Is Fuller's Craft Beer?

I'm kidding, halfty. We've already had far too may armchair philosophers and linguists weigh in on the question. And yet, on a day that included an absolutely glorious tour of the venerable Fuller's Brewery here in Chiswick, London (that's chizz-ick to you yanks) and a craft-brewery pub, the specter haunted us.

Fuller's is a 166-year-old independent brewery that produces a stellar line of cask ales as well as uber crafty offerings like strong ales and their "Past Masters" series based on historical recipes from the vaults. (The flagship is London Pride, one of the finest best bitters I know and, despite its modest strength, possibly my favorite.) They're one of the larger cask ale producers, but they're roughly the size of Widmer or Deschutes.

They are a perfect example of the difference between the US and British markets, though. Because, while no American would exclude them from the "craft" category, that's the bias they face in England. At the craft brew-focused pub we visited last night, they scoffed at Fuller's: too old.

That age is a huge part of it's virtue. I sat down with John Keeling and the shadowy figure with whom I'm traveling (he gave me permission to out him--some of you know him as the beeronomist--but shadowy figure amuses me), and listened to the history of Fuller's transformation thirty years ago into a modern facility.

Fuller's was until that time brewing beer on an ancient system--one the brewery preserved as a kind of museum-within-a-brewery. This is one of those decisions I take it the tradition-steeped British don't take lightly. Yet here's what British brewers confront: a steadily declining market for ales (currently 14%, according to Keeling) in which cask is just one niche (the famous "flat, warm" beer of England now commands just 8% of the whole market). For the first time in centuries, the proportion of beer consumed in pubs dropped below 50% this year. Those who hew exclusively to tradition in this market risk the oblivion of such titanic names as Bass, Whitbread, and Courage.

Fuller's modernized the brewery, which now looks like a standard American craft brewery. But interspersed throughout the modern stainless steel tuns and tanks are the earlier relics--copper equipment with the burnished patina of age.

Keeling offered a bit of analysis that parsed the "craft" question nicely. You want the beer to be clean and consistent on the one hand, flavorful and characterful on the other. Industrial breweries emphasize the former but not the latter. The antiquated coppers delivered the latter, but it was harder to achieve the former. Weirdly, I think this means the ultratraditionalists also ding Fuller's.

From my perspective, Fuller's is the model craft brewery. Eventually, the current crop of craft breweries won't be new anymore. Then they'll be judged purely on their beer. If they work hard and are very lucky, they'll be mentioned in Fuller's company.