In the late nineteenth century, a Romantic textile designer from Walthamstow invented the modern concept of “craft”. Yeah, it’s all his fault.
William Morris was born on 24th March, 1834. If you could have asked him him about that a few years later, and he would have told you this was 600 years too late. As a kid, he had his own suit of armour and would run around his family’s big garden pretending to be a knight. As a young adult, he vehemently rejected contemporary aesthetics in favour of medieval nostalgia.
Morris wasn’t alone. The Industrial Revolution may have started long before the Victorian era, but by the time Morris was at university the pace of progress was so rapid, and the human and environmental cost so great (it could also be argued that Morris was the godfather of the Green movement) that some people began to question whether it was “progress” at all.
He believed industrialisation had robbed people of dignity and purpose. Before factories and mills, if you made bread, or shoes, or chairs, or beer, you were a baker, a shoemaker, a furniture maker or a brewer, and your work was your own. Your craft involved the mastery of a number of different skills, and if you were any good, the way you combined them meant the end result of your skill and labour was unmistakably yours.
By contrast, when you went to work on a production line, you were reduced to doing one task over and over again, while the person next to you did another task, and so on, until at the end of the line, all the shoes or chairs looked exactly the same, and your contribution, your mark, was as invisible as everyone else’s.
Morris created workshops where skills were recombined, and individual craftspeople were allowed to make their own products as they saw fit. The craftsperson was given autonomy, control, job satisfaction, and ultimately, a sense of dignity that were not available to their counterparts in factories. The workers, the ideas they presented and the products they created became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The word “craft” goes back to at least the 10th century, but its specific meaning today was invented by Morris. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship was just the way things were done, the way they’d always been done. Arts and Crafts arrived at a time when industrialised productions had become the normal way things were done. “Craft”, in its modern sense, is an alternative, a choice, a reaction against mainstream industrial production, against the way things are normally done.
As we sit here, reading and writing on our personal electronic devices while sitting on comfortable chairs in heated rooms, it’s a point of view many of us might feel sympathy with. But Morris and his work exposed the problems and contradictions at the heart of the idea of craft.
The reason industrialised production took off is because it allowed products to be made quicker and cheaper, and therefore more affordable. Factory workers may have been miserable at work, but at the end of the week they could actually afford to buy a pair of shoes, or a loaf of bread. (A new chair used to be something out of the reach of most people. Now you can buy an IKEA IVAR chair with the proceeds of two hours working on minimum wage.)
If you’re going to allow individual craftspeople the time and space to make things themselves, how they want to, and pay them fairly for doing so, their products can only be more expensive than those made in factories. The great irony of the Arts & Crafts movement was that pretty much the only people who could afford to buy what they made were the wealthy industrialists who they stood against. The movement eventually fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
But Morris’s ideas stuck around. The idea that something produced by a craftsperson was somehow inherently better that something made in a factory takes many forms. We assume it will be better quality than something mass-produced – even though this is by no means always true.
(Mainstream lagers may be bland and insipid, but craft products are far more variable.)
But many people also believe there’s a moral dimension to it – it’s better for the maker, who has a more fulfilling, meaningful job, but it’s also better for the consumer, because they’re supporting a small producer rather than big corporation, a more sustainable and less moral dubious form of business, one that isn’t big enough to bully its competitors, strip-mine the planet of resources, or exploit poorly paid workers.
(“Craft beer people are good people” and all that.)
Interestingly, Morris had a revival of interest in the 1970s – precisely when CAMRA began campaigning in the UK and what would later be called craft brewers started mashing in in the United States. Today, as interest in what we loosely refer to craft beer shows no sign of abating, interest in arts and crafts more broadly is booming again – FFS, even macramé is currently hip.
