Manchester brewers Cloudwater have gained a lot of praise over the past couple of years for being in the forefront of the craft beer movement, for example in this piece by Martyn Cornell. One feature that he highlights is that they don’t brew any regular beers, and constantly revise and update their range.
It’s certainly true that innovation is seen as one of the keystones of the contemporary British craft beer movement. But the question has to be asked whether that is really a sustainable long-term strategy. (FWIW I am absolutely not knocking Cloudwater – they have been very successful and, unlike some others, have the brewing chops to carry off the constant innovation strategy)
Brewing is a mature industry so, unlike automotive and electronic technology, there are no significant potential gains in terms of quality or efficiency. Any innovation is basically going to be just ringing the changes on existing possibilities. Of course changes in market structure are possible, and in recent years the British beer market has been transformed by the introduction of golden ales and New World hops. But the basics remain the same.
It also has to be recognised that the vast majority of drinkers don’t regard a visit to the pub as a voyage of discovery. They are looking for tried and tested beers that they can rely on. Of course people are not totally resistant to trying new things, but their willingness to go out on a limb is limited.
Someone once baited me by asking “so you never want to try anything new, then?” but really that is a straw man. Of course I’m happy to try new things, but on the other hand I know that if I step outside my comfort zone in terms of style and strength it’s unlikely to be more than a one-off indulgence. 9% Double Mocha Stout – yes, may be interesting, but never going to become a regular drink. I’ve also reached the stage in life when I recognise that trying new things I’m very unlikely to enjoy is a waste of time and money.
It’s noticeable that even in the most cutting-edge beer pubs, such as the Magnet in Stockport, most cask ale sales are hoppy pale ales in the 3.5% - 5.0% strength band. They may have a variety of names, but at the end of the day they’re not that different overall.
The US craft beer market is often put forward as an example for the UK, but there, within the category, the big sellers are beers such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager that people choose as everyday drinks. How many British craft beers would the average punter be able to name? Just one - BrewDog Punk IPA.
There’s nothing wrong with innovation, even constant innovation. But the future of craft beer in the UK must be building strong distinctive brands that drinkers recognise and are going to be keen to order off the bar or supermarket shelf. If you keep shuffling your deck, you limit your possibilities. And the fad for perpetual change will eventually fade away.