“Never be afraid to be controversial” is less a statement of policy and more like a reason for living, as far as the BrewDog guys are concerned. Last week James Watt, the brewery’s co-founder, put up on his blog an impassioned argument putting the case for an “official” definition of craft beer to be adopted in the UK. Below is my response, published originally over at the day job, showing how he’s completely wrong.
I won’t yield to anybody in my admiration for James Watt’s abilities as a guerrilla marketeer. He and Martin Dickie, co-founders of Brewdog, have skillfully turned a small independent brewery in – with the greatest respect to the people of North Aberdeenshire – the rear end of nowhere into one of the leaders of the small independent brewery sector in the UK. They now have a reputation among many beer drinkers as perhaps the most iconoclastic, “edgy” brewers in the country, a growing empire of their own bars around the UK, and a presence on the shelves of leading supermarkets and in any “craft beer” bar worthy of that name. From last month the pair even have their own TV show, Brew Dogs, on the Esquire cable TV network in the United States, where they travel across America, visiting bars and breweries and creating “locally inspired” beers. Fantastic. And yet, Watt’s latest campaign, to try to get an “official”, “industry recognised” definition of “craft beer”, to “protect the fledgling craft beer movement in the UK and in Europe” and also to “protect and inform the customer”, suggests to me he doesn’t actually understand the business environment he is working in as well as he thinks he does. What is more, his arguments for the need for an “official” definition of craft beer are entirely nonsensical and totally evidence-free.
Watt says the reason a proper definition of “craft beer”, “to be recognised by both CAMRA and SIBA and also at a European level by the Brewers of Europe Association” is required is because of “three words – Blue Fucking Moon”. Just like many small brewers in the US, he is clearly annoyed that Molson Coors’ Belgian-style wheat beer comes in packaging that could pass as a product from a much smaller operator, and does not declare itself in huge type to be made by one of the giants of the American beer market. He quotes approvingly Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in California, who also wants to define “craft beer” as something in opposition to “the industrialised notion of beer” that has been “preying on the populace for decades”. Unfortunately it’s not clear if Koch, or Watt, are really interested in “saving” the drinking public from “industrialised” beer, or protecting their own sales from a much bigger rival.
Watt insists that the British craft beer movement is being held back because of the lack of an official definition of craft beer, and “the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer.” Naturally, Watt fails to give any evidence for these assertions, because there isn’t any. They’re total nonsense. Good grief, the definition Watt points to only came into existence eight years ago, in 2005, when the Brewers’ Association was formed of a merger between two other industry organisations and the combined membership decided to rig the rules so that the “big guys” would be excluded from their club. Nobody ever said before 2005: “I’m thinking of trying Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, but without an official and accepted definition of craft beer, I’m really not able to.” The boom in the US craft beer scene over the past 30 years has not been because anybody came up with a definition of “craft beer” and suddenly “craft beer” was able to take off: but because a wave of new producers dedicated to making small-batch, artisanal, flavourful beers met a wave of consumers happy to drink those sorts of beer.
This mistaken idea that consumer movements can only prosper when they have “official” guidelines to channel their enthusiasm leads Watt to assert that while “we want retail stores, bars, restaurants and hotels all to have a craft beer section in their offering,” it is “almost impossible to get them to commit to this without being able to offer them an official definition of what craft beer is.” More evidence-free nonsense. I don’t believe that any supermarket, any bar owner, any restaurant ever said to any small brewer: “I’d like to stock your beers, but without a definition of craft beer I’m just not able to do so.” Watt also declares: “What we don’t want, is for them to a create a craft beer section in their shop or menu only for this to be carpet-bombed by beers that are not craft.” What’s the matter, James – afraid that if a bar is selling Blue Moon alongside 5am Saint your beer will do badly?
The truth is not just that trying to define craft beer is impossible anyway. Watt suggests that the definition should be a completely circular one, that “craft beer is a beer brewed by a craft brewer at a craft brewery”, with the argument then devolving onto what a “craft brewer” and a “craft brewery” are – but his idea that the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation Brewdog regularly chooses to battle with, would back any definition of “craft beer” Brewdog and SIBA might come up with is another nonsense.
The real point is that, despite Watt’s fantasy, any “official” definition of craft beer, will have little to no impact on the marketplace. Those operators who might be defined as “craft beer brewers” and “craft beer retailers” seem to be doing very well in the UK without any official definition of what they are making and selling – and in any case the UK’s small brewery movement seems to me to be well beyond the “fledgling” status Watt is trying to claim for it. If Brewdog is trying to trip up the likes of Sharp’s – now owned by Coors and thus, under the definition that Watt would like to see made “official”, not a maker of “craft beer” any more – Watt really needs to realise that getting craft beer “properly” defined will make no difference at all to the amount of Doom Bar being sold across British bar tops. Overwhelmingly the beer-drinking public, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere around the world, care nothing for “official” definitions of what they are drinking: that goes for the minority who are “craft beer” drinkers, and, of course, the vast majority who prefer those beers Watt and Koch define as “the industrialised notion of beer”, and wouldn’t drink a craft beer if you gave it do them free, no matter what category you said it was in.
Over to you …