If Garrett Oliver's right, then are Fullers a Craft Beer Brewery?

I read an interesting interview recently with Garrett Oliver, the charismatic brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, on the James Clay website. In the interview he talks about British beer and how it inspired him to set up the brewery, and also his love for traditional English Bitters and other British beers including JW Lees Harvest Ale, which in itself is interesting.

But it was his deft handling of the Storm in a Teacup that is “Cask vs Keg” (his answer was essentially that it depends – which it does) andalso his answer to the question of what defines craft beer in the UK which really resonated with me. Here’s what was said:

Another one which is causing a fewraised eyebrows over here in the UK: What would be your definition of ‘Craft Beer’?

To me, craft beer is beer brewed by traditional means, with the goal of creating full, complex flavours. It means that the beer has true provenance - it is made just as it appears to be made, without the use of anything of whichthe brewer would not be proud. Craft beer is never brewed with blandness as agoal. That’s the main thing that separates it from mass-market beer which isn’t supposed to taste great - it is supposed to be sold to the maximum number ofpeople and produced for the lowest possible price. Personally, I’m not surethat the size of the company has anything to do with it.

It’s that last line that got me thinking.

Many of you will know that the problem some people have with the term “Craft Beer” in the UK is that it has no strict rules, whereas across the pond in the US a “Craft Brewery” is defined as one which has a yearly output below a certain threshold. And yet here’s one of the front runners of the American Craft beer World saying that really, size has nothing to do with it.

This is something which I think I agree with. It’s the beer itself, the passion of the brewer, and the ethos of the company which make the beer they produce Craft Beer, not how many barrels of it they brew in a year.

It’s not even about the style of beers being produced in my opinion. You don’t have to continually produce huge, hoppy, US inspired IPA’s to keep your Craft Brewer Gold Star, you just have to be committed to quality and flavour above all else. Look at Ilkley Brewery, they produce predominantly low abv (usually sub 4%) British Pale Ales, no monster imperial stouts, barrel ageing or Belgian Yeasted IPA’s to be seen, and yet I’d argue they are one of the finest Craft breweries in the UK because they focus on flavour, quality and producing amazingly tasty beers.

How far you stretch the term Craft is open to debate though, and the example that always pops in to my head is Fullers.

Would you class Fullers as a Craft Beer Brewery? After all, they produce a range of well crafted, massively tasty beers with a focus on flavour and even some spectacular Limited Edition specials in the form of their awesome Vintage Ale, and recent Past Masters series'. They do this on a much bigger scale than most would consider Craft, but if it's all about flavour and quality then does it matter?

Where does the border line get drawn for Craft Beer in the UK?

Personally I’d place Fullers on the inside of it, but it’s all a matter of taste.

31 comments:

  1. Would you class Tim Taylors as a craft brewery? ;-)

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  2. In answer to the question, yes Fullers would qualify in my mind as a "craft brewery".

    However, what few seem to question is the validity of the question, "do such and such qualify as a craft brewery?".

    I think it is a sad state of affairs where the beer loving community is intent on defining who fits the identikit definition and who doesn't.

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  3. Sometimes, Fuller's seems like two breweries to me. The one that produces Fuller's IPA is different from the one that produces Bengal Lancer.

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  4. Yes, we think they are, and increasingly so. (They tick a lot of boxes for us.)

    We also think Tim Taylor's is a craft brewery, though. A wide range of very interesting beers, no 'brewing for blandness'.

    'Craft breweries' aren't just *new* or *cool* ones.

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  5. Fullers very definitely is, even more so that John is being allowed to go off and brew collaborations

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  6. I suppose Fullers are the only example in the UK of a big brewery that still produce excellent beers. A bit like our equivalent of Sierra Nevada

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  7. What about Sharps? No one could deny Stuart Howe's commitment to excellence, and like Fullers with their Past Masters, he brings out smaller lines, of excellent quality and range.

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  8. Try this poll relating to established brewers in the North-West and Midlands.

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  9. Isn't this a bit like Gay Desk with Colin Popshed? I would call Fullers a good brewery, like I would call Thornbridge a good brewery. All this discussion around who is craft and who isn't just clouds the issue - Even if the term is meaningful then it's meaningless: I can't choose craft over non-craft, I can only choose good over bad.

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  10. Great point, UK tends to categorise breweries based on size and distribution and not brand quailty. Having recently walked around Fullers brewery, their Chiswick site has the rustic qualities, attention to detail and pride and passion that you would associate with the current batch of craft brewers. Great Beers,Awesome passion and Pride-

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  11. Neil -- think a lot of the big family brewers make excellent beers, it's just a matter of how many, and whether they push them. Even Greene King have some great beers (http://www.camrgb.org/2012/01/greene-king-insurgency-over-the-front-line/) but they're hard to find and not pushed as hard as their wide range of bland ones.

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  12. Saying that Fullers are the only big brewery to produce excellent beers is just wrong. Fullers do indeed have a good tale to tell and I enjoy their beers, but part of me thinks that much of the lauding they get online is due to the effort they have made to reach out to beer bloggers / commentators etc rather than necessarily becuase they are actually streets ahead of the other regionals (maybe that's why Greene King, Badger etc seem to have been seeking such engagement in recent months - they've seen what it's done for Fullers credibility)

    As Bailey suggests, pretty much all the regional brewers produce some "interesting" beers as well as usually solid, well-made, and consistent core-ranges, notable examples being St Austells, Adnams, Moorhouse and Thwaites.

