There’s a question that raises its head in the beer world a lot, especially in South Africa. It’s been touched on in blog posts by Gallow’sHill and Food 24 and of course, the guys from &Union have a lot to say about it. It is a question I’m asked often and I’m yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Satisfactory to me at least. The question, of course, is “what is craft beer?”
However, that’s not the question I’m keen to address in this post. The question I want to pose is “what isn’t craft beer?”
To many South Africans, the answer seems simple – anything brewed by SAB. If you push a little deeper, people would add other massive beer labels to the list, such as Heineken or Budweiser, but that seems to be about as far as it goes. By that definition, craft beer is anything that’s not a large-scale lager. But what about other beers brewed in massive batches?
A few weeks back I saw a tweet from a happy beer drinker who’d just received a shipment from an online beer retailer and was excited to crack open his preferred ‘craft beer’. The beer in question was Erdinger. The Bavaria-based brewery is still privately-owned and its annual production, at around 1.4 million hectolitres, is way below the widely quoted production-based definition of craft beer laid down by the US Brewers Association. But Erdinger exports their beer to over 70 countries and is the largest wheat beer brewery in the world. So can it still qualify as craft?
I’ve often heard beer-loving friends, even brewers, here in SA referring to their favourite imported craft beers. The list has included Duvel(still family-owned but under the Duvel Moortgat banner has bought up other big-name Belgian beers like Maredsous, La Chouffe and Liefmans), Hoegaarden (owned by world’s largest brewery Anheuser Busch-InBev), Leffe (owned by world’s largest brewery Anheuser Busch-InBev) and even Guinness. With an annual production that sees almost two billion pints poured a year, this ain’t no microbrewery, yet some people see it as craft simply because they can see it’s not lager.
I even read a blog post a few months ago referring to Castle Milk Stout as a craft beer – a misinformed statement barely worthy of comment, yet one that highlights exactly what I’m trying to say – that many people are familiar with a sole style of beer and that anything else must therefore be this new and exciting thing they call craft.
At the end of the day, I guess the question really is – does it really matter? One country’s small-scale craft is another country’s largest brewery, so maybe size really isn’t important after all. Is it down to ingredients? Brewing practices? Company ethos? Maybe it’s really all about clever marketing that tells you craft is cool without telling you what craft actually is.
For me, it all comes down to taste. I like quality hops and speciality malts, I like beer brewed with passion and brewers that take their time. Don’t give me poorly washed yeast, watered-down high-gravity brews, flavourless adjuncts or the cheapest hops available. And if the beer tastes awesome at the end of the day, I don’t mind if you brew 20 litres or a billion.
What is craft beer for you? What doesn’t fall under the banner? Do labels really matter? Do you even care? Tell us in the comments below…
This post was first published on The Craft Beer Project.