With language like hipster hops, bottle conditioned and unfiltered IPAs penetrating our vocabulary, ‘craft beer’ has well and truly stamped its mark on our drinking culture. We look at the varying definitions, debunk a few myths and explain the technical terminology.
Writing a definitive guide to craft beer is a troublesome task for one fundamental reason – the beer world has not yet come to a consensus on the definition. Thousands of words and many, many column inches have been dedicated to pontificating the meaning of the seemingly innocuous term ‘craft beer’, and despite heated debate, the world is still no closer to having an answer.
But these murky waters aside, interest levels in craft beer are growing full throttle. Such is its popularity, we’re now faced with a global hops shortage and even populist hostility towards those ‘trendy’ types who drink it. In a world previously dominated by monolithic peddlers of limp, industrial lager, we welcome ‘craft beer’ with open arms.
The history of craft beer
'Craft beer' has its origins in 1970s America, when West Coast entrepreneurs took traditional European beer recipes and fed them through a thoroughly American mincer to create big, bold brews. It was around this time that the term ‘microbrewery’ was coined, and following a dearth of new openings around Prohibition era, these innovative new ventures flourished like hop plants in the sun. Breweries are now opening at a rate of one a day in the States, and the distinct style of punchy brewing has extended its tentacles across the world. This beer renaissance has blown the field wide open to experimentation and originality.
How do I know I’m drinking a craft beer?
Industry experts, beer writers and brewers themselves are still tussling for consensus over what 'craft beer' actually means – in fact, some brewers may even be reluctant to apply the tag to themselves because of its ambiguous and modish nature. But, they’re generally agreed on the following characteristics…
Small: A brewery that produces relatively low amounts of beer a year. However, the Brewers Association of America class a ‘small' annual production as 6 million barrels, meaning the term is rather swooping and large global companies like Brooklyn and Anchor are still classed as craft. In the UK, the renegades at Brewdog suggest 'small' should be defined as less than 500,000 hl annually.
Independent: Breweries that at least 75% owned independently, that is by stakeholders that aren’t large brewing companies.
Traditional and authentic methods: Breweries that produce beers using traditional methods and ingredients, without nasty additives like rice or corn that are sometimes used by large brewing corporations to reduce costs.
Craft breweries are also generally innovative with their approach, throwing new spins on old recipes, and are often based in small spaces and foster close relations with their community. Thanks to Network Rail selling off redundant railway arches, London is now packed with breweries inhabiting these curved urban dens – Pressure Drop, Five Points, Kernel and Partizan and many more occupy railway arches in UK's capital.
Branding is also a giveaway - keep an eye out for distinct graphic artistry, minimalist typefaces and playful illustrations adorning bottles, pump clips and merchandise.
Common styles of craft beer
Lots of contemporary independent breweries follow the path paved by imaginative Stateside forefathers and pile mountains of hops into their beer to create super-zingy pale ales and India pale ales (IPA). Hops stablise and flavour beer, and come in lots of different variations, from New Zealand-grown Nelson Sauvin, to British East Kent Goldings and Brewer's Gold, to American Cascade, Simcoe and Columbus.
While some breweries use a combination of hops, producing a ‘single hopped’ beer is very in vogue. Anything containing the Citra hop is guaranteed to fly off shelves according to a London publican. Some breweries choose to double or dry hop too.
Due to the expensive and time-consuming nature of ‘lagering’, smaller craft breweries leave lagers to the German masters and avoid it as a product when starting out, with the notable exceptions of Meantime, Brooklyn and Camden. Keep an eye out for small batch red rye beers, hazy European-style wheat beers like weissbier or witbier, cloudy pale saisons and punchy porters and stouts too.
Glossary of craft beer buzzwords
Bottle conditioned: A beer that is left to naturally carbonate in the bottle, meaning there is sometimes a layer of sediment at the bottom. It should be transferred carefully into a glass, leaving the sediment in the bottle. Then, either drink it as a yeasty, condensed chaser or discard.
Black IPA: This hoppy pale ale has a dark, malty character and opaque black colour.
Brewpub: With space at a premium, some new breweries choose to set up in restaurants, bars or pubs then sell the beer onsite.
Growler: A reusable container for takeaway beer. This economical concept is becoming much more popular in the UK.
Gypsy brewing: A brewery that doesn’t have its own site and chooses instead to loan kit from fellow brewers – Denmark’s Mikkeller is one glowing example of gypsy brewing working with aplomb.
Keg beer: A metal cylindrical vessel used to store and serve beer under pressure, leading to a carbonated finish. Ever-popular keg beer is sometimes treated with slight suspicion by cask devotees, but often whether a beer tastes better in cask or keg depends more on the style and quality of the drink itself.
Unfiltered: While we know crisp lagers for their golden transparency, beer needs to be filtered with finings to achieve this effect. Hazier unfiltered (or semi-filtered) beer skips this process, which some say leaves more of the flavour intact.
20 of the best independent breweries to seek out
Bear Republic (California, USA)
Beavertown (London, UK)
Bristol Beer Factory (Bristol, UK)
Castle Brewery Van Honselbrouck (Ingelmunster, Belgium)
De Molen (Bodegraven, Netherlands)
Einstök (Akureyri, Iceland)
Evil Twin (USA/Denmark)
Flying Dog (Maryland, USA)
Great Divide (Colorado, USA)
Harviestoun (Clackmannanshire, Scotland)
La Trappe (Pilburg, Netherlands)
Magic Rock (Huddersfield, UK)
Nøgne ø (Grimstad, Norway)
Odell (Colorado, USA)
Partizan (London, UK)
Pressure Drop (London, UK)
Siren (Berkshire, UK)
To Øl (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Weird Beard (London, UK)
Westmalle (Westmalle, Belgium)
Love beer? Read our food and beer matching series and learn how to pair lager, IPA, wheat beer and stout with dishes. We'd like to hear what you think of "craft beer" too - are you a lover or a sceptic?