Craft: What Does It Mean & Does It Matter?

Sourdough baking, kimchi making, hot sauce blending; we all got up to a lot in isolation, but how many of us wrote an entire book?

Award-winning British writer Pete Brown managed to. Along with partner Liz Vater, he set himself the goal of writing and then self-publishing a book during 13 weeks of British lockdown. 

Many beer drinkers will be familiar with Pete's writing on beer, pubs and the culture which surrounds them, with past releases including the likes of Hops and Glory, Miracle Brew and Three Sheets To The Wind, but the new tome is focused directly on the very notion of craft beer. 

Craft: An Argument: Why the term 'Craft Beer' is completely undefinable, hopelessly misunderstood and absolutely essential gazes deeply into the term itself to explore the term's origin, its use in other industries and why it remains, and should remain, an indispensable term.

Attendees at last year's BrewCon, at which Pete was the keynote speaker, would have enjoyed a taste of his thoughts on the matter, but the book dives deeper, goes on an etymological exploration, contains references to Sid Meier's Civilization and, as anyone familiar with Pete's writing can attest, is a delight to read. 

We fired some questions off to Pete to find out more about the book and, given the situation in the UK – which has the fifth highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide and where pubs are set to reopen this weekend – asked about the current state of beer in his country too.


 

Where did the idea for the book come from and had you pitched it to publishers in the past?

It grew in the telling. It started off as a ten-minute talk, then became a 25-minute talk, then an hour-long conference presentation, and so on. Every time I talked about it people urged me to take it further until they were demanding a book! 

My publishers are urging me to move beyond beer and apply my approach to other things, so they were never going to go for this. I had been talking about self-publishing it for a while without really doing anything about it.


When did you realise lockdown presented an opportunity to write it?

When pubs were told to shut on March 20, all my work pretty much evaporated instantly. I’m freelance, and was suddenly faced with no income. My wife runs a literary festival and obviously that was cancelled. So we had no work and no money coming in. 

I chose 13 weeks as a deadline as that seemed like a good chunk of time for a big project, did a timetable, and it ended up giving us some much-needed structure and sanity in lockdown.


What was the writing process like compared to your other books?

Well, it was shorter! I’d already done most of the reading and made a lot of notes, but it really required a lot of discipline. I started off joking that when I was finishing a book in the past, I’d pay a lot of money to create conditions similar to lockdown by hiring a cottage and shutting myself away. But the psychology of lockdown really affected me – I found I was capable of writing far less on a daily basis than I have in the past, so it was more of a grind to get it out. 


Did the 13 week self-imposed deadline help or hinder? Would you take such an approach again?

Yes, I would. I always have to have some kind of structure, otherwise I drift off down blind alleys. The big learning was that if you’re self-publishing, in setting a timetable, you need to allow as much time after “finishing” the book as you do to write it in the first place.


Where does it sit alongside your other beer books? Or indeed other beer books generally?

It’s more niche – I always try to write for a general audience and this book is no exception, but I think you have to be pretty into craft beer to want to read it, given that it starts off with a deeper analysis than anything else I’ve read on attempts to define craft beer. 

But I’m chuffed with the way it still relates beer to broader themes in the world in general. I think whatever your views on the craft beer debate, you’ll learn something broader about how we live and how we relate to the world around us, because that’s what I learned while researching and writing it.

 

Pete (second from right) with Pete Mitcham, Stone & Wood co-founder Jamie Cook and Kirrily "Beer Diva" Waldhorn at BrewCon 2019. Photo – and the one at the top – courtesy of the Independent Brewers Association.

What do you hope readers will take away from it?

I really hope that they’ll get something out of situating beer in the centre of this broader thing called “craft”, which is far bigger and older than craft beer. I hope it will cast new light on why we’re all so engaged with this idea of craft beer, and why it means so much to us. 


Do you hope this will help end the "what is craft?" debate or merely move things along?

I don’t think the debate will ever end! I hope my contribution to it will be to stop it being so fucking reductive. It’s been eating itself for at least the last ten years, until we’ve arrived at a point where what we’re arguing over has very little to do with “craft” at all. And then we blame craft beer itself for being nonsensical. 

While we’re all obsessing over size and ownership, we’re not talking about concepts such as skill, quality and creativity, and as a result I think those aspects of craft beer are suffering to such a degree that it will be the erosion of these – which are absolutely essential to broader notions of craft in a way independence simply is not – that could result on craft beer’s demise. I mean, how many poorly brewed hazy, juicy pale ales that mask their faults with too much dry hopping have you tasted recently?

Why are craft brewing associations around the world rushing to adopt seals that assure us of the brewer’s independence and yet none of them – anywhere – is talking about any kind of marque or seal that reassures drinkers about the quality of the beer?


Have you had any reaction from those pushing independence as the new "craft" or "micro”?

Not yet, and I’m nervous about it! Even saying what I just said, I hope the book makes it very clear that the independent brewing sector is absolutely vital and does need protecting from the avarice of big brewers. But that is no longer the same thing as craft, if it ever was. Small, independent brewers are far, far more likely to subscribe to my meaning of craft beer than large corporations are, but it is by no means guaranteed. 

In the US now, Yuengling Light – a me-too to Bud Light – is now officially a craft beer, while Goose Island Bourbon County stout is not a craft beer. That’s screwed up. 

I actually think Australia is ahead of the game in being the first to abandon the word "craft" completely from a trade perspective, because it makes everything clearer. I just think that this shouldn’t mean the death of craft as an idea, and that a “craft beer” can be produced by any brewer if they should choose to do so. We should be holding both small and large brewers to account on this.


Tell us more about the coronavirus situation in the UK. In Australia, we saw brewers quickly adapt to coronavirus. How have your local breweries adapted?

It all depends on whether they were already geared up for packaging or not. As we all know, bottling and canning lines are big investments. Last time I looked, about 65 percent of the output of small independent brewers was cask ale. Demand for that fell to zero on March 20 and has stayed there ever since. 

But those who can package beer for take-home have been doing great things – brewers that had vans delivering to local pubs are now delivering cases of beer to your front door within hours of ordering it sometimes!


Do you think any of the measures / innovations will last once we reach some level of normality?

I’m writing about this as soon as I finish here. The question splits in two. On the one hand, measures around protecting ourselves are going to be around for a long time to come. But there have been some good ideas coming out of this, and I get a real sense that people want a lot of that to continue indefinitely – a smaller, more local focus, a slower, more thoughtful pace of life, aided by creativity around online channels etc.

 

English pubs open for the first time since March 20 tomorrow (July 4).

What about British pubs and bars? How do you think the industry will look in six to twelve months?

There’s no doubt now that we’re going to lose a big chunk of our pubs – I reckon around 20 percent will never reopen. About 25 percent are too small to open viably even with just one metre social distancing. 

It will bounce back, because it always does, and as soon as it is safe to do so, I think the British population is crying out to go to the pub and give their mates a hug.  


What are your hopes or fears for July 4?

I’ve got to say, I’m glad for the industry. But declaring a Saturday to be the day pubs are allowed to reopen is just typical of the dick moves our shambolic government is making over this pandemic. Pubs are faced with a choice between missing a busy trading day after being closed for over three months, or plunging straight into an uncertain and possibly dangerous situation, having to explore and get right lots of new procedures and protocols before they get chance to settle back in. 

I have to say I’ll be staying away for another week or two.


To buy a copy of Craft: An Argument, head to Amazon. Pete has also launched a Patreon, which you can sign up to here

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