by Raymond vd Laan Writer at De Volkskrant and blogger at bieraficionado.com
Beer, actually quite ordinaryWhat’s so special about beer?
Craft beer: it’s all we ever talk about. But what does it mean? The short answer is: absolutely nothing. There is no recipe with which to brew a nice kettle of ‘craft beer’. No style guide or beer classification manual can give you a definition. Even on Ratebeer and Untappd you’ll be searching in vain. So why do we insist on using these labels?
If this just means we’re not talking about Pilsner, what are we talking about? A creamy Stout , a dry Saison, a firm Amber lager, a refreshing Flemish red, a mellow Geuze, a warming Barley Wine, a robust Porter , an invigorating Witbier, a thirst-quenching Kölsch, an aromatic IPA, a filling bitter, a fruity Kriek Lambic, a richly conceived Weizen, or a sacred Tripel? Or one of the other countless beer styles?
And let’s not assign the golden pilsner to the ‘non-craft’ category. It’s not necessary. Because pilsner is just as special as all other beers. Beer should be judged on its own merits.
...or something else?
There are other meanings of the phrase ‘craft beer’ too. The phrase describes beer made by a ‘craft brewer’, and raises questions of who owns shares in the brewery and what the scale of production is. In The Netherlands as well as in the US these issues are clearly demarcated, in which ‘independence’ is the most important criterion with which a beer can be judged as ‘craft’ or not. The term ‘craft’ says something about the business, not the beer itself. There are many ‘craft’ brewers who produce excellent pilsners, for example. Lucky us.
‘Craft beer’ is also used as a synonym for top fermentation. There are many beers which aren’t pilsners, and yet which are bottom fermented. Dortmunder, for example, amber lager, Märzen, Baltic porter, and most Bock beers.
There are a multitude of ideas of what a ‘typical’ craft beer is. That it’s sweet, hoppy, or dark, that it has a high alcohol percentage and that you get drunk quickly on it. These are just stereotypes.
Variation is normal
It’s perfectly normal to find variation in beer. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of this because of the fact that for so many years there was essentially one sort of beer. This has resulted in all other beer being labelled as ‘craft beer’. But the norm for centuries has been for every country and every region to produce its own beer.
The British beer writer Michael Jackson spotted this years ago. In 1977, this ‘beer hunter’ published a book called ‘The World Guide to Beer’, in which he travelled the world in search of beer. He listed local beers and customs, brewers and their history and distinguished the different styles of beer.
What’s in a name
We could say goodbye to the meaningless phrase ‘craft beer’, and familiarise ourselves instead with styles of beer. Just as we talk of different styles of wine, cheese, bread and other foods, we can talk about beer as well. By getting to know these names, you know broadly what to expect in terms of aroma, colour and taste when you see these names on labels or boards behind the bar. It makes the whole experience of beer more enjoyable and adds contour to the beer landscape.
Every beer style falls under the category of ‘beer’. And there are names for specific kinds of beer. The name of the beer style. The name of the brewer. The name given by the brewer to the beer. These names provide a map to the ever expanding beer landscape. Let’s use those names, and normalise variation. Because beer is ‘craft’ enough on its own.