All shook up: When craft beer goes mainstream

Pete Brown

11 June 2019

With craft brewers selling out to multi-nationals and global giants acting like craft brewers, it’s a confusing time in the world of beer. Pete Brown takes a look at how we got here and where we might go next


When looking at the beer market, it might be tempting to see craft beer as a discreet little niche, a bubble that operates differently and separately from the mainstream. But if you’re invested in the beer market, such thinking is dangerously wrong. Craft and mainstream are converging, and stories that look quite separate from each other are starting to intertwine. Let us explain…

Story one: ‘Journey towards better’

The ‘new’ Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen is a grand place, testament to the sheer amount of money that can be made when you effectively invent modern brewing. At what used to be the main gate, four huge stone elephants support a former water tower topped with a byzantine steeple. The main building beyond is crowned by a bronze sculpture of Thor’s battle against the frost giants, and is festooned with cathedral-like statues and gilded portraits.

Among all these adornments, in golden letters above the archway, stands what we would now refer to as Carlberg’s founder JC Jacobsen’s ‘mission statement’. Everyone who works for Carlsberg knows these ‘golden words’ by heart, the key phrase being the intent ‘irrespective of immediate gain, to develop the art of making beer to the greatest possible degree of perfection’.

Lately, there’s been a now openly acknowledged sense within the organisation that perhaps they’ve been paying lip-service to the golden words rather than really living them. But on a sunny September day in 2018, journalists gathered from around the world to hear Carlsberg’s bold plan to put the ‘golden words’ back at the heart of the business.

In small groups, we’re taken around various stations where we’re shown some genuinely ground-breaking innovations. They’ve introduced a glue-based snap-pack ‘to replace the plastic rings that kill marine wildlife’. There is a new bottle cap that reduces beer oxidation, greener secondary packaging, better bottles, an entire brand redesign…

It’s all inspiring. The only aspect of Carlsberg that doesn’t get a mention all day is the company’s beer itself…

Story two: ‘A great disturbance in the force’

Thursday 21 June 2018 was a dark day in beery social media. To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it was ‘as if millions of souls suddenly cried out in terror’. The cause of this wailing was leading craft brewer Beavertown’s announcement that it was selling a ‘minority stake’ to Heineken, in return for an undisclosed sum.

Immediately, other beloved craft brewers announced that they would be pulling out of Beavertown’s Extravaganza event. Independent bottle shops rushed to delist their beers. Beer fans called the move a ‘sell-out’, ‘absolutely pathetic’, ‘simple greed’, and ‘sickening’.

Some of these comments were motivated by a fear that the standard of Beavertown’s beers would suffer at the hands of a big corporation more focused on profit than quality. But the more dominant theme was that Beavertown had betrayed its principles, let the side down and defected to the enemy.

Craft, it seemed, was as much about a philosophical, political or ethical stance as it was about the beer itself.

Just over two weeks later, on 9 July, another leading London brewer, Fourpure, announced it was selling outright to Australian brewer Lion.

Beer Twitter battened down the hatches and waited for the storm… but it never arrived. Just one tweet appeared with the hashtag #fourpuresellout.

Fourpure’s beers are broadly similar in style and quality to Beavertown’s, and are available about as widely. Yet somehow, Fourpure’s 100% acquisition was not greeted with anything like the outrage prompted by Beavertown’s minority sale. The rules of acceptable behaviour among craft brewers, it seems, are flexible, depending on who we’re talking about.

Story three: ‘Proper French-brewed Stella’

Way back in the late 1990s, the balance of the British beer market was shifting from ‘standard’ to ‘premium’ lager. As far as the brewing industry was concerned, standard lager was anything below 4.5% abv, while premium was anything above. But expensive advertising campaigns were making premium more about image and provenance than alcohol content alone.

In this sphere, none could compete with Stella Artois, whose long, cinematic TV commercials depicted a mythical, continental neverland where a pint of Stella was highly prized. Back in the UK, the production values – the cinematography and French dialogue without subtitles – elevated Stella above all other beers.

