It’s All the Same Thing, Really

A couple of important things have occurred recently in the English-speaking beer world.* First off, the U.K. beer consumers group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), have launched a “Revitalisation Project” centered around what the group should really represent in the future. Then the Brewers Association in the U.S. released their annual list of the country’s top 50 breweries and top 50 craft breweries by volume.

To say that each has elicited a bit of commentary would be a massive understatement. Just scroll through Facebook to find an ample number of posts on each topic, or start here and here for the CAMRA side and here and here for the BA list.

The way I see things, however, they are really two sides of the exact same coin, that being the changing nature of beer in the 21st century. CAMRA was formed out of an interest to preserve traditional British ales – it centered on cask-conditioning and dispense, but at the heart was the character of the beer – while the BA was founded as a voice for small scale breweries in the United States and, to a much lesser degree, Canada. The vastly different dynamics of beer today, however, render both of these mandates significantly less relevant.

Cask-conditioned ale is indeed alive and well in the U.K., as any recent beer-drinking visitor will attest, something CAMRA can certainly count as a major victory. What’s more, traditional ales have been joined by any number of great cask and non-cask beers, from crisp lagers to American-hopped IPAs to recreations of historic stout and porter recipes. As CAMRA tries to figure out whether to mock or embrace these new brews, beer drinkers across the country are rushing to sup greedily from the new diversity of British beer.

Meanwhile, over in the United States, while the big breweries still control in excess of 70% of the domestic beer market, the tail that wags the brewing industry dog is undeniably what we popularly term craft beer. The BA can likewise count this as a success, even as asterisks on their top 50 list threaten to derail those numbers by excluding the likes of Lagunitas and Ballast Point and top operations like Boston Beer grow fat on sales outside of the craft beer realm, like ciders (Angry Orchard) and boozy seltzers.

None of which is to say that the need for CAMRA and the BA is past; it is not. The big breweries are still massively larger than even the greatest of the small operations, and there is no doubt in my mind that, craft beer forays and brewery purchases aside, they would be delighted by a return to simpler times and easier sales of bland, mainstream beers. Vigilance is key, and in the absence of anyone different – a less strident CAMRA, for instance, or a consumer-focused organization in the States – it’s best to keep these two entrenched in their respective, albeit necessarily changing roles.

So, too, does the word ‘craft’ still have a role to play, since it still has meaning for massive swaths of beer consumers, who see it as a point of differentiation between boring mass-market brews and more flavourful and interesting niche beers. That meaning will continue its slow erosion over time, sped through its co-option by companies like Mahou San Miguel, and eventually we will move on to new definitions, just as we evolved from ‘microbrew’ to ‘craft beer’ around the turn of the century.

 

*This is an important distinction. Although many in the US and UK appear to see their beer markets as closed, craft beer by whatever name you choose to call it is an international phenomenon, which is getting bigger and more pervasive all the time. What seems important in the US and/or UK, therefore, may not matter a whit in Spain or Brazil. 

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