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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents -

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.

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