The picture of Morris above was taken when he was 53 – a year older than I am now. I suspect I could get away with using it as a picture of a middle-aged writer about craft beer today and no-one who doesn’t recognise him would suspect me of foul play. Not only does William Morris look like an ageing craft beer hipster, he would recognise all the contradictions and frustrations at the heart of craft beer, the discussions around it, the incessant need to define it, to own it or protect it, and, increasingly, the desire among producers to abandon the term.
His legacy shows why that might be a bad idea. Arts & Crafts, like craft beer, was easy to criticise, easy for those who wanted to to exploit it and manipulate it to do so, easy to dismiss as being expensive and over-hyped. But a century after its supposed demise, both it and its founder remain culturally vital. As long as we have cheap, mass-market, industrialised production making goods for everyone, we’re going to have niche craft versions produced as a counter-cultural alternative – available for anyone who can afford to buy them.
Enjoyed reading this? There’s a much fuller discussion of the relationship between craft beer and the broader origins of craft in my book Craft: An Argument – named Best Beer Book at the 2020 North American Beer Writers Awards.
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Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.
When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter.
Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position.
The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.)
My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking.
So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look.
Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?
Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale.
Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate bands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. The folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other early pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.
That was nearly over forty years ago though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.
So the packaging definitely needed a refresh.
At this point, there are two basic stages to the process:
Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?
Principles and strategy of rebrand
There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.
Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as “Anchor Steam Beer” and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.
Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten.
Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons.
The first thing that bugs me is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.”
Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.
Where I think Anchor is wrong is in the implication that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That if you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to become one yourself.
Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.
Same with other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s.
Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.
Execution of rebrand
When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does?
Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution.
To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:
Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:
Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:
It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.
On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:
Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making key elements stand out more:
When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:
Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.
Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.
The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:
The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else.
In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.
Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:
“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”
The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself:
“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”
And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.
This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:
It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice on it. The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:
I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:
Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:
Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:
As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable.
I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.
Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.
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With around 2500 breweries in the UK, many of whom sell core ranges, seasonals, limited editions and collabs, it’s never been harder to stand out from the pack. That’s why the look of beer has become the most creative and diverse of any packaged product. And that’s why my wife and I did a book about it while (white) shielding.
Before I was a writer, I worked in advertising – and enjoyed it for a time. I was fascinated by the idea of brands: originally a simple mark of ownership, they evolved into carriers of additional meaning. At first, they were symbols of trust, of consistency and quality. Every tin you buy with a Heinz logo on it, every Cadbury’s chocolate bar, is going to taste the same as the last one. If we like that taste, we remain loyal to most things that carry that logo. Then, brands took on a more abstract sense. If lots of people who are like you all think that a certain brand is cool, then by extension, in their eyes, you’re cool if you wear it. Over the last thirty years we’ve all learned to use this abstract quality of brands, whether we do so consciously or not. We use brands and logos to build an idea of ourselves that we want to project to the world.
After Bass became the UK’s first registered trade mark, beer brands developed certain stylistic conventions that remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century. The oval, or “racetrack” shape, use of a simple symbol, various cues of quality. It all started to look a bit… samey.
In the 21st century, craft beer tore up the rulebook of how successful beer branding was supposedly done. It set itself directly in opposition to conventional design to prove that it wasn’t part of the mainstream.
This led to an extraordinary explosion of creativity. Among people who insisted they were influenced by the beer and not the marketing, like mainstream drinkers were, some enormously powerful brands were built.
Not all of it works as successful commercial branding, but most of it is gorgeous to look at, and some of it works as art in its own right.
And this branding revolution has affected the whole beer market, inspiring even established mainstream brands to rediscover the craft and art of design. This was pretty welcome for some older cask ale brands that had previously started to look dated and out of touch, and could now look contemporary in ways they never would have dared before craft moved the goal posts.
Sometimes, creative use of type, combining heritage typefaces with a few modern tricks, can make a brand look cool while still remaining true to its roots: a hard thing to pull off when it’s much easier to look like you’re desperately dad-dancing in a market you no longer understand.
