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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 13 January 2014

If you love craft beer, set it free.

1989. Thursday.

We gathered in the hall of residence common room after gobbling down dinner quicker than usual for our weekly sneer at Top of the Pops. What depths would the Stock Aitken and Waterman 'Hit Factory' have sunk to this week? Would its bland fare be distinguishable from last week, and every other week? Would there be any wavering from the template of happy synths peddled by the bland mainstream year in year out, lowest common denominator music that offended no one except those with good music taste like us?

Doubtful. We proto-Beavis and Buttheads would just have to make this week different from last week by upping the level of our competitive 'witticisms', annoying the rest of the room who didn't see anything wrong with what they were being spoon-fed.

And then this happened.


The most exciting band on the planet monkey-walked into your living room and said, "Nice, we'll take it."

In days when there was no internet or i-Tunes, when pop and rock musicians were never in the tabloids, when all you heard on TV and radio was safe top 40 hits and you had to seek out specific record shops to buy the music you liked and specific clubs to hear it in public, suddenly the Stone Roses were on Top of the Pops because they were in the charts.

It felt like a revolution was happening. I expected the Domestic Bursar to come in and confiscate the TV.

And while we were still reeling from that,  a few minutes later this happened:



Now we were screaming and hollering. Cars were set alight in the street outside. Bros and Go West were strung up from lampposts. Dave Lee Travis was executed with a bullet to the temple while he knelt at the feet of Shaun William Ryder, who looked down and threatened to "Lie down beside yer and fill yer full o' JUNK." Or so it seemed for those glorious two and a half minutes as Kirsty MacColl, who everybody loved, played kingmaker, nailing her colours to the baggy mast.

We had won. We had taken over. So what if Fine Young Cannibals were on next? The indie kids had staged the most marvellous coup, and no-one - not even we indie kids ourselves - had seen it coming.

Afterwards, it was puzzling to feel somewhat deflated. Let down. To feel a sense of loss. Since I'd arrived at uni a few years before, wearing black overcoats and breton caps and listening to the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Bodines had been a lifestyle, an identity, a way of stating my opposition to the bland, bourgeois mediocrity, to the people who got drunk at university because that's what you were supposed to do at nineteen, and then got married and got jobs as accountants after graduation because that's what you were supposed to do at twenty-two.

So it was confusing, after the dozen or so indie kids at St Andrews Uni swapped our Joy Division overcoats for Stone Roses flares and hoodies, to see all the other kids - corduroy clad, U2-loving students and casual, wedge-cut townies - do the same. We could no longer tell who was in our tribe. And then our tribe didn't exist any more. We liked music that was in the charts, and lots of other people liked it too. That was surely a bad thing. And yet privately, it felt good.

The music and beer analogy. Works every time.

Just before Christmas, analysts Mintel released their latest report on the UK beer market, and it's all about craft beer.  I didn't have chance to write about it at the time, and you were probably too drunk to read it anyway, but it deserves some attention from everyone who thinks craft beer is something to be debated and argued over rather than simply drunk and enjoyed.

Mintel's research uncovered some interesting stats:

  • One in four British adults has drunk a craft beer at some time in the last six months - that's around 13 million people.
  • 35% of all beer drinkers believe craft beer is worth paying more for, because they associate it with higher quality.
  • 50% of beer drinkers expect that a craft beer will taste better than other beers.
Our collective failure to agree on a definition of craft beer doesn't seem to be doing craft beer any harm. But whatever that definition is, we probably can't hold on to ideas about size and scale of brewer for much longer. 40% of drinkers say they aren't sure what the term 'craft beer' actually means, and 45% of drinkers say they would find craft beers more appealing if they knew more about them, so there is a need for greater clarity. But at the same time, 40% of drinkers also say they would be keen to try a craft-style beer for a large brewer.

This is where we get back to Madchester taking over Top of the Pops, and I get to be a sensible middle-aged man again rather than an over-excitable music snob. 

Bigger brewers are risk-averse and can never hope to have the same flexibility and intuitive approach to brewing that smaller brewers have. But big brewers can provide widespread training, information and education that drinkers are saying they want from craft beer.

