Brewing up a storm: Craft Beer
“Go on, try them!” With these words, my colleague Eva handed me several small tins, containing different types of malt – light, caramel-coloured and chocolate-brown grains. It’s the first time I’ve seen malt grains “raw” – you see, I’m not exactly what you’d call an expert when it comes to beer. A bit sceptically, I pick up a dark malt grain, and begin to chew on it. And it’s a revelation! The dark-brown malt tastes rather bitter – but also definitely of chocolate. Quite unlike the light-coloured variant, which I test afterwards, and which tastes very smoky.
Since this sampling initiative (carried out at the BrauBeviale, by the way), I was seized by an urgent desire to find out more about beer. So I seized the opportunity, and in the raw materials hall at the BrauBeviale sought out the second ingredient, which I knew is absolutely essential for brewing beer – and was once again astonished. There are actually hops with aromas of glacier ice, mandarins or citrus! I was still pondering the various hop bouquets, the way they smelled, and the exotic-sounding names of the hop varieties concerned (such as Polaris, Waimea or Opal) as I passed by several craft beer stands. And naturally enough I decided to investigate further.
After all, craft brewers are practising precisely what I had just discovered for myself: they experiment with different flavourings, so as to create what are called craft beers – I knew that much, at least. But what exactly is craft beer, and where does it come from? One thing I quickly realised when I began my researches: if you want to “comprehend” the trends towards craft beer, you have to empathise with the scene that’s behind this phenomenon. Because craft beer is more than “just” beer – for many people it’s a sense of life, an attitudinal mindset. No doubt that this sense of life can be adequately described only by someone who actually shares it. As a curious “outsider”, I should accordingly like to start by subjecting craft beers to a more searching scrutiny.
The ingredients used for producing craft beers should just like their fermentation process, be traditional, and at the same time innovative. Traditional ingredients in this context include barley malt, hops or yeast. Craft brewers then add new aromas – often rather unusual and unique ones – and re-interpret traditional beers. They experiment with different flavour carriers and develop new beers that had previously never existed. So craft beers are creative innovations – based on an “original” beer.
In connection with craft beer, you’ll also often hear the term “India Pale Ale”, or IPA for short. This is a light beer that’s been extra-strongly hopped and in most cases is fruity as well. But: IPA doesn’t necessarily mean craft beer. In other words: not all IPAs are necessarily craft beers, and conversely not all craft beers are IPAs.
Craft beers, actually, are speciality beers that differ from other run-of-the-mill beers. Beers with an individual flair, then, ones that stand out from the crowd – just like the breweries that produce them. Craft beers are based on creative recipes and brewing styles outside the mainstream. The emphasis is on the craft element; beer is transmuted from being a profit-focused mass product to a special brewing and drinking experience.
Where does craft beer come from, and who is selling it?
The Brewers Association, an organisation of brewers and other representatives of the beer industry, draws a distinction between four different craft beer market segments: microbreweries, brew-pubs, regional craft breweries and contract brewing companies.
Microbreweries have an annual output of less than 15,000 barrels, of which more than three-quarters is sold outside the brewery. Another salient characteristic of microbreweries is their innovative-creative, top-quality beers. This is why they also often brew seasonal beers there featuring fresh raw materials typical for the time of year. Under the term “brew-pubs”, the Brewers Association subsumes restaurant breweries that serve at least a quarter of their beers directly on the spot: this means the beer is brewed primarily for sale in the brewery’s own restaurant. Regional craft breweries are independent breweries that primarily brew traditional-innovative beers with a distinctive character. They also have at least one full-malt type of beer in their range. Contract brewing companies, by contrast, commission other breweries to brew and package (additional) beer for them, which they then market and sell.
According to the Brewers Association, there are thus three distinctive features that fundamentally go to define American craft beer breweries: they have to be small, independent, and traditional. For a brewery to be classified by the Brewers Association as a craft brewery, its annual output of beer must not exceed six million barrels. What’s more, less than a quarter of the brewery’s stock may be held by corporations who are not themselves craft brewers.
So much for theory – but what do things look like in practice? In actual fact, the trend began in America back in the 1970s, with those small independent breweries. But it’s long since gone international, and reached the major players, who are advertising their own “craft beer”. In Germany, too, the movement has arrived. But doesn’t this run counter to the basic idea behind it: a large brewery offering craft beer? After all, what will remain of the “craft”, the creative brewing process, when corporate behemoths include speciality beers in their product portfolio?
Only one thing is certain: at any rate, the soaring progress of this trend shows that there is a definite wish for a new kind of beer culture above and beyond the run-of-the-mill beers – something that the large corporations have realised as well. It’s a yearning for an out-of-the-ordinary taste experience that’s impelling more and more beer-drinkers to opt for a speciality beer – whether this merits the name of “craft beer” or not is a question that can be ignored for the moment. Because it’s here, once again, that the attitudinal mindset I already mentioned comes into play – what creativity, individuality and craft beer actually mean is something that ultimately we all have to decide for ourselves. I, at any rate, have resolved to stay curious and keep on testing out new aromas and flavours!