production etc. as the various posts say. However the nub of the matter has been that that intimation has been just that all along. It has had a superb run as a great marketing ploy,used to fantastic effect. Only now however,is the marketing ploy starting to run into difficulty,as big brewers move into the market. Here lies the problem. Of course the big boys can't be excluded rationally,but it does leave the marketing ploy in some difficulty going forward.I personally don't see a way out for the craft marketing ploy,but feel as with many things the ploy has served them very very well,and rather than attempt a rearguard action to somehow try and retake the agenda,a wry smile and more concentrated effort on individual brewers craft marketing would be in order. Many should be very proud of what they have done in terms of innovative brewing, and after all regardless of opinion,the big brewers have arrived at the table finally,and some will be capable(as some small craft brewers) of delivering quality. In summary,if the small craft brewers are good they will deservedly survive with a good business model,being more fleet of foot than the majors,and so need not worry too much about craft definitions.

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  6. As you say, the whole idea of craft beer has been transplanted from the US, where it makes somes sense, to Europe, where, mostly, it doesn't.

    In the 70's in the US you had two types of brewers: the producers of nationally-advertised brands, brewed quickly with cheap ingredients in huge volumes and with little taste; and the nascent home/micro-brewing scene producing keg beer that was the opposite of that, but crucially nothing in the middle like we have in England with centuries-established, family-owned regional breweries producing lots of well-brewed but still cheapish cask beer.

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    1. Yes, the US craft beer movement just doesn't translate across to the UK. In this country, we had an existing "craft beer sector" in terms of the established real ale breweries, but it is precisely these, rather than the multinationals, that the British crafties chose to set themselves up in opposition against.

      In US terms, every independent British brewery, up to and including Greene King and Marston's, is a craft brewery.

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