Wednesday 14 December 2016

Craft By Numbers

So, the "define craft" argument is back for the umpteenth time.

I've always thought that while it's probably impossible to produce a legally watertight definition of "craft", it's pretty easy to informally capture the spirit of what a lot of people mean by it: we're basically talking about breweries that are more influenced and inspired by US craft beer culture than by late 20th-century British real ale. I've also started using "new -wave craft" for this meaning, to make it clearer what I'm talking about.

Given this definition, we can be reasonably confident that Magic Rock and Brew By Numbers are new-wave craft breweries and that Fullers and Coniston are, for want of a better word, "trad". But it's also pretty obvious that this isn't a binary choice; there's an interesting middle-ground of breweries like Dark Star, Oakham, Allendale or Fyne who are clearly open to a broad range of influences, but who don't fit the standard template of a craft brewery. Meanwhile, breweries like Thornbridge and Tiny Rebel seem to me to fit comfortably under the craft banner, but still feel a bit more traditional than the uber-craft likes of Chorlton or Partizan.

So, for a bit of fun, can we try to quantify this, and come up with a numerical scale? I've come up with the following as a first stab. Tot up any plusses or minuses for your favourite British brewery and see where they fall on a scale of, erm, minus twelve to eleven.

1) Do they regularly produce:

  • an IPA (> 5.5% ABV) +1
  • an "IPA" (< 5% ABV) -1
  • a sour beer +1
  • an Imperial IPA +1
  • an Imperial Stout +1
  • a Belgian-style beer +1
  • a bitter -1
  • multiple sorts of bitter -1
  • a traditional mild (< 4% ABV)

Do they describe any of their beers as:

  • "session IPA" +1
  • "golden ale" -1

2) Do they have

  • a flagship beer -1
  • a well defined core range -1
  • few beers outside of your core range -1
  • new beers released every month +1

3) Do they regularly sell beer in

  • casks -1
  • unfiltered, unpasteurized keg +1
  • filtered, pasteurized keg -1
  • 330ml cans +1
  • 500ml cans -1
  • 330ml bottles +1
  • 500ml bottles -1
  • 660ml / 750ml bottles +1

I haven't defined "regularly" but, for instance, one-off festival and anniversary specials probably don't count, whereas recurring seasonal releases probably do. And if a brewery often has something in a given style in production then that counts as a +1 for that style, even if it's not always the same beer.

I tested this out for a few obvious candidates, and got roughly the following scores, from least to most crafty:

  • Timothy Taylor: -9
  • Oakham: -2
  • Thornbridge: +4
  • The Kernel: +6
  • Wild Beer Co: +8(ish)

It's worth saying again that I emphatically don't equate "craft" with "good" and hence plus or minus points shouldn't be considered to be inherently good or bad things. Similarly, something being a minus point doesn't mean that it's definitively "not craft" just that it makes a brewery seem less thoroughly "crafty".

I've deliberately left out any issues around scale, business structure and distribution networks etc. I've also omitted questions about branding and general "hipsterishness" as they'd get rather nebulous. However, I am tempted to add a gratuitous penalty to "craft sub-brands", like saying that they also get scores for stuff that their parent breweries produce but not vice-versa.

So, any thoughts, improvements, tweaks, suggestions? (If there's enough interest, I might see if I can tweak this into something bordering on useful...) And how do your favourite, or least favourite, breweries score?