Alternatively, a distinctive style of illustration can establish a common look across a wide range of beers at the same time as marking them out as different from everyone else.
Even the biggest brands realised there was more to the broader idea of craft than being small and independent, and rediscovered an idea of craft in their design that was firmly based in their heritage and longevity.
My wife Liz, who spent years working in the design industry, worked as picture researcher on this book. She had countless conversations with designers, artists and people working for breweries, and eventually gathered artwork from over 220 different breweries. When it came to making a book that looked as beautiful as a tome on design should, we didn’t have room for all of it. (We feature about 145 breweries in the book in total.) That’s why Liz will be launching a new blog – BeerByDesign.co.uk -tomorrow, and has also set up @BeerByDesignUK on Twitter and Instagram. This book is only the start of a conversation about design in which we aim to show some work in more depth, give behind the scenes peeks at how things develop, and interview designers and brewers about their work.
There’s still a lot of shit design out there, and there are conversations to be had about what should or shouldn’t go on a beer label, how it’s regulated, and whether or not it works. But for now, we’re keeping Beer By Design to the good stuff, things we like to look at, and things we believe help sell beer. If there is a job to do on the poor stuff, then maybe by showing the good stuff, we can inspire others to raise their game.
So please, if you’re a brewer, artist or designer who thinks your work should be featured, or if you’re a big fan of someone you believe should be here, go to BeerByDesign.co.uk and let us know!
You can of course buy the book from Amazon, but I’d prefer if you bought it from the CAMRA bookshop, for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s great that CAMRA were prepared to publish a book like this. It’s a real sign that the organisation is taking a more modern, inclusive approach to beer than it has in the past, so it would be nice to show them how right they were to do it. And secondly, I get a significantly higher royalty on copies sold through CAMRA than through anywhere else.
Finally, we’re holding the official launch party via Zoom tomorrow night, Thursday 26th, at 7pm, and you’re invited. If you’d like to see me and some of the featured brands and designers talking about the book, and have a chat, sign up here. It will almost certainly end with one of these.
There’s a longer, more in-depth preview of the book over on my Patreon. You can sign up from just £1 a month. But sign up at the £25 level, and you’ll get a free, signed copy of the book as a thank you. same goes for any future book I publish while you’re still signed up at that level.
The latest farrago of bullshit and utter confusion to emanate from the world’s largest brewer centres on a dispute around a Brazilian brand offending the Hindu religion by linking a holy deity to a beer that still uses sexist tropes in its marketing. But that’s not the best part…
An interfaith coalition including representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths is calling on Anheuser-Busch InBev to rename Brahma, one of its biggest brands, because it is the name of the Hindu god of creation.
The coalition particularly objects to the deity’s name being associated with marketing that frequently uses sexual imagery to sell beer (the pic above, of Megan Fox, is from a campaign in which she appears to strip her top off. I deliberately chose it as one of the, ah, milder images that came up on a Google search.)
I don’t want to get into the sexism, and I don’t want to get into any “Why now?” or “Political/religious correctness gone mad!” debates here. What fascinates me in particular about the story is AB InBev’s response, which is just… so AB InBev:
“Lucas Rossi, head of communications for Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Latin America subsidiary, said Tuesday the beers were named in tribute to Joseph Bramah — an Englishman who invented the draft pump valve — and not for the Hindu deity. The spelling was changed, he said, to make the name work better in the Portuguese language.”
OK, so let’s start from the top and work down from there.
Firstly, at face value, I’ve heard more believable stories from kids trying to explain where their homework is. I’m amazed anyone can say anything like this and keep a straight face. It’s obviously not true.
To check, I did some digging around the history of the brand. This claim about Joseph Bramah doesn’t seem to exist anywhere before Lucas Rossi and his team obviously made it up.
