Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis
British Craft Beer is in need of saving from itself before the term becomes irrelevant. On the one hand it represents the hard working, innovative and exciting arm of modern brewing. Breweries that pride themselves on producing the most interesting and highest possible quality product first and foremost, while attempting to appease accountants or worrying about marketing budgets comes a distant second. On the other, perhaps more cynical hand, ‘Craft’ is just a marketing term, used in an attempt to demonstrate that this beer is both high quality and aspirational, without a thought for how it actually tastes.
I’ve spent a long time considering what Craft Beer means to me and I’ve decided that it can be an incredibly important term if it’s used properly. I don’t believe being ‘Craft’ has anything to do with the size of a brewery. Craft Beer can come from a minuscule nanobrewery or an industrial giant. The key to being craft is quality, consistency and the desire to innovate. But above all it’s about flavour. Craft Beer exists because of the modern human desire to experience exponentially more interesting and pronounced flavours. If your beer doesn’t have any, well then it’s probably not Craft.
Britain’s thriving young Craft Beer industry is suffering from an identity crisis. Brewers are drawing their inspiration largely from the United States, which arguably produces the best and most exciting beers in the world. They are also heavily influenced by the wonderful beers of Belgium, Germany and Czech. Although this new wave of brewers respects the heritage and history of traditional British Brewing, at times it feels like their industries are separate, supporting their own interests and not part of a complete whole.
Groups such as CAMRA and SIBA exist to support the traditional side of the industry and rightly so, it makes up a much larger proportion and it needs these organisations to sustain itself as much as these organisations need the traditional breweries to do the same for them. Although several of the new generation of breweries have also found support in these groups, many have found them frustrating to deal with, as they are unable to keep up with the rapid pace at which their industry is evolving. They’ve also failed to help the traditional breweries they support to modernise, with many awkwardly done ‘Craft’ rebrands looking like your Dad attempting to drunkenly dance to Taylor Swift at a family wedding.
Quite simply, there isn’t an organisation that exists to specifically look after the needs of Britain's new wave of Craft Brewers, but as this sector rapidly increases in size it’s going to need one. Some British Brewers have turned to the Brewers Association in America, who do some wonderful work for their members but their interests lie mainly within their home nation. For Craft Beer in the UK to remain viable and to continue to grow it needs an organisation that both defines and supports it, lest it become the fad that some consider it to be.
The United Craft Brewers, unveiled recently at an event hosted by Brooklyn Brewery at North London’s Beavertown Brewery could well be the organisation this new, young industry needs. For starters its founding members run some of the most forward thinking and successful young breweries in the country. These founders are Logan Plant of Beavertown, James Watt of Brewdog, Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town Brewery and Magic Rock’s Richard Burhouse. The lineup is completed by distributor James Clay, with Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery acting as a mentor.
"British Craft Beer is in need of saving from itself before the term becomes irrelevant."
A short while after the announcement each brewery simultaneously released a statement on their websites stating why they feel the formation of The United Craft Brewers is necessary. The most significant measure the group proposes to take is to create a definition for what constitutes a ‘Craft Brewery’ in the UK and submit it to be accepted by the wider industry. Magic Rock’s statement made for interesting reading as they’ve never previously felt the need for Craft Beer to be defined in the UK. It suggested that now ‘Craft’ has become the go to buzzword for beer branding that the term is being misused and could be misleading to customers. In order for these breweries to protect both their customers and the reputations they have worked hard to build themselves, they must define themselves as Craft Breweries.
Speaking to Brewdog’s James Watt I learned that a meeting has been scheduled for September and breweries that are interested in joining can register their interest by visiting www.unitedcraftbrewers.com. He spoke with the belief that he was doing the right thing to help this young sector of the brewing industry, that he has been so influential in developing, to grow and mature.
“You’ve got CAMRA who do their own thing and SIBA who frustrated me massively in my dealings with them. We want to create something that will be akin to the Brewers Association of America, something that can protect, promote and enhance the interests of UK Craft Brewers both at home and overseas.”
In a similar, more informal chat with Camden Town’s Jasper Cuppaidge I learned that the United Craft Brewers had already been in the planning stages since late 2014. He told me that there had been intense debate about how they would define a Craft Brewery in the UK but that the overwhelming feeling was they were taking the action necessary to support their industry. There was excitement and perhaps a hint of trepidation in his voice but he undoubtedly felt that he was helping to build something that his industry sorely needs.
It’s not just about defining Craft Breweries though, despite this being the largest and most pressing hurdle. The United Craft Brewers is about helping breweries help themselves. This could mean aid in secure distribution agreements, better contracts with hop and malt suppliers, improved deals on brewing equipment, staff training, improved communication and the sounds of what could be one of the best beer festivals that the UK’s beer lovers have ever seen.
The timing is perfect for the United Craft Brewers to emerge onto the scene. If this exciting, developing sector of the industry isn’t protected then the bubble could burst and it will become the fad that some commentators see it as. The fact is that beer in the UK beer scene is now as vibrant and exciting as it has ever been and The United Craft Brewers could be the element that ensures it not only stays this way, but that more people continue to discover and enjoy the worlds best drink.