Should craft stay small? Is it wrong that it's going mainstream? I'd be interested to hear from any craft brewers, as opposed to drinkers, who think their potential market should stay small and niche. Much as I loved the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Bodines at the time, they're probably driving cabs now. Ian Brown is a multi-millionaire.

Alan McLeod has been writing a lot recently about the problem of taking craft beer too seriously, culminating in a new ebook co-authored with Max Bahnson, The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer. And while I fear Max and Alan may be in danger of taking 'not taking craft beer too seriously' too seriously, you should definitely give it a read.

We don't own craft beer any more than ten indie kids in St Andrews owned the Stone Roses. People want good beer, and they think that means craft beer, and I for one think that is the most exciting news I've heard in a long time.

But there's also a message here for the big brewers as they no doubt increase their forays into craft through 2014.

The amount of beer we drink overall is still decreasing. According to Mintel, 31% of beer drinkers claim to be drinking less than they did a year ago, versus just 13% drinking more. People are drinking less but better. 

But better has to mean better. 

There's a meltdown of old distinctions happening in the beer market: on the one hand, drinkers are increasingly happy to drink beers from brewers they are unfamiliar with - and this extends into lager and nitro-stout. In 2013 we saw many small and regional brewers launch their own "craft" lagers and Guinness clones, because many drinkers no longer need a multi-million pound ad campaign to tell them what to drink. 

On the other hand, drinkers are perfectly happy to try a craft-y beer from a big brewer - so long as it is genuinely better than the mainstream.

As far as the drinker is concerned, big can do small and small can do big - just so long as you are true to what 'craft' promises. As Mintel's beer and cider guy and author of the report Chris Wisson says, 
"Rather than focusing on size, craft should be more of an ethos which stands for high quality and artisan skill, giving the consumer a different drinking experience... as prices of many drinks continue to go up, many drinkers are looking for discernibly higher quality to justify the cost. Focusing on the quality of ingredients such as hops and the brewing process should help brands to convey their superior quality to beer drinkers."

But that means you actually have to use decent ingredients and processes in the first place, rather than just pretending.

As social media gives the public more of a voice than ever before, any brewer paying lip-service to craft and cynically exploiting it will be called out and ridiculed. With beer choice no longer determined solely by the size of the marketing budget, and more craft beers from smaller brewers on the bar, quality will out and sub-standard beer simply won't cut it, whoever it's brewed by.

Any big brewer who ignores craft beer in 2014 (laughably, I've heard some still privately dismissing craft beer as an East London fad) is an idiot. Anyone who does craft beer and executes it badly is a fool. And anyone who thinks that craft can and should remain the preserve of small, independent brewers and a tiny band of devoted aficionados is sadly misguided.

No doubt it's going to be a bumpy ride, and there are bound to be those on all sides who fly in the face of that last paragraph and prove me right. But I think that for anyone with an open mind, 2014 is going to be a great year for beer.

19 comments:

Cooking Lager said...

So what we sayin' fella?

That craft beer is a fad and in ten years the whole beer market will be dominated by a Simon Cowell type person with dodgy trousers & a telly show that mocks talentless dreamers as the kids no longer buy beer but nick it off t'internet?

Glyn Roberts said...

I might have a pint of craft-lite on my way home this evening!

Glyn Roberts said...

cookie, isn't that Brewdog TV already?

Susan said...

To my mind, there are two categories of craft beer- craft beer as quality products produced with a sense of place (the beverage equivalents of locavore and/or traditional producers) and craft beer as a product of creative innovation and experimentation. And often, some of my favorite brewery provide me with all of the above. The sense of the brewers' passion is evident.
What is *not* craft beer to me is a product that is merely an imitation of the creativity of others in an attempt to grab market share. The result of market research, not inspiration.

Phil said...

Our collective failure to agree on a definition of craft beer doesn't seem to be doing craft beer any harm.

Maybe not, but it makes it hard to make any sense of a statement like "one in four British adults has drunk a craft beer at some time in the last six months". By some definitions I drink about a pint of 'craft beer' a year; by others I drink several pints a week.

I think you're basically right - the idea and image of 'craft beer' is going mainstream in a big way, and that's mostly going to be a good thing. But it is just that, an idea and an image - or rather, several different ideas and images.

What we need isn't more beer of a particular style or type, whether that type is defined as "non-traditional style or strength", "short production run", "New World hops", "served in small bottles and keykegs", "premium-branded and expensive" or "tastes of grapefruit". What we need is more good beer and less bad beer. I hope you're right to be optimistic, can see plenty of ways for 'craft beer' to go mainstream which result in wider availability and acceptance of bad beer - particularly if your definition of 'bad' includes 'overpriced'.

Robert Middleton said...

Craft beer and indie music will always be around, but they will suffer peaks and troughs of popularity. Peaks mean they're easier to access and more folk hear about them - cool. Troughs mean that only the aficionados still hunt them down - cool.

Happy Mondays - a craft band made in a Factory.

MitchAtStone said...

I'm positive craft is here to stay, but will it remain "craft"? We're certainly seeing signs of business maturation here in the US, with buyouts, mergers, and the nastiness that comes along with the increasing competition for tap handles.
It's an interesting maturation process here.

Stu as "Stu" said...

Great piece Pete. I agree wholeheartedly.

As someone who's released two beers named "Fools Gold" and a "Bye Bye Badman", I was easily taken in by this analogy.

What is key - to the true success of any band or brewing company - is staying true to yourself and making the business an extension of what you want in your life. Some people want all the taps, they want to be the Simon Cowell, while others are happy to play pub gigs and/or set up their own home studio.

As any brewery grows or is sold, there's another one rising up to take its place. As any band signs with a major label and plays Glastonbury instead of your local venue, there's another band playing that venue next week... There's absolutely no harm in loving it all! I love beer made by a company owned by another company that is in turned owned by Kirin. do i care about the ownership structure or size of the profit when that beer is raised to my mouth. Hell no! I care about what is in the glass.

And we should always remember... just because Ian Brown's a millionaire it doesn't make him happier than the taxi driver. The world is a complex place.

paul said...

@Robert Middleton:

The comparison with indie music is, to my way of thinking, exactly right. I guess many of us kind of know what it is when we hear it, but I'm not going to try to define it.

Once upon a time, indie music was released on independent labels. But these days, much 'indie' is on a major label (and I suppose some always was), and just cos it's on an independent label, don't make it 'indie'.

Paul Bailey said...

A few points here, Pete. By the reckoning of your common room analogy I am some 15 years older than you, so before you were even starting at infants school, I was enjoying the beery delights of Manchester, whilst a student at Salford University. Back then it seemed like we too were on the verge of a revolution in beer, with interest in CAMRA and local breweries really beginning to gather pace, and taking on a momentum all of its own, Not sure about the music though, as back then I was heavily into “Prog Rock”, and still am to a certain extent.

I’m not sure that cask ever became mainstream; certainly not in the way you suggest craft might. What did happen is that the likes of Allied, (remember them?), Courage and even Watneys began either promoting existing, but largely forgotten brands, such as Courage Directors, or launched new cask brands such as Ind Coope Burton Ale, (a really good beer) or Watney’s Fined Bitter (an instantly forgettable one!). The infatuation these breweries had at the time, with cask, didn’t last, and whilst Directors and Burton Ale are still around, they are no longer brewed at their original breweries, or by the original owners; and they are not exactly mainstream beer either!

I will have to bow to your superior knowledge of the drinks market, especially as I know you are a former marketing man. However, as someone who has sadly become more and more cynical with age, I tend to take surveys like the Mintel one you refer to, with a large pinch of salt. Being older though, doesn’t make me less amenable to trying new styles and different types of beer, and I have enjoyed some excellent craft beers at our one local craft-beer bar in nearby Tunbridge Wells.

I remain to be convinced as to which way the market will go, and whether we will see situations like in the United States, where the likes of Blue Moon and Goose Island have been acquired by the big boys. Whatever happens, I fully agree with your last sentence that 2014 is going to be a great year for beer, although I’m not quite sure about the headline. Exactly what or who do we need to set craft beer free from?