    As always, we have to be very alert to the danger of the unhelpful conflation between "beers I like" and "good beer", the regionals are responsible for the vast bulk of real ale/craft beer on sale in this country and they wouldn't be selling these quantities and have survived if people didn't enjoy them.

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  13. Thanks for this article, it's something I'd not really stopped to think about. I guess I have been differentiating British "craft beer" brewers from "real ale" brewers by their style - ie., the use of much bigger flavours, taking their lead from the American craft beer movement.

    I'm probably wrong, now I think about it.. but it is useful. There's a load of new breweries popping up at the moment where I live (Derbyshire), and the distinction means I have a handle on what kind of brewery a new one is straight away - and that's something I can explain to a friend by simply saying "they're a craft brewery" or "they're a real-ale brewery".

    Which reminds me, I had Buxton's 'High Tor' India Red Ale recently. It's just Amazing. For me, Buxton is a kick-ass craft brewery!

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  14. "I suppose Fullers are the only example in the UK of a big brewery that still produce excellent beers. A bit like our equivalent of Sierra Nevada"

    Rubbish! And the 'still' implies everyone has given up - is that true?!

    But... I think I share something of what you see when you isolate Fuller's as different though, there is an element of 'craft' visible in their range, which others perhaps lack, fuelled by Vintage perhaps and the heritage in their brand.

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  15. Tom - I can see your point but I disagree that it's simply a case of Fullers courting bloggers etc. I've never recieved anything from Fullers, and I dont think they are anymore aggresive in their marketing than other breweries. I do however think there is a marked difference between the beers Fullers produce and their approach to beer than, say Greene King.

    Mark - I think the 'Still' is perfectly reasonable. Quality and flavour dont neccesarily have to be negatively effected at by scale. Many beers get worse as the scale increases, and more to the point many breweries change the way they brew to make production cheaper on a larger scale. Fullers perhaps arent the only brewer to stay true to their values as theyve grown, but they are one of the best examples. That said, I take your point that my use of the word "only" is pushing it a little. Perhaps "one of the only" would be better.

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  16. Fullers use pelletised hops not whole cones in many of the beers. Which is fine, but you could argue it's not quite maintaining craft values.

    I agree - scale often affects flavour. Just been advocate to the devil ;-)

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  17. Many of the undeniably "craft" brewers use pelletised hops. Brewdog and Thornbridge definitely do.

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  18. In fact see here: http://www.thornbridgebrewery.co.uk/how_we_brew.php

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  19. "Craft" in the US basically means "not-Bud-Miller-Coors-type-adjunct-crap-lager". It's a stupid, meaningless term that started getting kicked around to let Sam Adams and Pete's Wicked get in on the microbrewery/brewpub deal back in the early 90's.

    It's amazing to this Yank that people wonder whether cask "can be craft" or something. Of course it is! I say most of your real ale breweries are what Yanks would consider "craft" breweries: they're brewing something other than crap lager.

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  20. If Deschutes or Sierra Nevada brew a Stella clone, intending it to be very low in flavour, and if they're proud of it, is it not a "craft" beer then?

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  21. Which makes Newcastle Brown Ale craft beer too...

    I don't really see the point of abstract analysis of what's UK craft and what's not. It's not a factor which affects anyone's drinking choices, is it?

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  22. I just wish you lot would just forget you ever heard this embarrassing non-term of ours. We've given you some lovely hops to play with, isn't that enough?

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  23. Unfortunately there was a gap in UK beer terminology and "craft beer" was the only term that fitted it, for better or worse.

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  24. I was going to answer your comment Beer Nut and then you did it yourself! I think your right, it did fill a gap in the market, but I also think it's a usable and necessary term.

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  25. Erlangernick,

    when saying " "Craft" in the US basically means "not-Bud-Miller-Coors-type-adjunct-crap-lager". " you forgot to add "whether it's actually any good or not". Plenty of "craft" lagers over here which are abysmal.

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  26. before you can agree whether or not Fullers is a craft brewery you need to have a clear and definitive explanation of what a craft brewery is. It's like this whole nonsense over 'craft keg', nobody, but nobody, has yet come up with a definition that can be widely accepted.
    For the record, I believe that both Fullers and Timothy Taylors are World Class brewers producing excellent beers.
    One mans craft beer is another mans crap beer

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  27. There are about 4 British beers that score over 4 on ratebeer - only one comes from a "craft" brewery.

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  28. I'd love to say that BA/Ratebeer is irrelevant, in fact I will

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  29. According to this poll, a majority of respondents don't think any family brewers can be classed as "craft breweries".

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  30. Craft beer revolves for me around quality not a shoved out money making product BUT it must be bottle conditioned, never pasteurized, never filtered, and only made with core ingredients - malt, hops, barely, water. I don't particularly like finings or clarifying agents either. A lot of brewers don't follow this (some tropical stouts have corn syrup/sugar added for sweetness even though it usually isn't required), so I'll settle with no crap added to the beer, core ingredients only. Anything else is a bonus.

    The bigger problem is the pansyness of British beers. 3%/4% bitter? Rubbish. What ever happened to the standard stouts that were 7%+ (single,double,triple) and porters 6%+? Imperial stouts are there but export?

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