| Beer, Craft Beer, Journalism, Media bollocks, Social Trends, The Business End

The Premature Demise of Craft Beer: How Fake News Really Works

You may well have seen recent news stories on how craft beer is over, that it’s entered a period of decline. There’s just one problem: this is completely untrue. 

Remember the olden days, when these guys were reporting annual volume growth of 55%? How times have changed since, er, 22nd March this year.

 

“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty. Was it a trick question? That ‘why do you think this is?’ implied the person asking the question was obviously expecting me to say yes. This was confirmed by a follow up question that asked me to comment on possible reasons why craft beer is “not as popular as it once was.”

A professional journalist working for Munchies – the foodie bit of Vice.com – had somehow become convinced that craft beer was over, and was asking me, via questions posed to the British Guild of Beer Writers, why I thought this had happened.

The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running. I’d found that seven million British people – equivalent to 14% of the total adult population, or one in four people who drink any alcohol at all – claim to drink craft beer on a regular basis when they’re out in pubs, bars or restaurants. And yet here was a food and drink website believing that craft beer was in decline.

I decided to work out how this had happened.

Munchies was basing its story on a trade press article in the Morning Advertiser, which ran with the headline, ‘Craft Beer Fatigue is Setting In.’ No ambiguity there: no ‘claims so-and-so’, just a simple statement of fact. The leading trade magazine for the beer and pub industry was categorically stating that we’re tired of craft beer. And the MA wasn’t alone: in the same week, Beer & Brewer magazine ran with ‘Craft beer fatigue sends APAC [Asia and Pacific] consumer elsewhere‘, while Catering Today ran ‘Craft Beers Fail to Impress Consumers’.

Read these articles, and none of them actually say that craft beer has gone into decline. But a cursory skim of the headline and opening lines of copy, without going into the detail of the claims, could reasonably lead to the impression that craft beer is in decline.

The basis for all these stories is a press release from a market research company called GlobalData, which runs with the title ‘Craft beer fatigue is sending beer and cider consumers in APAC in search of new options.’ Again, that seems pretty definite. The first line of the press release reads, “Alcoholic beverage consumers tend to be novelty seeking, but constant bombardment with craft launches and unusual flavors has led consumers to feel that they are overloaded with choice.” But once again, while a cursory reading of the headline and first few lines of copy would cause any reasonable person to assume craft beer is now in decline, the body of the press release – which is published to promote a new report that costs $1450 to access – doesn’t actually contain any data that supports the idea that craft beer is in decline.

So what does it actually say?

Well, there are certainly some interesting points, even if none of them are exactly news to anyone involved in craft beer.

The main point – the one that seems to be offered in direct support of the headline claims – is that “words such as craft and artisanal are just an excuse to charge extra.” In the Asia-Pacific region – and in North America – 46% of survey respondents agreed with this statement. What none of the UK-based publications who reported the story will tell you is that in Europe, this figure falls to 38% – the lowest of any region in the world. Now, those are, as report author Thomas Vierhile told me in an email, “significant percentages”. But they are still minorities. And as anyone who has been involved in a craft beer discussion on social media or been below the line of a beer story in any national newspaper can attest, it’s hardly new – people have been grumbling about this for years. I first wrote about it for the Morning Advertiser three years ago. At the time, I said that it was a threat to the growth to craft beer, and I still believe it is. But it’s quite a leap to get from there to the claim that people are already walking away from craft beer because of it. This wasn’t true then, and I doubt it’s true now. The research data released by GlobalData’s does not show it to be true, but their press release claims it is.

The press release and summary for the report make two further solid claims. The report states that consumers are becoming more interested in experiences that simple products, citing that 57% of consumers (in Asia Pacific) prefer new experiences to new products. I totally agree, and have done since I worked in advertising twenty years ago, when we said this regularly to our clients. Craft brewers understand this perfectly which is why, instead of building their brands with flashy TV ads (which they couldn’t afford anyway) the most successful craft brewers over the last ten years have built their popularity with experiences and events such as meet the brewer evenings and tap takeovers, limited edition and rare bottle launches, and the growing number and range of beer festivals and other events. The experience economy is a driver of craft beer’s growth – not a threat to it.

Finally, the GlobalData report states that healthier lifestyles and a growing interest in lower alcohol alternatives is a major threat to craft beer. In the Asia Pacific region – it’s not clear why this is the geographic emphasis for a report that did its research globally, unless it could be that this is where the highest figures are – 51% of consumers say health claims influence their choice of alcoholic drinks (hang on – I thought alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed to make any health claims?) and 53% say they plan on cutting down on booze for health reasons. These figures fall to 38% and 37% if you look at the global data, but never mind that. I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a significant trend. That’s why, unless craft brewers start to develop lower strength session beers, explore concepts such as table beer and start to make some decent tasting low/no alcohol beers,  they could be heading for a fall. Oh no, hang on – my mistake – these have been some of the most dynamic trends driving craft beer’s development for several years now. Never mind.

So: a level of cynicism about the appropriation of the term ‘craft beer’ to charge higher prices, growing interest in experiences over products, and growing interest in healthier drinks – all of which the craft beer industry has known about and acted upon for years – are being added together by GlobalData to create the claim that drinkers feel ‘overloaded with choice’ and that this has led to a ‘devaluation of the “craft” concept’ which is now ‘sending beer and cider consumers… in search of new options’. This, in turn, has led drinks trade press journalists to state definitively that we are suffering craft beer fatigue, and this in turn has led at least one consumer food and drink publication to ask why craft beer is in decline before eventually running with the headline ‘Is Craft Beer Dying?