Anonymous said...

But how would you have felt if the Rolling Stones had released some half-arsed version of a Madchester song, and that was what all the punters bought instead of your indie faves?
That's the real danger - that a major brewery pushes some watered-down half-arsed version as a "craft" beer and push all the genuine ones off the shelves.

DavidS said...

Decent analogy. And I think that in either case, over time it becomes less of a black and white, with-us-or-against-us thing and more of a spectrum. Which in the case of beer actually seems like a much healthier place to be.

Anonymous said...

Great article but where's the mention of the amazing back-catalog awaiting to be re-released to a new audience. Would this count as craft, crafty, or something else?

What about White Shield or Bass No1?

Beer Coup said...

I definitely see your point Pete, but the smaller Craft players will all fear the inevitable attempt by the big boys to knock them off shelf and out of fridge.

The fear, as Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head rightly says in Beer Wars, is having a £5 6-pack of "craft" beer next to individual £2 bottles of Craft Beer on the shelves. We need to ensure that the masses can discern quality craftmanship from sub-standard fizzy nonsense.

Are the big boys really going to be able to maintain their margins and lead times if they start using more hops, an elongated fermentation process and malt rather than extract?

But you're right, the big boys can do small, but do we really want them to?

These are companies that for years have duped the public into believing that their "beer" is the only Beer worth drinking in the market.
These are companies that have cut costs at every corner including the reduction of 330ml bottles to 300ml and ABV down to 4.8% for tax purposes.
These are companies that have contributed to the steady rise of obesity through the creation of "Lite" brands.
And through heavy promotions, these are companies responsible for the growth in irresponsible drinking in the UK but now advertise social responsibility as a means of increasing their market share.

These are not the companies that I'll want to brew my Beer.

One thing I've learned about Craft Breweries is honesty.

If you start off Craft, grow organically and resist the temptation to float your shares, you have my palate.

Tom Bedell said...

Good stuff. Clarification to Paul Bailey's comment that Blue Moon was acquired by the big boys--it was a Coors product from the get-go.

Gary Gillman said...

It really comes down to a beer tasting as natural and "real" as possible, and given this, that is craft beer. You know it when you taste it. Usually they use all- or generous quantities of malt, lotsa hops and minimal processing.

The scale of its manufacture is not relevant. Although, typically smaller brewers will produce it since they have the intellectual interest so to speak and freedom from extreme cost restraints.

The first time I went to England, circa-1988, I had already tasted many examples of early American craft brewing. Then I get to London and meet Young's and Fuller's beers, Courage's beers, Timothy Taylor's, Theakston's, Ind Coope Burton Ale, and many others. I said to self, "oh they have always had the same thing" (except usually it was better than the Cascade-driven APA taste, IMO). Of course, the nascent U.S. real beer people took their cue from these various beers.

Old and newer UK brewers who make traditional-tasting beer, extending now to cloudy and New World-hopped beer, are making the same kind of beer.

If this perception can be gained by the British public, the future of craft is very bright. There is an opportunity for someone to convey this understanding in a big way. I don't think CAMRA can do it because they are still committed to the sub-set of craft beer that is cask. It has to come another way. A Craft Beer Manifesto should be created and publicized by the right people.

Gary

neil, eatingisntcheating.co.uk said...

Really enjoyed reading this Pete, and think the analogy is a good one.

For me personally the more people drinking good beer the better. Look at what Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams have achieved in America.

The only difference in the UK is that the big 'craft' brewers that achieve Sierra Nevada like recognition may well end up being cask beer brands.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks Tom, for clarifying the point about Blue Moon. I think because I first came across the beer whilst in the United States, that I thought it was brewed by an independent "craft" brewer.

Richard Wolsey said...

Really enjoyed reading this Pete, and think the analogy is a good one.

Craft beer is one of my favourite things. I whole-heartedly agree with Susan in that a good craft beer should give you something else... a sense of place, a feeling... an emotion. Imitation is an insult. It may sound cheesy but we need a bit more honestly in beer production imho!