Villiger & Cia, Companhia Cerverjaria Brahma was founded in 1888 by a Swiss national called Joseph Villiger. I’ve been trying to put myself in his mindset and imagine why would a Swiss national working in Brazil would name his beer company after an engineer from Barnsley, but I have to tell you, I’m coming up blank.
The giant that would become AB-InBev acquired Brahma in 1999. When they acquired Whitbread around the same time, they destroyed its archive, so I’m guessing they didn’t spend too long sifting through any old documents they found in the brewery in Sao Paulo to carefully research the brand’s origins. In the mid-noughties I actually helped an ad agency work on a pitch for Brahma (we didn’t win) and not a single fact about the brand’s history was ever mentioned. In truth, they have absolutely no idea where the name came from.
But that’s still not the best bit.
(By the way, in case this looks a bit weirdly obsessive, I’ve done a lot of research about Joseph Bramah over the years since I learned that he was born and raised in Stainborough in Barnsley, and married a woman from Mapplewell, the former pit village just outside Barnsley, where I grew up.)
Joseph Bramah didn’t invent ‘the draft pump valve’, largely because there is no such thing.
There are pump valves, and there are draft pumps, which have certain aspects in common, but are two quite different things.
Bramah does have a connection to both. He patented a new type of valve for the flushing toilet (which was in fact invented by his boss) in 1778.
But I think what Rossi was attempting to claim was that Joseph Bramah invented the ‘draft pump’ beer engine, the system of beer dispense that is today still used to pull cask ales from the cellar through a swan-necked tap to dispense cask ale. Famously, AB-InBev executives are easily confused when it comes to the details of the products they make, and ‘draft pump valve’ was probably a mangled attempt to describe something they should know a lot about, but evidently don’t.
The problem is: Bramah didn’t invent the beer engine either – although it is widely claimed that he did.
The first beer engine was developed in 1691 by John Lofting, a Dutch inventor, merchant and manufacturer. The London Gazette dated 17th March that year states:
“the patentee hath also projected a very useful engine for starting of beers and other liquors which will deliver from 20 to 30 barrels an hour which are completely fixed with brass joints and screws at reasonable rates.”
A century later, Bramah, attempted to improve upon Lofting’s design, and in 1797 patented a manually operated beer pump which he believed would have tremendous advantages for “the masters of families and publicans”.
Unfortunately Bramah’s handpump was rubbish.
Whereas hand pumps depend on pressure from the beer engine on the bar to create a vacuum that draws the beer up the line from the cask, Bramah’s sketches show a system of pistons inside casks, weighted with heavy bags of sand. The piston pushes the beer down inside the cask, through an opening in the bottom, and up the pipe to a simple tap at the bar. It would never have worked, because it failed to take account of both the dimensions of casks, which are bowed, and the height of cellars, which were too low for his pistons. Bramah’s idea never poured a single pint.
So: a made-up story, that doesn’t make any sense and has no foundation in historical records, falsely claims a Swiss brewer working in Brazil named his business after a bloke from Barnsley, on the grounds that he invented something that doesn’t exist, because it was getting confused with something he is often credited with inventing, but in fact never did.
AB InBev’s skill in layering bullshit upon falsehood upon ignorance upon misunderstanding is almost admirable.
(H/T to Laurent Mousson for posting about this on Facebook and picking out the key paragraph posted above.)
When we were looking at March data for beer sales versus the same period last year, we had to bear in mind that we were looking at half a month where people were starting to avoid pubs because of fears of Covid, and half a month where pubs, restaurants, hotel bars etc. were on mandatory lockdown. The figures didn’t represent a full month of lockdown. Now we can see what that looks like.
In April and May, on-trade sales were obviously down -100% versus 2019.
Off-trade, sales were up by +39% in April, lowering to +25% in May.
That adds up to TOTAL beer sales being down -24% in April and -30% in May.
Add up total beer sales in March to May and compare it to the same period in 2019, and volume sales are down 22% overall.
Breaking it down, ale fared far worse than lager: total (i.e. on-trade plus off-trade) ale sales were down 31% in March, -58% in April and -59% in May, whereas total lager sales were down -10% March, -15% in April, and -22% in May.
Some observations on this…
One, as lockdown progressed, we drank less.
It’s worth noting that weather is a key factor in beers sales, particularly for lager. April was unseasonably warm and sunny, but May was a scorcher, officially the sunniest calendar month on record. Yet beer sales were lower in May than in April. One possible reason for this is that panic-buying early on in lockdown meant we bought less as it went on. Another is that we simply started getting out of the habit of drinking beer in the absence of the on-trade. But based on the weather, we should have expected sales to be better in May than in April.
Two, Lockdown has hit small, independent craft brewers and cask ale brewers far harder than Big Beer
Ale fared so much worse than lager because ale skews far more to the on-trade than lager does. Before lockdown*, supermarkets and off-licenses already accounted for around 55% of the lager we drank, whereas with ale, we were still drinking 70% of it in pubs, and only 30% at home. In volume terms, if my sums are correct, while ale had an 18% share of total beer sales before lockdown, it has accounted for 38%% of the total beer market volume loss during lockdown.+ Stout is counted separately. Together, ale and stout used to account for 22% of total market volume, and have taken 48% of the total volume loss.
This is the most worrying aspect for fans of craft beer and cask ale. Ale is far more skewed to small, independent brewers than lager is. The vast majority of lager is brewed by giant multinationals. So here is incontrovertible proof that while all brewers have suffered due to the closure of pubs, and while Britain is drinking significantly less overall, lockdown has hit craft and cask ale brewers far harder than it has Big Beer.
SIBA’s survey of their membership during lockdown was based on a smallish sample of their members and didn’t use audited data, so I always thought (or rather hoped?) that their claim that, on average, SIBA member brewers’ sales were down 82% was overly pessimistic. Having looked at total market data and broken it down like this, I now suspect it’s pretty close to the mark.
Now lockdown is easing, things don’t look much better. It seems that, despite predictable media sensationalism about “Super Saturday”, only half of pubs have reopened so far. Those that did reopen are seeing trade pan out at half its normal level. 25% of pubs cannot open viably even with social distancing reduced to one metre. These are smaller pubs, particularly micropubs, which are more skewed towards ale and craft beer than the average pub.
To really rub salt into the wounds, smaller and wet-led pubs got nothing from the chancellor’s mini-budget that reduced VAT on food sales and incentivised eating out, but provided nothing to support beer.
So please, if this upsets or concerns you, why not get online, or go to the pub if you feel safe doing so, and buy some beer from your local craft/cask ale brewer? They need our custom now more than ever.
For more detailed insight on the future of post-pandemic craft beer, with some light at the end of this long tunnel, check out this summary of my report on Craft Beer After Covid.
*For “before lockdown,” I’ve used figures for total beer sales for the calendar year to December 2019.
+ Calculated by working out total beer volumes March to May 2019 and comparing it with total beer volumes March to May 2020.
Last month I set up a Patreon in the hope that a modest regular income would allow me to spend time researching key stories in much greater depth than I normally can unless I’m being paid a consultancy fee. In the first of these deep dives, I’ve looked at the future of craft beer post-lockdown – from the perspective of being fresh from “Craft: An Argument” – and tried to draw some conclusions. This is a summary of that work, with a fuller report with stats and detail available to Patrons.
Seeing both sides of an argument is different from sitting on the fence.
There’s no point trying to play down the huge negative impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown it necessitated. The hospitality sector has been hit worse than most, and within that, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the craft sector, consisting mainly of small, independent businesses, will end up faring worse than the mainstream:
– Small pubs and micropubs will find it more difficult to reopen than larger chains.
– While some small, independent brewers have done well with online sales and (free) local delivery, overall small brewers suffered an 80% drop in volume during lockdown and 65% had to close.
– The lack of sufficient notice that 4th July would definitely be the reopening date did not give small brewers enough time to prepare.
– With lower capacity, pubs are likely to reduce the number of lines on the bar – in fact they’d be wise to.
– Big brewers are giving huge support to pubs, including thousands of pints of free beer. Helpful to pubs, yes, but likely to pressure small brewers off the bar even further.
There will be a colossal short-term impact. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. They’ll continue to do so.
But that’s only half the story.
While I wrote “Craft” during lockdown, I deliberately avoided speculating on what lockdown might mean for the craft beer movement, because that would have dated it quickly. In the book, I look beyond the issues of ownership and independence that have come to dominate the debate over what is and isn’t ‘craft’.
The recent boom in craft – in beer and beyond – is a reaction to a mix of factors including the 2008 global financial crash, the spread of superfast, handheld mobile computing and communications, open plan office culture, the growing degree to which algorithms dictate our decisions and behaviours, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and the ongoing creep of corporate dominance and homogenisation in all aspects of our lives.
These factors combine to create two separate but related themes that drive craft. One, the personal need to do more with our hands than tap or swipe; to engage with the world around us in a more meaningful, physical way, and two, the desire to escape the corporate rat race, to live better, to be better, to be more fulfilled.
If we can’t do these things personally, we console ourselves with actively choosing products from people whom we believe have done it on our behalf, and live vicariously through them.
There have been many changes in lockdown, and we see some of them as positive. Almost all the positive ones feed directly into this narrative around the broader idea of craft. If, before lockdown, we wanted to reject a bland, boring mainstream, to slow down, to experience life more vividly and personally, to support local businesses, to be kinder and more compassionate, to reject the open-plan, “computer says no” office environment, lockdown has not only heightened those desires – it’s shown that it is possible for all of us to act on at least some of them.
Those craft brewers that survive the short-term hit will face an environment that, while remaining subdued, will be far more in tune with the principles that motivate the brewers, retailers and drinkers of craft beer than it was pre-Covid. At the moment, it seems that the underlying motivations and themes that make craft beer so appealing to an ever-increasing number of people are being strengthened by people’s experiences. For all its negative effects, for all the death and hurt the virus has caused and for all the economic hardship to come, lockdown was time-out, a chance to reflect.
Stripped of the daily commute, the constant travel, the endless crowds, the noise and spectacle with which we usually fill our lives, we’ve had the chance to discover – or re-discover – what really matters to us. We’ve realised that, while this state of affairs is far from ideal, there are some good bits.
Craft brewers – rightly or wrongly – are generally perceived as, among other things, smaller and more independently-minded, more progressive in their attitudes, kinder, friendlier and more collaborative than their corporate, industrialised rivals, more face-to-face in their communications, more physically engaged with both the nature of their work and the communities they exist within and do business with. All of this has become more appealing as a result of lockdown.
The future – eventually – will be bright.
The full report is available on Patreon to anyone who signs on at the £3 tier or above. (While it’s a regular monthly subscription, you’re perfectly free to sign just for a month and then cancel.)
Craft: An Argument is available here on Kindle and here as a print-on-demand version. The audiobook will be ready as soon as the drilling stops outside my house.
My new book, Craft: An Argument is published today. Written and self-published in the last thirteen weeks, it’s an argument at least ten years in the making.
Does anyone still care about the meaning of the term “craft beer”?
I’m afraid I do – passionately.
Debates – sometimes furious arguments – have been going on for at least fifteen years now. I often hear craft beer dismissed as a “meaningless marketing term”, both by people who think it’s been co-opted by big brewers, and by people who think it never meant anything in the first place, on the grounds that it lacks a tight, technical definition.
