The Difference Between Traditional and Craft Beer
We've all seen cloudy craft beers and clear real ales, but is that the only difference? Some small traditional breweries call their beer craft beer, but is it? Yes it is "crafted" but, craft beer is a way to differentiate the process and resulting flavours, rather than the size of the brewery.
A traditional brewery can make a craft beer and a craft beer brewery can make a traditional real ale. So what is the difference?
Keeping things the same
Traditional beer breweries like to keep the taste of their beer exactly the same brew after brew. I bet if you had a pint of Woodforde's Wherry 40 years ago and one now, it would taste the same.
Where as craft breweries don't mind if it has a slight difference between brews, it's more like wine, knowing each batch will have a slight difference. This can be due to the grains, but usually more to do with the hops as each years harvest (as well as the location they were grown) will have slightly different properties than the previous years crop.
Add to this the fact that craft breweries are always looking for the next "thing". Playing with science to find new yeast strains, using new interesting ingredients, fruits, sugars, herbs, making beers that are sour, taste like doughnuts or fruit smoothies without using fruit.
Process and Serving
The brewing process is slightly different for traditional real ales to craft beers too. Not much, but enough to make a huge difference in the final beer.
Traditional beers tend to have the grain (barley (sometimes roasted)) mashed (cooked) in water for an hour, strained and then the liquid brought up to the boil, hops added, boiled for an hour (this imparts a bitterness from the hops and any aromas are destroyed in the boiling process), cooled and then the yeast added. Once fermentation is complete, they add finings to clear the beer, then they barrel it and send it off to the pubs. The beer is then tapped in the pub, letting oxygen in and a conditioning process to take place before it is served at cellar temperature 12-14°C, flat and still.
Craft beers first of all, will use a wider variety of grains (barley (sometimes roasted), wheat, oats, maize, rice, etc) in their recipe to give the finished beer a different look and feel, but again will have the grain mashed (cooked) in water for an hour (sometimes changing the temperature to make different sugars), strained and then the liquid brought up to the boil, small amounts of hops added at various stages in the boil, then at the end of the boil, lots more hops added, cooled and then the yeast added. Once fermentation is complete they add even more hops in a process called dry hopping. This infuses the beer with lots of the aromatic flavours in the hops without the bitterness being added, strained and the beer kegged under pressure. The beer is served cool (about 10°C) and slightly carbonated.
Expect a traditional ale to be clear, golden-brown in colour, very malty, quite bitter, smooth, thin on the palate, flat and a a little on the cool side.
Expect a Craft beer to be hazy (some more opaque than others), pale straw coloured, citrussy, a little malt, a little bitter, a little dry, smooth, fuller bodied, a slight fizz and served chilled.
Now I know some of you will have your own ideas as to the differences, and there and can be different interpretations of the differences, but after years of dealing with traditional and craft beers, I hope we know the differences.