If you’re new to the world of small batch beer you may have been left a little confused by our liberal use of terms like ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’. Just to confuse you a little more before we offer any kind of explanation – it’s possible for a drink to be a real ale, a craft beer, both, or neither.
Real ale is a description made popular by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). The organisation – and the term itself – is still struggling to shake off its rather unfair old man image. If that’s a stereotype you subscribe to it’s time to free yourself from it. It’s making you miss out on a lot of great beer.
You can read Camra’s in-depth explanation of real ale here, but put simply it means you’re drinking a living product. Yeast causes beer to ferment. When making real ale, yeast is left in the cask so the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation and the flavour continues to evolve until you drink it. Other beer is pasteurised and effectively killed before it is put in a keg or bottle, giving it a longer shelf life. Real ale also comes in bottles, termed ‘bottle conditioned’. They are recognisable by the cloudy dregs at the bottom and need to be poured with care. It’s possible to get a beer as a real ale on cask in a pub but find the same beer is pasteurised when it’s bottled, meaning it loses its real ale status.
Coming up with a definition for craft beer is far less straightforward. Google it and you’ll get more than 500,000 results. It’s debatable when the modern craft brewing scene even kicked off but in 1979 homebrewing became legal in the USA, causing a surge in small-scale production. President Carter had signed a bill the year before allowing each household to produce up to 200 gallons of beer and 200 gallons of wine, meaning anyone could turn their hand to brewing without risking prosecution.
The Brewers Association defines American craft beer by its size, ownership and ingredients. In order to be craft, a brewery can produce up to six million barrels each year. Less than 25% of a craft brewery can be owned by a brewer which is not itself a craft brewer. So if brewing giant SABMiller buys up 24% of your brewery you’re still craft; 26% and you’re not. Finally, a majority of the brewery’s total alcohol volume must come from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients – a rule designed to push out those using rice or corn in order to lower costs.
If six million barrels seems a lot, it is. Penpont Brewery and Firebrand Brewing Co only produced around 2,500 put together last year and most US craft breweries also come nowhere near this. The reason it’s so high is simple: The ceiling has been raised to ensure one of the founder members stays within the definition. The limit used to be two million barrels, but the Boston Beer Company – owner of Samuel Adams – is growing at such a rate that it became a case of changing craft beer to suit the company. If this sounds a little controversial, it is. But why penalise success if a brewery is doing everything right while staying true to its founding ethos? If Boston goes over six million barrels the limit is likely to be put up again, meaning a better definition may be that ‘a craft brewery may produce no more barrels per year than the Boston Beer Company’.
In 2013, UK craft brewing juggernaut BrewDog proposed its own European definition with the aim of protecting and informing customers about what they’re drinking, but there remains no official categorisation or rule for who can or can’t label their beer ‘craft’.
Perhaps the struggle for a definition is so difficult because one vital part of craft brewing is so hard to nail down? It’s about a mentality which is shared by everyone who quits their job and throws their savings at their crazy dream to set up their own brewery with the simple aim of making good beer which they want to drink themselves. If the beer in your glass was made by someone who shares the same mentality as the guys in this video it’s safe to say it’s craft.