Attempts by industry bodies to create such a definition have been fighting an orderly retreat since 2005: they began as multi-faceted lists of all the attributes many of us visualise when we think of craft beer. Thanks to both the growth and diversification of craft brewers and the attempts by Big Beer to co-opt craft, from an industry point of view, the only meaningful aspect of “craft beer” is that it is produced by an independent brewery. Brewer’s Associations around the world are steadily rebranding as associations of independent brewers, and seem to be quietly retiring the word “craft” from use, just as they did “microbrewery” a decade ago.
So “craft beer” is in all kinds of problems. If we say craft = independent, like the US Brewers Association currently does, then Yuengling Light – a cheap, adjunct-filled mass-market lager made by a massive corporation – is officially a craft beer. Meanwhile, Goose Island Bourbon County Barrel-aged stout – regarded by many as the best barrel-aged stout in the world – is not a craft beer, on the grounds that Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. In this warped reality, it’s hardly surprising if people think “craft beer” has lost its usefulness.
The thing is, millions of people around the world are really into something they call “craft beer”. To many of them – particularly the early adopters and the people who are really engaged whit the industry, independent ownership is a really important part of what they’re buying into. But to people who are already happy drinking beer owned by large corporations, and just getting into craft, telling them they “should” be drinking independent beer is a bigger task.
So this book is an attempt to separate craft beer from independence, and express its meaning in a way that works for any beer or brewery.
I argue that small, independent breweries not only need protection from rapacious Big Beer for their own sake, but also because they give the whole beer market the energy and dynamism that keep it healthy.
But that’s no longer quite the same thing as craft, because big breweries and craft breweries change as they affect one another. So to find a new understanding of and relevance for the idea of craft beer, I’ve looked at the much older idea of craft as it applies beyond beer.
Firstly, there’s this nonsensical idea, which many craft beer fans are reluctant to acknowledge, that craft beer has to be from a newish brewer rather an a traditional, long-established firm, and that it has to come with cool, funky packaging and design. There is no other area of craft where these factors are even considered. But every time someone argues that traditional British cask ale, which is produced in small batches by a master craftsperson, marketed locally, using established techniques and ingredients to create a product that is more flavourful and complex than mainstream beer, is not a craft beer, they expose the fact that for them, craft is more about image than the beer itself.
Looking closer at the broader idea of craft puts real ale at the heart of craft beer. And maybe that’s why these are the beers that directly inspired the US craft beer movement the first place.
In addition, I found that independence and ownership are never mentioned in discussions of “craft” outside beer. Craftspeople always had wealthy patrons, sponsors or customers. What really matters is that craftspeople have some independence of action – that they are in charge of how they work, and can feel some degree of ownership over the tools they use, and a say in how the work turns out. It is far, far more likely that this will happen in a small, independent organisation than a large corporation, but not exclusively so.
Another important point to note is that we assume crafted products will be higher quality than mainstream, mass-manufactured products, and that the person making them will have a higher than average degree of skill. We expect this in craft beer and take it for granted. But it is absolutely not guaranteed. Craftspeople in other areas serve long apprenticeships before they can adopt that title. While there are apprenticeships and qualifications in craft brewing, no one is under any obligation to take them before buying a brew kit and calling themselves a craft brewer. Problems of quality and consistency in craft brewing are a threat to its integrity.
Finally, craft is as much an emotional idea as it is a practical one. It’s a rejection of the values of a mainstream that enforces homogeneity and conformity. When you can buy a cheap, perfectly made thing of reliable quality, even if it’s a bit dull – be that an IKEA chair, a Big Mac or a can of Budweiser – you’re making a statement by spending more money on a crafted alternative. You’re buying into a set of ethics and values as well as buying a thing.
Again, it’s far more likely that small, independent brewers will embody all of these aspects, but it’s not guaranteed that a big brewer never will or a small craft brewer always will. So there’s a crucial difference between small and independent, and craft.
