Australia's craft beer debate has become a little more confusing after one of the world’s most respected industry educators declared veteran operator Coopers is, by definition, a craft brewery.
Professor Charlie Bamforth, a UK-born but US based brewing scientist, author and researcher, said while he disliked the term “craft beer” he believed that by its accepted guidelines, Coopers fitted the bill.
Bamforth was speaking at a special gathering of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling Asia-Pacific chapter in Perth this week.
It followed Bamforth’s attendance at the Australian Craft Beer Conference in Adelaide last week. Interestingly he was the guest speaker for the newly former Independent Brewers Association.
In May the Craft Beer Industry Association opted to boot out members owned by “Big Beer” – Lion, CUB, Asahi, Coca Cola. It eventually morphed into the IBA, shunning the "craft" title which had categorised the industry for two decades.
Coopers was not a member of the CBIA. And, even though the South Australian company was family-owned, it was precluded from being part of the IBA because it brewed more than 40 million litres a year.
Instead, Coopers, which makes around 85 million litres of beer annually, is part of the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, alongwith CUB and Lion.
However, Bamforth got a full tour of the Coopers brewery while in Adelaide, also chatting to key personnel, and reported he had no doubts the company made craft beer in the true sense of the category.
“Clearly to my mind, by any definition of craft as people perceive it, then I would say Coopers clearly is a craft brewing company,” Bamforth said.
“I spent last Monday with Coopers and there is no question that there is a family run company that is so similar to Sierra Nevada, and it is no secret Sierra Nevada is a company I admire more than anybody else.
“And both of those companies, Sierra Nevada and Coopers, believe in doing everything right.
“They have got the right attitudes, they care about their people, they care about their facility; it has got to be the best.
“But to the best of my knowledge (Coopers) are excluded from the club.
“So it is a very difficult thing to define. And I don’t like the term. But I can understand the complexities of people.”
Bamforth, a past president of the IBD who lectures at University of California, Davis, gets asked the old chestnut about craft beer just about everywhere he goes.
He points out the levels of beer being produced shouldn’t influence a brewery’s claim to craft status.
In the US for instance a craft brewery can produce around 700 million litres before losing its artisanal rating by the US Brewers Association. To put the figure into perspective CUB produces 450 million litres at its Yatala brewhouse.
“I consider a craftsperson to be a person who is skilled and trained in the brewing of beer,” Bamforth said
“I don’t give a damn if they’re brewing millions and millions and millions of barrels of beer or they’re brewing in a bucket. As long as they’re skilled and know what they are doing. And they have got a focus on quality.
“People are very fond of rubbishing the big guys. But if you want a brewer (for your craft business) you’ll find one at a big company.
"If you can brew beer, you can brew to any scale you want. The definitions are arbitrary. In the United States, it’s less than six million barrels of beer a year, as long as you are only 25 per cent invested in by someone else.
“Six million barrels of beer! That’s a seriously large amount of beer. And there are companies within that which are to my mind are clearly not craft breweries.
“There are beer companies that have the right mindset that are very big. But they are clearly craft breweries.
“So at the end of the day I think it (craft) is about the quality of the beer. It is about mindset and a commitment to looking after the customer.”