Why a definition for Craft Beer is Important, and what it could mean for UK Brewers

Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis


This article was originally published in the June edition of the SIBA Journal and has been re-published with permission.

Many have tried to identify what exactly constitutes a ‘Craft Brewery’ in the UK, but so far no one has been truly successful. This is perhaps because of the rich and varied tapestry that makes up the British brewing industry, from the young and innovative to the regional and traditional. It’s a brewing community like no other in the world. 

In 2006 the Brewers Association (BA) of the USA laid down its first definition of what constitutes a Craft Brewery in its country. Back then the lines between the small, independent brewers and the multinationals were clear-cut. If you were small, independent and focused on quality and flavour over production volume, then you were a Craft Brewery. These days with rapid expansions, mergers and takeovers the definition is a lot more turbid. But as the US Craft Brewing industry has grown, so too has the BA’s definition evolved to suit its members needs. This is to say that Craft Brewers have as much right to expand their businesses as any corporation, and the BA understands that. 

The most important facet of this definition is that over the past 10 years the BA have been able to accurately measure the growth of its sector of the industry. ‘Craft’ now makes up 12% of the US market – and this is despite some of the larger craft brewers being bought by multinationals. In some cities, such as Portland, Oregon, Craft Beer makes up approximately 60% of on and off sales. Imagine if a city in the UK was able to boast that statistic about independent British brewers! Being able to measure this growth means that they are also able to nurture independent brewing in the right direction, supporting a sustainable growth model for years to come. 

Brewing in the UK has changed radically over the past decade. More young entrepreneurs than ever are deciding to enter the beer sector, whether through brewing, retail or distribution. In addition to this many of our traditional brewers are attempting to reach a wider audience with their beer, either through new branding or new recipes. The combined effect of this is that great beer from independent breweries is now firmly a part of the mainstream - but only with careful attention will the industry be able to nurture this growth

Without a method of accurately identifying a Craft Brewery in the UK we are making it incredibly difficult for ourselves to measure this growth. If we had a method of charting this, as the BA do in the US then not only will we be able to see how our sector of the industry is growing but we will be able to ensure that this growth becomes sustainable. In an increasingly crowded marketplace finding a way to nurture the UK’s small and independent breweries will become essential. 

Coming up with a universally accepted definition will be extremely difficult but it’s not something I see personally as being impossible. It’s vital that this definition encapsulates the British brewing industry as a whole, including our traditional, regional breweries and the new wave of the last few years. As in the US I feel that a Craft Brewer in the UK should be defined as one that is independent and small - compared relatively to the multinational brewing giants that this kind definition sets them apart from. Only by accurately measuring the market share that Britain’s independent breweries have, will we be able to ensure the increasing prevalence of quality British beer in the consumer marketplace for years to come.