Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Craft corner

You would imagine that craft beer, with all its ebullience and self-confidence, would want to take on its competitors head-to-head in the market place. But, in reality, it chooses to differentiate itself so that side-by-side comparison is different.

On the draught side, it was always a cause of some discomfort amongst craft brewers that their products, in cask form, were dispensed by handpumps alongside the likes of Old Tosspot which exemplified the stuffy “real ale culture” they were seeking to challenge. So it was hardly surprising that they were keen to adopt “craft keg”, not just because they thought it was better, but also as a form of differentiation.

And, while craft keg facings may fit into the common T-bar dispenser, you’ll never find any craft kegs served through the towering, illuminated bar mountings that characterise Carling, Stella and the rest. Instead, the past few years have seen the rise of the “keg wall”, which is used to showcase a rotating range of craft products. In more and more recently-refurbished pubs, the draught beers are rigidly divided into three sections – real ales on handpump, macro kegs and lagers on tall fonts or T-bars, and craft kegs on a wall at the back of the bar. Many drinkers will look exclusively at one section and mentally blank out the others.

In the take-home trade, the craft sector has very much taken the 330ml bottle (and, increasingly, can) to its heart, in contrast to the 500ml bottle characteristic of Premium Bottled Ales and the 440ml cans in four-packs or slabs favoured by mass-market lagers. While many mainstream lagers are available in packs of smaller bottles, you never see them sold singly, and 330ml mainstream cans are virtually unknown. This makes direct comparison in terms of price per unit of volume, or indeed per unit of alcohol, much more difficult.

(As an aside, mainstream lagers seem to be sold in a bewildering variety of pack sizes, which seems to be a classic example of “confusion marketing”. How different from Germany, where pretty much everything seems to be in 500ml bottles and cans)

I’ve never been to the USA, so can’t comment directly, but I get the impression that craft beers there tend to be sold in the same package sizes and formats as mainstream ones, making direct comparison much easier. This article, for example, takes it as read that six-packs are the norm for both craft and macro beers. Yes, the craft costs more, but it’s very clear what the premium for higher perceived quality is. I can’t help thinking this may have been a key factor in its success.

It may come across as clever marketing that craft beer in the UK defines its own niche in terms of presentation and packaging. It’s not the same as macro lagers or BBBs, so why should it be sold the same way? But does it rather represent a shortage of ambition and a reluctance to take the fight directly to the enemy?

16 comments:

  1. Doesn't help that we have a mix of imperial and metric measurements in the uk

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    1. Yes, high time we kicked out all that foreign metric crap!

      But...

      All draught beer is sold in imperial, all packaged beer in metric. So within each category, there is no confusion.

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    2. Yes I agree, but it doesn't help when you want to compare across the two. How about having to display price per litre, as supermarkets have to? Just an idea

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  2. The keg wall is anathema to many craft and trad brewers. One pointed to me a while ago at the opening of a Newcastle pub with a keg wall and roller blackboard menu that he spends a small fortune on attractive branding only for these idiots to hang a small chalkboard round the tap - not exactly showcasing at all. The anti-alcohol lobby will be happy with what is effectively voluntary plain packaging.

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    1. I see the point, but there's an obvious case for keg walls in pubs that go for craft in a big way - if you've got 20+ keg lines then setting them up in the traditional fashion along the bar essentially means building a little fence between the bar staff and the customers (I go to a pub that does this with ten or so lines and it's a bit odd even there) and the punters then having to traipse up and down the length of the bar peering at labels to see what's on.

      On the other hand, I've been to plenty of pubs in the "open-minded real ale pub" mould that had craft-keg on normal keg fonts and craft-cask mixed up with more traditional stuff on the handpumps. So whatever.

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    2. Cafe Beermoth in Manchester has the worst of both worlds - unmarked keg taps and hand pumps at the bar, beer details printed out and stuck on the back wall! You can't read the names of everything that's on without walking up and down a couple of times, and even when you've done that you often don't have any clue what style the beer is. (Cue a laborious conversation with the bartender - "What's X?" "It's a wheat beer." "Oh. OK, what's Y?" "Y's a stout. Is it a stout you're after?" Every time.)

      But it all looks very cool and 'clean', with none of those nasty jazzy pump clips to distract the eye, so I guess that's the main thing.

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    3. Yeah have to say I thought the same from the start. Cafe Beermoth really does go for style over practicality. The two aren't mutually exclusive!

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  3. I wouldn't like to have to serve off a wall. Slows down service, means your not facing the customer for much of the transaction. The humble T-bar with a big visible blackboard to the rear or side is the way to go, imo

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  4. Where I live (west coast of Canada, BC to be exact) craft beers are sold mostly in either six packs or what we call "bombers" (650ml bottles). The stuff from Europe, including the UK, is sold mostly in 500ml bottles or cans (occasionally in 330ml bottles). In BC we have government as well as independent liquor stores. The government is usually a tad cheaper but the others have a different selection as well as better hours. Oh, and the government store usually shows price/ml so you don't have to do the comparison in your head.

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  5. A lot of craft beers in the US have embraced cans for distribution. Bottles are pretty much the same across the whole beer spectrum.

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  6. Lots of products attempt to differentiate on the basis of point of sale displays. Welcome to capitalism, commies.

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  7. I went to the USA once! I asked for a pint and was surprised when it was served - it was not a pint as we know it; American pints are 16 fl oz.

    And you pay for it after you've drunk it!!

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  8. Small point, but in Germany, most beers come in two sizes whether in cans, bottles, or on draft: namely, either 'null drei' (0.3 litre) or 'null fünf' (0.5). However, most wheat beers (because of the natural sediment?) only come in 0.5, as do a significant minority of lager beers (especially in Bavaria).

    The other exception is Cologne, whose Kölsch beer is traditionally served in small thin straight glasses called Stänge (sticks) of only 0.2. The idea is to keep it super fresh, and waiters in beer halls make sure it keeps coming. By the same token, in Cologne you can get 'doubles' of 0.4, and this size can occasionally be seen in other cities.

    Und jetzt wissen Sie! (And now you know) . . .

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  9. There are currently around one and a half thousand brewers currently in UK, so it is difficult (and probably pointless) to make broad-brush generalisations.

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  10. The 'keg wall' is a concept directly imported from the US. Been pretty standard there for some time. The other way of doing it over there is like the T-font, but a really long version with 15-20 taps. I sometimes wonder how all the lines fit in there.

    Confusingly they often have their cask beers at the back against the wall as well, on bare handpumps with no pumpclips. It's easy to assume they are just for show, until you see it in use (or look at the blackboard and see the c-word). Mind you, cask in the US is almost always far too warm for my liking.

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  11. Cans in the US are either 12 or 16 fluid oz. Bottles are typically 12 oz but may be larger for "fancy" offerings.

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