Saturday, 30 November 2019

Have we reached Peak Craft?

The Morning Advertiser reports that the craft beer sector has started to see a decline in sales. This has started with packaged products, which have fallen by 9% in the past year, and is expected to spread to draught within the next couple of years. This was only to be expected, as craft beer, insofar as it applies to the general beer market rather than just enthusiasts, has always given the impression of being something of a fashion rather than a genuine revolution.

“We have seen for a while that craft has been pushed into outlets it isn’t right for,” says the article, and that is exactly what has happened, with pubs putting a craft tap on the bar but finding few takers for it, while supermarkets have jumped on the bandwagon and been left with a lot of out-of-date stock. The typically high prices aren’t going to help, either.

It’s doubtful how many people actually identify themselves as “craft beer drinkers” rather than just consumers of a particular product. Do they see something like Camden Hells as a craft beer, or just an upmarket type of lager? While the concept of “craft beer” has become established in the public mind, it’s generally seen in a derogatory way as something associated with hipsters, high prices and weird flavours. Beyond Punk IPA, how many craft beer brands could the average person in the pub actually name?

It’s also notoriously hard to define, with most of the major brands being produced by offshoots of the international brewers, or other substantial companies, and often not really being considered genuine craft beers by the most vocal evangelists for the category. And does it include cask, or are the two mutually exclusive? If it does, how do we know which cask beers qualify and which don’t?

I’ve made the point before that, once the craft beer wave has exhausted itself, some of it will be absorbed into the mainstream, some will live on as a niche product that is irrelevant to most drinkers, and some will wither on the vine. And what we are seeing is that the likely legacy of craft is that many pubs will offer a hoppy keg IPA as part of their beer range, of which Punk IPA is the prime example. Maybe Punk will come to be a category-defining beer in the way that Guinness is.

On that subject, James Watt of BrewDog has made the claim that IPA is likely to overtake lager in popularity within the next 10-15 years. I have to say that sounds extremely unlikely, and comes across more as an example of the company’s typical headline-grabbing approach to publicity. In any case, the broad category of lager covers a wide range of styles, while surely IPA is just one sub-set of the general category of ale.

Someone made the point that bitter superseded mild, and lager superseded bitter, so why shouldn’t IPA then supersede lager? However, those changes occurred in a British market that was largely isolated from the rest of the world. Pale lager has conquered the world, and in some form is now the staple beer in every major country. The UK and Ireland were about the last holdouts against that trend. Beer has now very much become an international market, and no country can completely stand aside from it.

One of the key attractions of lager is that it offers a cold, refreshing, undemanding drink in hot climates. It’s very hard to imagine IPA, which is typically associated with astringent hoppiness, as taking over that role. And, even if it did, surely the undemanding 3.5% keg IPA that took the place in the market currently occupied by Bud Light would be precisely the kind of thing that CAMRA was initially set up to oppose.

IPA may indeed become more popular worldwide in the coming years, very often by displacing long-established local lager styles. But the idea that it is going to eclipse lager in popularity simply isn’t credible.

12 comments:

  1. There's no chance of IPA displacing lager. As you point out, lager has dominated the world,and it's still the drink of choice for most. Again, as you say, "Craft" is hard to define, and I think that as an idea it will disappear. Punk IPA will (has?) become the Carling of hoppy keg beer, and the others will imitate it.

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  2. Craft will never die. It is an idea, a dream, a hope, an ephemeral whisper in the wind. So long as people carry the torch, the flame will never be extinguished.

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    1. Craft may wither and die, but The Bitter will endure...

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  3. Craft as a thing is a fad, and like most fads, it'll fade, leaving its stamp on the worldwide beer market in the form of orange juice-looking IPA and flavoured stouts and porters. Certainly in the UK, not sure about elsewhere, there are too many 'craft' breweries churning out too much beer, plenty of it substandard. The market will eventually deal with many of them, leaving those that can produce decent, consistent products. You know, like most established breweries have always done. The multinationals will also lose interest once the fad dies away, removing the exit plan for some of the larger crafties.

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    1. Flavoured stouts and porters existed before the current 'craft' blip and will carry on long after it subsides. Not just dark beers either, dumping all sorts of fruit, spices, herbs and more info lighter beers has always happened. The only difference is the ridiculously high proportion of so called craft beers relying on it, coaxing interesting flavours out of malts an unknown skill to many.

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  4. Camden Hells is as tasteless and boring as Stella or Fosters. Punk IPA has a great flavour and is a welcome newcomer. Give me Carlsberg Special over them any day though.

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  5. CAMRA’s unqualified acceptance that every new brewery that comes on the scene, is something to be applauded, hasn’t exactly helped matters. Unlike many of their more astute members, the powers that be within CAMRA don’t seem to have realised that market saturation was reached long ago.

    Blindly showing support for all new breweries, irrespective of quality, is just making a bad situation worse. In my view, “peak craft” was reached several years ago.

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    1. Agree with that Paul. Heralding the 2,000 brewery is like heralding the 30 pumps at the Fat Cat, quantity over quality. Look at virtually any CAMRA magazine and it's all about new beers, more handpumps, new breweries.

      Stockport still shows an interest in highlighting beer quality in pubs run by family brewers, thankfully.

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    2. The current Good Beer Guide includes, for Stockport town centre, six family brewer pubs - five Robinson's and one Sam Smith's. But there is still a tendency to get over-excited about new breweries and micropubs.

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  6. Those that have studied any sort of business course may be aware of the boston matrix or growth share matrix or dog star or even the term cash cow. It's a marketing diagram I once remembered so I could draw it in an exam, but it's googlable. Churn out what you're told, get a mark, get a degree.

    Products have a lifespan and at any point sit in one of 4 quadrants. Craft is moving / moved to cash cow which basically means it now just the premium end of beer. What it tells you is to keep a look out for next question mark that becomes a star. That's what's to pile in with your retirement money, not craft.


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  7. For 'craft' to die, then those who drink it need to return to another product. Back to mainstream lager? Doubtful. Back to cask? More likely but I can't see too much evidence of it happening. The reality will probably be no different to any other 'new' industry, the weak players who are inconsistent or inefficient will disappear leaving a rump of breweries offering a core range to sit on most bars alongside lager.

    The likes of Gamma Ray have spread well beyond their North London hipster roots, I'm pretty sure I've had one in my home town of Burnley which must be a reasonable acid test that it has appeal other than just novelty.

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  8. I think the reason the headroom for growth isn't there any more is that the 'indie' phase of craft beer is basically over - with the sole exception of BrewDog, all the craft 'stars' have been wholly or partially taken over & become brands. For some that's job done - craft beer was all about giving ordinary drinkers a choice of more flavourful beers, and who cares whether those beers are making money for Bert in his shed or for AB-InBev? For anyone who thinks real choice means a choice of providers, though, 'craft' doesn't really mean anything any more.

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