Social media didn’t exist back then. But if it had, imagine the outcry there would have been when it was discovered that Stella Artois was, in fact, brewed in Lancashire and South Wales. People sought out ‘authentic’ Stella, and chains such as Oddbins even put out sandwich boards reassuring everyone that they were stocking ‘proper French Stella’, not this brewed-under-licence rubbish.

Stella Artois was indeed brewed in France at the time, but the brand’s home was – and is – in Leuvin, Belgium. ‘Proper French Stella’ was no more authentic than that brewed just off the M4. But it was imported, and to the premium lager drinker, that was all that mattered.

Over the next few years, most premium lager brands with exotic provenance were revealed to be brewed in the UK under licence. This led Budweiser Budvar to launch the category of ‘world beers’, in order to differentiate lagers genuinely imported from their country of origin from those brewed here.

It was a shrewd move, creating a new definition of what ‘premium’ lager meant when the word ‘premium’ itself was becoming increasingly devalued.

For some, ‘world beer’ was an attractive proposition, but it was also an inconvenience to anyone who wasn’t actually importing beer from abroad.

So those corporations brewing foreign-sounding beers under licence in the UK simply appropriated the term for their own brands – it had no legal definition – stealing any benefit it might confer while rendering it effectively meaningless.

The matter of craft

These three stories – Carlsberg’s green revolution, the reaction to craft beer sell-outs and the fate of world beer – are all connected. Taken together, they tell us about the redefinition of words like ‘quality’ and ‘premium’ in the beer market as a whole. They show how these words’ definitions have been radically altered by the arrival of craft beer and its convergence with the mainstream market.

The price-led commoditisation of mainstream beer – premium and standard alike – left a vacuum at the heart of the notion of quality beer that people would pay more for. This paved the way for the arrival of craft, which in turn replaced the practice of building brand differentiation via big TV campaigns and corporate sponsorships with a focus on the flavour of the beer itself. The message was communicated via the smaller-scale, more intimate channels of social media and accompanying real-world events.

The same people who destroyed world beer by assimilating the term tried a similar tactic with the craft movement, putting terms like ‘crafted’ on their existing beers or launching new ‘crafty’ brands that looked like craft but didn’t taste like it.

Mainstream drinkers may be unable to define craft, but they can certainly describe it

But this time, it didn’t work. Craft beer is here to stay – 13 million people claim to drink it, and research suggests that even mainstream drinkers now regard ‘IPA’ as a separate beer category, placing it alongside ale, lager and stout.

These mainstream drinkers may be unable to define craft, but they can certainly describe it. Multiple surveys have asked drinkers what they feel are the attributes of a craft beer, and the answers are remarkably consistent.

Craft boils down to authenticity, quality and provenance – the same values ‘premium’ mainstream beer brands have been trying to cultivate for decades. The problem for mainstream brewers is that the arrival of craft is changing what these words actually mean in the context of beer.

On a smaller scale, authenticity is much easier to demonstrate and bring to life. It happens face-to-face: there are multiple opportunities for any fan of Beavertown, BrewDog or Fourpure to visit the brewery, drink the beers on-site and chat to the people who made them.

This also ties into provenance. In the 1980s and 1990s, ‘provenance’ was a romantic notion, and there was a belief in advertising agencies that British provenance, because it was everyday and familiar, could never be truly aspirational. We drank beer that came from (or claimed to come from) places we’d love to visit one day, but perhaps never would.

Now, provenance is about real places, such as the industrial estates of Bermondsey, Huddersfield and Ellon. The point is not that these locations are faraway romantic idylls, but that the beer really comes from them, and you can visit.

‘Quality’ is a nebulous and relative term, as hard to pin down as ‘craft’ itself. But as with many aspects of the craft movement, quality is something you do, not something you say.

Talk to a craft brewer about the words ‘quality’ and ‘premium’, and they will discuss specific ingredients and the intricacies of the brewing process.

‘Craft, to us, is just about the care we put into everything we do, from brewing the beer, to designing our packaging, down to the glass that it comes in – we’re all about doing things in the best possible way,’ says Jasper Cuppaidge, founder of Camden Town Brewing.

