In drinks, ‘craft’ used to imply bespoke, a pursuit of quality. But as bigger brewers and distillers catch onto the growing artisan trend, the term has lost some of its meaning. MIKE BENNIE investigates
As “craft” drinks go mainstream, the term is losing its meaning.
Craft beer used to be the liquid gold, (or black or brown), fermenting in your brother-in-law’s cousin’s basement, or the bubbling specimen in a barrel made by your old biology teacher. The term used to mean something.
But since major retailers and breweries entered the game and the number of craft breweries in Australia doubled from 200 to 400 in five years, now collectively producing 45 million litres of beer a year, could 2017 go down as the year craft beer lost its fizz?
Even if you’re not a “craft beer kind of person”, you have probably drunk it. Former Prime Minister, the notable swilling expert Bob Hawke, earlier this year launched his own beer brand made using Australian ingredients. No longer is craft beer the dominion of backyard start-ups, bootlegger type operations and canny, gypsy booze crafters.
“Craft beer started out as an uprising against industrialised, insipid beer by passionate individuals brewing for flavour rather than profit,” explains beer expert and editor James Atkinson of leading beer publication, Australian Brews News. Locally, craft beer’s origins date back to 1984 with the establishment of Fremantle pub Sail & Anchor’s microbrewery. The company was so successful, it begat an industry.
“[Craft] is rapidly being eroded in Australia by increasingly cynical operators who are using the term to market and sell beer that definitely hasn’t been brewed in the same spirit as that of the pioneer,” Atkinson says.
The irony is that Sail & Anchor is now a brand owned by Woolworths. These beers may not have lost much in the way of quality, but they circumvent the feel of craft beer in volume produced.
The big boys have come to play. Lion Nathan and Carlton United are buying breweries or brewing their own ranges to look and feel like craft beer.
Roam any supermarket liquor store and the choice is dizzying. Alongside staples of the whisky world like Johnny Walker or Dimple, there are brands like Mcallister, Big Peat, Smokehead, Isle of Skye, Heather Mist and John Samson. They are all bottled for the supermarkets by bulk spirits manufacturers through Europe. That the bottles look like small production distilleries is no accident.
Recently there have been near endless launches of craft beer products, many being nebulous brands born from larger operations. One need only look at Steamrail, Lorry Boys or 3 Pub Circus or Sail & Anchor and John Boston to see the line-up of craft beers brewed by the supermarket giants.
Small-batch brewers are fighting back. In May, the Craft Beer Industry Association of Australia voted to remove large brewers from its trade body and changed its name to Independent Brewers Association. The move is set to distance itself from large-scale operations muddying the term craft beer, while continuing to support the 400-odd smaller batch, independent breweries in Australia. To be counted a member, you need to produce less than 40 million litres a year. That’s near James Squire levels and half what Coopers does. Most members produce less than one million litres a year. It’s still a lot of beer.
Craft beer as a term is irrelevant, according to Oscar Mcmahon, co-founder and brewer of Sydney’s Young Henrys. “I don’t tend to use the expression craft beer. It’s thrown around a bit too easily,” he says.
Craft beer once had connotations of certain styles, a connection to heavier hopped styles of beer. Now it suggests personality. In craft beer brewing, there are few rules, like adding fruit or fermenting with brettanomyces.
Brewer and beer judge Samara Fuss says people want “healthy, well-made beer that doesn’t come from some multinational posing as a craft brewery”. Fuss herself launched Philter Brewing this year in inner city Sydney.
“Localism is important,” she says. “We’ve shifted beyond the concept of craft beer and are looking to support the community around a brewery.”
The spirits community is seeing parallels. The term “artisan spirits” is now used for just about any product, even though it seemingly implies a small batch and hands-on approach.
“An artisan is a craftsman, and the artisan product is handmade,” says Stu Gregor, co-founder of Four Pillars distilling. “I think it’s a legitimate term as long as it is not appropriated by illegitimate manufacturers and people who can’t actually tell you where things are made and by whom and how.”
Spirits expert and journalist Franz Scheurer agrees. “If something is made by one person’s vision and hands, it can be called artisanal, though it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good,” he says.
There’s nothing inherantly wrong with big company, old-school Aussie, mass-produced drinks though, in fact they’re having a bit of a retro revival. For many it’s about drinkability, or perceived drinkability, rather than flavour.
Sometimes I, for one, just want to drink six non-descript beers, and though I prefer to drink from a cottage industry brewer or distiller, using best ingredients, it’s not always at hand. People like small batch, handmade products because it reflects on their social mores, it aligns with a holistic approach to living.
Definitions of craft and artisan might be flexible, and diluting, but it may not be the last call on craft beer and spirits quite yet.