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My thoughts on craft beer

29/01/2014

Even though I live in a country known (at least to us living here) for its backward alcohol policy (Hey, let’s save people from the evils of alcohol by taxing the hell out of the mildest of alcoholic drinks, beer, thus encouraging them to buy cheap clear booze by the bucketful from overseas!) a few brave souls have actually founded new breweries even here. Also, our national state-owned alcohol monopoly that is the only company allowed to sell anything above 4,7% abv has actually started to import some beers that aren’t the usual run of the mill lager. This despite its apparent previous ambition of selling only wine which is of course the drink of choice of the civilized person that is only consumed with fine food, never with the intention of getting tipsy, heaven forbid. (The staff in the shops of the afore-mentioned monopoly seem to be highly conditioned to offer advice on food pairings to the point that you can rarely escape the place with a bottle of wine without hearing how well the white goes with fish and the red goes with meat). But I went on a bit of a tangent here…

As things stand, “Craft Beer” (the term used in my native language, handcrafted, has slightly different connotations than the English one that evokes images of smiths in their workshops and such)  is raising its head over here as well and there is a bit of a hype about new breweries. Now, this is all fine and I’m happy to see new breweries open up but there is also a different side to this that I don’t think is particularly healthy for beer culture in general. First of all, the term itself doesn’t mean anything. Simply put, making a batch of say, 3000 litres isn’t any different from making 30 000 litres or what ever is the size of a batch of beer from any large common lager brewery. You’ve moved past the point of  crushing the malt by a hand rolled mill and lifting the kettle from the stove to cool it in your sink. You’re not doing it “by hand” and there’s nothing that separates a “Craft” brewery from any other brewery but the size of the hardware. Bigger batches require bigger pumps, boiling vessels and so on but there isn’t any reason why that huge apparatus of the multinational brewery couldn’t be used to brew say a top fermenting hoppy pale ale instead of a tasteless lager. So purely from this point of view I find the term a bit silly at best and a cynical form of marketing at worst.

Secondly, and I’m sad to say this, smaller isn’t always better. Some of the offers from these “Craft” breweries have tasted pretty damn horrible. Calling bad beer “Craft” or “Limited” doesn’t make it suddenly better. It’s still crap, just rarer crap. Also to make a point, one of the better IPA’s on tap that I tasted last year was made by one of the bigger breweries that usually brews that much maligned tasteless lager. It’s not that they can’t make tastier beer (making a lager is technically much harder than brewing a top-fermenting ale especially with the consistency that it’s made in large-scale breweries) rather, it’s not in their interest to do so. They have a fine tuned industry producing a product that sells well and little incentive to change that.

Based on this I just find the whole implied message that “Craft” is better to be total bull. As beer drinkers, we should demand good, tasty beer, no matter what the size of the brewery producing it. Yes, often tasty beer is produced by a small brewery but we should be careful not to fall in to a mindset that smaller is better and avoid paying excessively for “limited edition” hyped up beer that is mediocre. Judging a beer by the size of the brewery making it is as smart as judging a book by its cover. What’s in the glass counts, nothing else.

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