Describing Beer

I want to start off by saying this: I am not interested in starting another “define craft” debate. At all. In fact, I can think of a million other things I’d rather do, and topping that list is being chased down the Amazon by a hungry caiman, or having dinner with a drunk and handsy Nigel Farage.

What I am interested in, however, is what we call our beer. I started this week off with a poll, because nobody likes working on Mondays.

Quick poll: Do you use the term “craft beer”?

— katie, the football fan (@Shinybiscuit) July 2, 2018

What I tried to find out is whether people in industry use this term regularly, or if it’s become shorthand for something else. Those of you who know me will be well aware of my geeky love for words and how, over time, they stretch and adapt to suit different uses, sometimes changing their own definition entirely in common parlance. It turns out that it’s a fairly even distribution of people avoiding it but occasionally finding no suitable alternative, and people who use it because that’s what the beer they like is called (to them). Interesting.

“Craft beer” has become something of a sticking point for many drinkers. As you’ll see from some of the comments, a couple of people took offence to the question. “Beer is beer!” is the bellowing cry from those who’d just like to drink and for everybody to shut up about it. And fair enough. Beer, to the majority of people who drink it, is simply beer. Now go and get us a packet of pork scratchings.

It’s a convenient phrase though, especially if you’re looking to describe a different type of beer to someone who might not be familiar with it. Saying “it’s just beer” is true, and all well and good, but offering a passionfruit gose to a person who understands “beer” to be either Fosters or a pint of bitter will leave them confused, stunned, and no doubt disgusted. It’s about context, but it’s also about understanding.

I was chatting with a bloke the other day for whom Guinness and beer were two different things. I wonder what ‘craft beer’ means to him…

— Anthony Gladman (@agladman) July 2, 2018

I hear this a lot. In the pub, there are customers who see ale, lager and beer as different things. I look at it like the dinner/lunch/tea conundrum. Words that can be synonymous to some have a totally different meaning to others. When you say “buttery” to me, I immediately think of a delicious Aberdeen rowie. Can’t help it. It’s how I’m made. So, to one person, beer and lager might be identical, but for another, beer is only that frothy stuff from the hand pull. Another person might only call that bitter, no matter what it is. You see how this is difficult to pin down?

I went through a phase of not using it. I started using it again as people seemed to acknowledge and understand better what I was talking about. Even though everyone has their own definition of what it actually is!

— Mosaic Mike (@mikestaproom) July 2, 2018

Like Mike here, I’m going through the same process. I used to use the term all the time, thinking it was the correct way to describe the beers I was drinking – particularly since they were new and totally different to any other beers available to me in rural Lancashire. Then I got more interested in beer, and more involved with the industry, and realised actually calling craft beers “craft beer” was a bit lame. Like calling punk “punk rock” or wearing all your festival bands until they fall off. I fell out of love with the term, because like a lot of people, it was better to call it “beer”. Now that <INSERT DESCRIPTIVE TERM> beer is more popular than ever in the UK, I’m struggling to think of euphemisms for it to distinguish it from the beer we’re used to. In the pub I work in, for example, people have a better idea of what “craft beer” is than if I was to say “hazy double dry hopped IPA” (although this is changing slowly.)

When I started my local beer meetups it was useful as a recognised term that denoted good beer. Lots of members had only drunk Stella before and wanted their eyes opened. ‘Craft Ale’ wants me to tear my ears off.

— SE18craftbeerlovers (@SE18CBL) July 2, 2018

Ah yes, “craft ale”. The sulphurous spectre that won’t leave the room after four exorcisms and an entire sage-burning purge festival. The main reason I try not to use the term “craft beer” is because it in some way links itself to the meaningless non-phrase that is “craft ale” – a term made up by supermarkets and big breweries to shift bottles of Old Crafty Hen to unwitting customers who just want to choose something nice. A hideous, lumbering monster made from odds and ends found in a skip outside the independent brewing scene’s HQ, the term “craft ale” is one thing we can all rally against. It means nothing. Real ale means exactly the same thing its trying to convey, and in fact is much more meaningful. Plus – get this – people actually know what it is. “Craft ale” is something said on adverts on the Dave channel and we should ignore it until it goes away and takes its steampunk pocketwatch and jemble vocabulary with it.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the word “craft” became meaningless. In shops, “craft beer” is now used as a synonym for “quality”, “handmade” or even “luxury” – the words used in food and drink marketing to bump prices up and “help” customers choose “better” items for themselves. Unfortunately this has started to make instances of hearing people say things like “I don’t drink any crap, I drink craft beer” more regular and I hope everyone who made this happen’s offices are far to hot this week. Conversely, it’s giving the impression that craft beer isn’t available to everyone, which is damaging.

So what do we call it then? If “craft beer” is out the window, do we start describing beers as they taste? This article from Cara Tech certainly thinks so, and even maps out a potential system for describing beer styles at the bar. The one hitch is that it would need to be universal, and implementing that would be a logistical nightmare. Just imagining trying to convince some of our customers that what they want is actually a mildly-balanced, straw coloured 3.8 per center is making me break out in a cold sweat. If we could get past that, it’s a good first stab at solving the issue of having no fricking idea what to call the drinks we’re drinking.

Other than “beer”.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please consider supporting me with a tip via Ko-Fi or Paypal. Every tip I receive for my work is put towards beer-related research and training. (I’m currently saving up to begin my Cicerone qualifications.)

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