The big global brewers are coming for craft beer. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
Craft beer, interesting beer, flavourful beer, microbrewed beer, whatever you want to call it and however you insist on defining it, is the only part of the beer market where there is any significant margin. In First World, mature, developed beer markets, brewers have willingly commoditised big brands and increasingly treat them no different from pet food or toilet roll. The power of retailers has stripped any profitability out of these brands for the manufacturer, which is why all the big guys are now focusing on developing markets such as China, India and Brazil. The huge scrap over who gets to own Tiger beer shows just how important these markets are to the giants of beer.
But the guys left in boring old Europe and North America still need something to do. They can’t simply give up on beer’s homelands. So they’re hearing all this noise about craft, and coming over to see what all the fuss is about.
This year I’ve had several conversations with global brewers about craft – from the very rich companies who say “please tell us in detail who all the main players are, the secrets of their success, what the main drivers of craft are, who’s drinking it and where it’s going to go,” and then decide they don’t need to know after all when I ask for a fee in return for this insight, to those who seem genuinely interested in developing more of a craft-like arm to their business.
You know it’s getting serious when you see a ‘segmentation’ of craft beers buyers, like I did this summer. I used to do this kind of thing for a living, and it requires lots of expensive research to put together. There were four different kinds of craft beer drinker in this study – each segment was a different size, with a different level of knowledge and different reasons for drinking craft. And you know what? You were in one of those segments. Yes, YOU. So was I.
So the big boys are going to start flirting with craft, to see if they can take some dollars, pounds and euros from hopheads and beer geeks. In fact, they’ve already started – with Anheuser-Busch having dabbled with a half-decent pumpkin beer, Blue Moon of course, Carslberg’s Jacobsen range, and now, new offerings from A-B and Carlsberg that talk about ‘craft values’ in their launch press releases.
Some of these things are going to be horrible. Some will be badly thought-out and misconstrued. Some will even be insulting to the intelligence and the palate of craft beer drinkers.
But will they all be? I don’t think so. We all know there are some very talented brewers within the global giants. The question is, will any of them be allowed to make interesting beer that will then be given sympathetic support by the rest of the organisation?
In recent weeks, I’ve learned about two different approaches to craft by two different beery behemoths.
One is excellent, the other is cynical, lazy and contemptuous. Let’s deal with the good one first – no reading ahead, I’m sure you can guess who the poor relation is.
Last month I went to see my mates Steve and Rudgie in Toronto. Steve is the world’s greatest beer writer* and Rudgie works for MolsonCoors.** Rudgie will be familiar to readers of Hops & Glory as one of the key men who made my whole trip to India possible, and is now the world’s greatest Professional Canadian. (Not bad for someone who spent the first three and a half decades of his life being a northerner from Warrington. But he says al-oo-minum now and everything.)
So anyway, last time I went to see Rudgie, he took me to Creemore Springs, a craft lager brewer in the heart of Ontario that proudly boasts of being ‘a hundred years behind the times’ and was bought by MolsonCoors seven and a half years ago.
Having watched what happens when giant brewers buy little brewers, you could be forgiven for expecting these excellent beers, including a sublime kellerbier, to have become blandised, cheapened and bastardised. Instead, MC invested in increasing capacity and worked on spreading distribution, and simply left the brewing alone, with the clear admission that if they did get involved they would screw it up, because they didn’t understand how the market worked at that level.
In a global market that usually looks no further ahead than two years for return on investment, if they were going to screw it up, they would have done so by now.
Then they took over Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing – possibly the first craft beer I ever drank when I spent a lot of time in Canada in the 1990s. Same arrangement. Granville Island gets sales and distribution support, and doesn’t get accountants sniffing around the hopping rates.
Last year, this flirtation with craft was expanded and consolidated. Molson Coors bought a brewpub the founders didn’t want any more and created the Toronto Beer Academy.
|Photo: Robert Gale – his blog has photos of way nicer beery stuff than this|
No shame. And no clue whatsoever.
You might feel that you would always want to support a true micro rather than a big brewer, and that’s a view that’s difficult to argue with.
But not all big brewers are the same. They all want a piece of craft. Personally I’ll be welcoming the stuff they do well, in the hope of killing off the crap, insulting stuff as quickly as possible.
* In joke. Not saying it isn’t true of course.
** Full disclosure following the admission that I do some consultancy in this area – while Rudgie is a mate, I have not been paid any consultancy or PR fee by MolsonCoors, and have had no advisory role or any other involvement in what’s discussed here