Sunday 16 March 2014

Niche to mainstream

The past couple of months have seen a flurry of articles in the media that suggest the “craft beer” phenomenon has finally escaped from the bubble and gained wider attention. As Pete Brown writes here, the beer market will never be the same as it was.

But he also makes the point that it’s important to distinguish between a fad and a revolution. A fad is a cultural phenomenon that enjoys a brief moment in the sun, and may even for a short time seem unstoppable, but eventually disappears scarcely leaving a trace. You don’t see many people now drinking beer from the bottle with a slice of lime in the neck. A revolution, on the other hand, permanently changes the landscape. Lager was a revolution in the British beer market; so, like it or not, was nitrokeg “smooth”. For a while, though, it can be hard to tell which is which.

There’s currently a ferment of innovation and experimentation in British beer. When mainstream supermarkets create “craft beer” sections and Spoons start selling American craft beer in cans, it’s obvious something’s up. Some of these new developments will fall by the wayside, some will endure while never enjoying more than a niche appeal, but some will be taken up by the mainstream so in a few years they will seem normal. It could even be, as I suggested in the comments, that a constant search for something new will become the new mainstream.

It’s interesting to reflect on what trends in the beer market over the past few decades have gone from niche to mainstream appeal. The original, now-derided, wave of keg ales certainly did, and so did standard lager. In the early years of CAMRA, actively seeking out unusual or well-regarded beers became commonplace in a way it never was before. Even bog-standard pubs saw it as worthwhile to proclaim that they sold “real ale”. More recently, a widespread expectation has developed that the general run of pubs, and not just specialist alehouses, will offer rotating guest beers.

It’s now commonplace to find “world lagers” like Budweiser Budvar, Peroni, Estrella Damm and Brahma on tap but, oddly, despite the country arguably being the home of lager brewing, German lagers have never gained mass-market popularity. And, while not everyone’s cup of tea, so-called fruit ciders have become pretty mainstream in the past few years.

The current craft beer scene encompasses a number of disparate trends, and it’s hard to discern what is really going to catch on, and what isn’t. Probably the most obvious is the rise of intensely hoppy beers using new world hops, which has been reflected in the introduction of more mainstream beers like Adnams’ Ghost Ship and even Old Golden Hen. But the sheer intensity of flavour of many beers in the American IPA style may prove to be a limiting factor. The heavily peated Islay malt whiskies are widely respected, but they don’t tend to be the regular choice of even well-heeled whisky drinkers.

And the widely-reported market trends of a move to weaker beers, and to a sweeter flavour profile, may end up inhibiting the break-out of craft beer and keeping many of its strands within a limited niche.

Ghost Drinker writes here about how one of his locals has now been rebranded as a “craft ale house” but you do have to wonder whether that will end up sharing the fate of Whitbread’s Tut’n’Shive alehouse concept of twenty-odd years ago.


  1. I remember a tut ’n’ shive in Crouch end (or something similar), the beer was always lacklustre — it always comes down to dispensation and quality

  2. We had one in the Chapel House which is now a Tesco Express. Famously had doors nailed to the ceiling.

    A classic example of bandwagon-jumping without either committing to getting the quality right or researching the potential market properly. I suspect we will see more of the same with "craft ale houses".

  3. Can you have craft beer with a lime in the top?

  4. The one thing holding back craft keg from properly breaking into the mainstream at the moment is the price. Why pay £5 for a pint of craft keg when you can get a near identical beer for £3.20 on cask?

    Once the price difference comes down to something more sensible, say 50p, then I think you could see it taking off, particularly in the summer when the cask can suffer a bit in quality.

    I keep trying to persuade our local to stock some bottles of ale in his fridge, but he says Punch won't let him.

  5. The concept of “craft beer” is far wider than just craft keg, of course. And I think the jury is still out on whether craft keg ale will go mainstream. Currently it’s mainly reserved for stronger or more unusual beers. Once it becomes something that won’t frighten the horses in terms of strength and drinkability, it’s still too close to old-fashioned keg in drinkers’ minds. Many non-enthusiasts who identify as “real ale drinkers” do so precisely because it isn’t keg.

  6. @Stringy, Yup, my ignorance, mate. I take it grapefruit is craft too?

    @Mudge. I popped into a John Barras Pub Co pub for lunch recently. There was chilled keg ale referred to as "craft". I think it was called ship something or other. Tried one, too. It was alright. Pale, citrusy cold & fizzy. I suspect it was more reliable than the cask, too. It's mainstream, the jury is out as to whether it is a fad or not.

  7. That would be Shipyard 'American' Pale Ale. Brewed at the former Bank's brewery at Wolverhampton. Marston's also brew a cunningly-named 'Craft Lager'. I wasn't impressed by either attempt to break into the 'craft' market, using beers that are anything but 'craft' despite the use of exotic hops and things.

  8. Yup, that was the one. Didn't say it was spectacular, only alright.

    As the pub really wasn't a beer enthusiasts destination, and the one cask beer, black sheep, was off I reckon a decent enough, reliable beer with a bit of that crafty taste could displace the cask. If all you want is a beer with your burger, why take the gamble?

  9. I've had thought Shipyard was pretty decent, certainly a huge step forward compared to a choice of Smiths or Fosters. Why on earth isn't it craft?

  10. I think craft cask went mainstream a few years ago when pubs started expanding their range away from just 3 types of near-identical bitters from big national breweries.

    Many, many pubs now have a far better selection of cask ales than they did just 5 years ago.

    The question is whether craft keg can follow into the mainstream, with a better range of lagers and keg ales becoming commonplace over the next 5 years.

  11. Already had, py, as I said. I'd drink the shipyard again figuring it wasn't a gamble in a pub that doesn't have a big cask turnover, and fuck all other punters appear to be drinking the cask. Mudge would stick with the cask as he likes telling barstaff the beer is off. He like a grumble. It's the death of cask, this craft keg thing, eventually.

  12. Though Shipyard Blue Fin stout is well worth a coat of looking at.

  13. Surprised to see you write "You don’t see many people now drinking beer from the bottle with a slice of lime in the neck." Really? Have you seen how prominent Corona and Sol are in pubs and supermarkets? If anything I would say that they have now surpassed drinking Budweiser or other light lager out of brown bottles. Especially in summer. Granted it's a certain age range but I would extend that range up to about 37. Tastes terrible though of course but I wouldn't personally call it a fad

  14. And the widely-reported market trends of a move to weaker beers, and to a sweeter flavour profile

    Do you have a link about the bit about sweeter beers? Cheers

  15. See here. A similar trend has also been reported in the wine market.

    Also helps to explain the rise of "fruit ciders".

  16. Oh right yes, I did read that at the time. I doubt what they want is normal beer that is just a bit sweeter like a Fullers ESB, what they want is an supersweet alcopop they can drink without the associated social stigma. That explains the popularity of "fruit ciders", which are, of course, not actually cider at all, but are marketed as such to avoid sounding like girly drinks.

    When I was 15 I secretly preferred bacardi breezers to beer, I wonder if these drinks had been available whether I would ever have grown out of them.

    Worrying news for the brewing industry.


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