C’mon… feel the integrity!
Five beers made with quality, innovation and love, irrespective of who owns them

Camden Hells
Lager isn’t just lager, as this superb example of the helles style demonstrates. As soon as Camden was bought by AB InBev, people said the quality would plummet. It hasn’t. Yet.
4.6%, £28.55/24x33cl, Camden Town Brewery, camdentownbrewery.com

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout
No one knows more about brewing stout than Guinness. Think what you like about the crowd-pleasing draught pint: this rich and multi-faceted bottled speciality is peerless.
7.5%, POA, Guinness, guinness.com

 

Duvel
Because it has bought some other breweries, Duvel-Moortgat is considered ‘macro’ by craft purists. But its flagship beer remains an icon of the Belgian brewing scene, where the term ‘bière artisanale’ was first coined in its modern sense.
8.5%, £48.50/33cl, Duvel Moortgat UK, duvel.com

Greene King Strong Suffolk Ale
Terminally unfashionable among craft beer geeks, Greene King may produce some bland beers, but it also makes an astonishing 12% old ale called 5X. Some of that is blended with other brews to create this deep, satisfying beer.
6%, POA, Greene King, greeneking.co.uk

London Fields Three Weiss Monkeys
Tarnished by tax evasion charges levelled at its founder, London Fields has been bought and relaunched by Carlsberg. Reputation restored, it’s okay to like this wonderful wheat beer once again.
5%, £14.07/12x33cl, London Fields, londonfieldsbrewery.co.uk

‘Quality, for us, is all about the flavour or texture that an ingredient can give, and how that then translates into a finished beer,’ says Sam Millard, brand and communications manager at Beavertown.
What were once just vacuous PR clichés have been given new meaning by the craft movement. And as everyone’s drinks’ repertoires continue to expand, the mainstream imbiber comes into contact with what these words mean within the context of craft, even if they do not drink the beers themselves. The bar is being raised across the board.

When asked, big brewers have no hesitation in proclaiming this as a good thing. ‘Craft has injected a new energy and life into the wider UK beer category, a halo effect if you will,’ says Liam Newton, vice president of marketing at Carlsberg UK.

‘Whilst respected brands from around the world need to stay true to their origins and heritage, they should also look to craft as a speedometer, showing the pace at which the category is moving,’ agrees Tim Clay, managing director of Asahi UK.

All these evolving perceptions around craft, premium and quality can be summed up by one word: integrity. When Fourpure’s Adrian Lugg describes craft as ‘quality, innovation and love’, and Beavertown’s Sam Millard says it boils down to ‘care and attention’, craft is ultimately about the attitude, the intent, with which the beer is made.

It doesn’t matter if you’re brewing a hibiscus and lemon-infused New England IPA or a 4% session lager: are you trying to ‘develop the art of making beer to the greatest possible degree of perfection’, as JC Jacobsen promised, or are you cynically phoning it in and relying on drinkers not to know any better?

‘Craft doesn’t ask permission’

That’s what’s prompted a mainstream, global brewer like Carlsberg to look again at the promise its founder made, and to measure its current performance against it. (Liam Newton promises that 2019 will see ‘major leaps forward’ in the beer itself as well as the packaging surrounding it.)

It’s why the corporate bulldozer strategy that worked so well against world beer and preserved the status quo at the top of the premium lager market won’t work again with craft.

And it’s why people get so upset when their favourite craft beer brands are sold to big corporations with reputations that aren’t exactly awash with integrity.

Why did people get so much more upset with Beavertown than Fourpure?

Partly because Beavertown was a lightning rod for the values of the craft beer movement in a way that Fourpure was not. It was less of a surprise that Fourpure sold, because it had never really claimed to be anything other than a sound business making great beer. And as drinkers, because we’re not as familiar with Lion as we are with Heineken, any perceived threat to Fourpure’s integrity seems more remote.

In one sense, craft is simply the latest stage in the ongoing, permanent state of evolution in beer, of consumer education and rising expectations. But crucially, unlike any other innovation in recent history, this one happened without the permission of the biggest brewers in the world, and those corporations were powerless to prevent it.

Craft is being assimilated by the mainstream, but not entirely on the mainstream’s own terms. After trying to belittle it, they have been forced to accommodate and accept it, and they’ve had to recognise the seismic difference that craft has made to what drinkers expect from any beer.

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