I hope my answers to the questions I was posed by Munchies helped get that title turned into a question rather than a statement. But still, this is how fake news happens. In researching this piece, Google took me to articles going back several years claiming that the craft boom is over, when hindsight shows it wasn’t. GlobalData was behind a similar flurry of these back in August last year,  but they’re not the only culprits. I chose the picture of BrewDog, above, because on the same day Munchies asked if craft beer was dying, the Scottish craft beer pioneer posted results showing 55% volume growth in 2017. Some commentators pointed out that this is lower than in previous years. As if 55% growth in a year is somehow a bit shit.

“We are not necessarily saying that craft beer has gone into decline,” admitted GlobalData’s Thomas Vierhile when I challenged the company over their claims. “But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”

I think that’s absolutely fair enough.

He continued, “As popular as craft beer is, it does not appear to be moving the global beer consumption needle and it may not be the savior for the beer industry that some may perceive it to be,” citing the fact that while other categories of alcoholic drinks are growing, the total global beer market is shrinking. This means that either the growth craft beer is experiencing by recruiting new drinkers to beer is not enough to compensate for existing beer drinkers drinking less/switching to other drinks, or that craft is cannibalising mainstream beer, taking volume from the big boys within a declining market.

That’s certainly food for thought, and craft brewers should certainly take note of the report’s genuine findings stated above, if for some reason they weren’t already aware of them. But GlobalData’s press release – which I’m sure Thomas Vierhile didn’t write – categorically states that consumers are suffering craft beer fatigue and are going looking for something else instead. The data presented simply does not show this at all, says nothing about a ‘bombardment of new launches or unusual flavours’, and presents no evidence that consumers are walking away from the category. But these claims have been picked up and repeated, without question.

So why would a company that produces market research reports that cost $1450 a pop want to spread false claims about craft beer? Well I dunno, but who in the beer industry can afford to spend $1450 on a 57-page market report? And what would companies like that feel about craft beer? What would they want to happen to it? I’m just spitballing here, merely speculating to create specious claims. But that does seem to be par for the course these days.

2 Comments

2 Comments

JG Norris

Great piece! My only objection is the final statement. The large brewers are raking huge profits selling “craft” and it would be to their detriment to squash it.

Reply
Steve Body

“But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”

I think that’s absolutely fair enough.’

I don’t. It’s neither fair nor at all accurate. The key (and loaded) phrase in that steaming little pile is “the craft concept becomes stretched”. Now, there’s a wording that leaves the author a nice, gaping escape hatch. What, exactly, is “stretched” about the concept of craft beer? AND, no less importantly, where does it say that the craft beer culture is responsible for supporting the weight of expectations for international beer sales and it’s progress? The concept of craft beer is exploration of new styles and continual advancement of the craft of making beer. There is STILL a LOT of elastic left in the waistband of brewing to accommodate continued exploration of the field. Hazy IPAs, “Brut” ales, the whole genre of sour/brett/wild, beer/wine hybrids, beer cocktails, self-blended beers (a playground for the adventurous drinker which is barely recognized and not at all codified), pastry Stouts and who really knows what next. OF COURSE beer sales as a whole are declining. Wine is still growing in popularity and whiskey is BOOMING in nearly the same way that craft beer has for three decades. And as craft’s market share gradually erodes the share of the BudMillerCoorsPabst dishwater beers, overall sales WILL decline, as people do not now and never will mindlessly swill entire six-packs of craft beers the way they have habitually guzzled Bud Light. Buying a full rack of Bud, on a weekend, is commonplace for the Neanderthal American beer drinker. Buying a full rack of any craft beer is fairly rare and, given the easy availability of growlers, buying in larger quantities is a whole new and more conservative paradigm in craft beer. People drink fewer craft beers because appreciation of the beer for its flavors and textures and styles – not to mention the limiting factor of higher alcohol – has replaced brain-dead chugging as the Point of buying beer and may it ever be thus…

Beer, as a culture, is NOT immune to these little tempests that have become a daily part of the wine landscape for generations. Chapitalization, oaked or unoaked, terroir, California vs. Oregon vs. Burgundy, proper glassware, the latest groovy aerator – all of this is de rigueur conversation in wine. In beer, given its less pompous nature and its traditional alignment with the Everyman, these sorts of discussions have taken more time to get rolling but you gather people within a common area of interest and leave them with time on their hands and some percentage is ALWAYS going to dream up something to piss and moan about. The current American Boogey Man is the bogus fear of craft being bought up and snuffed by Big Beer…curiously, no one seems to know who “Big Beer” is, aside from AB but the math is simple: 8,000+ small independent US breweries, most of which wouldn’t sell out to AB, anyway, and even if they would, not even the Great Satan of Leuven has deep enough pockets to buy up even a statistically significant percentage of these to corner craft beer…and if they could, with two months, there’d be 500 new breweries.

This problem is NOT about a “stretched concept” or Big Beer”. This is a problem of elitist poseurs needing something to create drama. Looked at from the broader perspective of basic economics and business dynamics, craft beer is evolving just about exactly as it could have been predicted to and no amount of this Chicken Little manure is going to affect that one whit.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *