Saturday 2 November 2013

Craft vs Premium

I think it was Boak and Bailey who pointed out this article entitled Is Craft Killing Big Beer – Not Through Sales, But Brand Status Erosion? It’s about the US beer market, and what is very interesting is how different it is from the situation in this country. For a start, if you try to extrapolate the US definition of “craft beer” to the UK it would undoubtedly include all cask beer and all premium bottled ales, which is certainly not how it is perceived here.

We have also never seen any consistent efforts by brewers to develop “premium” beer brands. As I argued here, premium prices tend to apply to one beer category over another, and between upmarket and downmarket pubs, but not to any great extent within individual categories. In recent years, of course, one of the greatest successes of premium beer branding was “reassuringly expensive” Stella Artois, but the brand owners destroyed that image by being too keen to pursue the mass market (not to mention cheapening the recipe) and it has now just become another commodity product. Nowadays, the beer that seems to have acquired that cachet is Peroni, which significantly is not available in cans and never seen on discount at ASDA. Over the years, Guinness has also successfully maintained a premium position, to some extent because it defines its own category and has no effective challengers.

In the past, the national brewers managed to secure something of a price premium in the market because their beers were widely known and advertised, and therefore perceived as superior to the artisanal products of the local independent brewers. I have an early edition of CAMRA’s guide to Derbyshire Ale which displays an obvious preference for Burton beers – Bass, Ind Coope and Marston’s – over the more plebeian output of the Nottingham brewers. That’s largely gone now, as are many of the beers, but it’s still noticeable that pub company pubs, which in many cases have been inherited from the Big Six, tend to charge more than the remaining family brewers.

At least in UK terms, craft beer is perceived as one or more of unusual, extreme, challenging, an acquired taste, something that appeals to geeks, enthusiasts and aficidionados. This isn’t the case in the US, where much of the volume classed under craft is beers like Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Lager which, although coming across as better and more characterful than Budweiser or Miller Lite, are not so much so as to challenge the consumer. Therefore, a drinker who sees himself as discerning, and wants to be seen as such, could happily order one in a bar in a way that his British counterpart would never dream of ordering something described as a “craft beer”.

The key to the marketing concept of “premium” is that it is something that is a clear step up from the mainstream, in the quality and authenticity of ingredients and also, crucially, in how others perceive it. By choosing a premium product, you may well feel more satisfied with your purchase, but you will also make a point to other people that you are a person of discernment, and that you can afford it. But it still retains a link to the mainstream; it is not something that is different to the point of being offputting. It is Tesco Finest over Tesco standard, Audi over Volkswagen.

If you are a business person, staying in a hotel overnight with colleagues and charging your bill to expenses, and you go into the bar, what beer do you order to suggest you are someone of taste and discernment, but not some obscurantist geek? That is the question that “premium” has to answer. The true connoisseur, of course, would say with some justification, that it is largely a marketing construct anyway.

The wine and spirit markets operate rather differently, as in general as you progress up the price scale you will encounter products that are “more so” rather than dramatically different from the mainstream ones. But beer, at least in the UK, doesn’t really work like that.


  1. an obvious preference for Burton beers – Bass, Ind Coope and Marston’s – over the more plebeian output of the Nottingham brewers

    I think that's a special case twice over - Burton beers had a good name for a very long time, whereas Shipstone's never had a good name even in Nottingham.

  2. It goes a lot wider than that, though. My understanding is that, in the pre-CAMRA days, the nationally distributed and advertised beers were widely regarded as premium products that were superior to the rather rough and ready local beers. There may have been some truth in that, as in the 50s in particular a lot of small family brewers did produce slop.

    In a sense the first wave of specifically identified keg bitters such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond were the first "premium beers" as such.

  3. I just came from Longrider's "Of Cats and Cafes" story, where you comment you found a friendly pub cat greeting people at the door and said it was in your very latest link. But I see no pub cat mentioned in the story above.

    Your comment was at

  4. No, all that means is that it's a link to the latest post on my blog - it doesn't mean it's relevant to my comment on Longrider's.

    There are a couple of amusing cartoons of pub cats here.

  5. I dont agree with you one bit Phil,

    I was born in Nottingham and always drank Shipstones bitter,me and the wife took this bitter over Home Bitter and the sweeter Kimberley bitter anyday,Derby has always had a chip on its shoulder about anything to do with Nottingham.

  6. The anagram of Shipstones, as everybody knows, is Honest Piss; their old premises in Basford became a bottled water factory. Interesting that they've made something of a comeback and now operate out of Newark - the bloke manning their stand at this year's Nottingham Beer Festival couldn't really defend the beer but was keen to promote their new range of tee shirts.

  7. When they were all going, I always thought Shippo's was the best of the three Nottingham breweries. Home Ales were well-made but a bit bland, while Kimberley, although it later improved, was in those days very sweet.

    Many of the family brewers suddenly lauded in the early days of CAMRA were regarded locally as a bit crap, to be honest. Although its takeover by Boddingtons slightly predates CAMRA, nobody mourns "Swales's swill".

  8. Would Home Ales Five Star count as a craft keg these days?

  9. Affordable luxury is a marketing concept applied to pretty much everything.

    But if something is affordable, it is not a luxury.

  10. I was in Nottingham a while back and picked up a copy of the local CAMRA magazine - an extraordinary production, 64 pages of glossy colour, complete with a guest column from the local Bill and an editorial in praise of bans on off-licence high-strength beer sales. Said mag also included a column looking back at the old days. In this case, this was the old days when the writer was a barman in a Shippo's pub, drank eight or nine complementary halves every night and had such bad stomach pains in the morning that he seriously thought he was getting a stomach ulcer - until he moved to a different pub and the problem vanished. This isn't the first or second time I've heard bad things about Shippo's. OTOH, Nottingham CAMRA seem a bit untypical in other ways, so maybe what goes in their magazine shouldn't be taken too seriously.


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