This doesn’t get us to a tight, measurable definition of a craft beer or a craft brewer. But tight, measurable definitions go against what craft is all about. Craft is the embodiment of innate knowledge and skill, to the extent that many people who possess this skill cannot begin to put it into words. Craft beer is a concept that is full of meaning, far richer than any attempt to pin it down to a tight definition has ever captured. The lack of such a definition doesn’t really diminish that meaning. For craft beer to survive and flourish, we need to hold any brewery to account on the skills and behaviours that truly make it craft – or not. Because this is what any craft beer drinker – be they a passionate flag-bearer for independence or a mainstream drinker looking for a change from Bud – is expecting when they buy the product.
Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential,is available now in e-book format on nearly all major platforms around the world.(Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site, Kobo, Nook, and Google Play. It will be on Apple iBooks as soon as we figure out their Kafkaesque bugginess.) The book will also be available in a print-on-demand version by the end of the week, and an audiobook as soon as the incessant fucking drilling outside our house allows us to finish recording it.
Advance Reviews of Craft: An Argument
“One of the leading beer thinkers of our time, Pete delivers up well crafted, important insights into the nature of modern brewing. A must-read for brewers wanting to find their sense of place amongst the shifting sands of marketing, business, consumers and trends.” Matt Kirkegaard, Brews News
“In 2009’s Hops and Glory, Pete Brown took a cask to India in order to reveal the true nature of India pale ale. In 2020’s Craft: An Argument, he does the metaphorical equivalent to arrive at the meaning of ‘craft’ as it pertains to beer. While the journey is certainly shorter, it is no less rigorous, compelling, or splendidly entertaining.” Stephen Beaumont, co-author, The World Atlas of Beer
“Exciting and exuberant, this is a fascinating and fantastically articulate argument and polemic that heads straight to the heart of craft beer, written by a master craftsman at the height of his literary powers.” Adrian Tierney-Jones, 1001 Beers: You Must Try Before You Die
I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: final edits, hopeful uploads, and pre-launch marketing.
This week, the learning curve is at its steepest. My main learning: if you’re going to do a project like this, allow as much time for editing and production as you do for writing. I finished the first draft weeks ago. We’re still working on the text with a week to go. I now understand why my publishers in the past have allowed as much as a year between me submitting first draft and publication date. The work has split into three streams – it might be useful to summarise them as such.
I mentioned before that there are two main edits: the structural edit and the copy edit. In reality there are many more. I’ve read the “finished” text from start to finish maybe eight times now. Liz, my wife and editor, has done the same. In addition our friend Marian very kindly did a professional edit, and several friends and colleagues I gave copies to have also given feedback. And EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. someone has picked up at least one typo, or a word left hanging in the wrong place after some text has been cut and pasted, or a sentence that made sense on the first seven readings but suddenly doesn’t on the eighth.
The detail of the edit intensifies, the scale becomes smaller, and that’s when, to me, it starts to feel like gently sanding and adding another layer of varnish to the book. You go from writing new chapters, shifting sections of text around and doing extensive rewrites, to discussions on English spellings and whether you should keep US spellings if they’re quoted from American books, making sure the line space between quotes is consistent across all quotes, and my personal blind spot: deciding whether a close quotation mark goes “before or after a full stop”. Each time you do, the book develops a patina of professionalism. It now scarcely resembles the first draft that we all thought was pretty good on a first read-through.
Uploads to publishing platforms
We aim to publish the book in three formats: ebook, audiobook, and print-on-demand.
The quickest way to get distribution and awareness for a self-published book. Getting the advance listing on Amazon across all global sites, and on Barnes & Noble, was fairly straightforward, if onerous. There are then two steps: choosing an ebook platform to format and publish, and uploading it to sales outlets. We chose Jutoh to format and publish, because it had the best reviews and was far cheaper than options that hadn’t reviewed as well. It took Liz about two days to feel comfortable with it, and another two to finish all the formatting. Needless to say, while doing this she was still picking up the odd typo and formatting glitch.
We’re then selling through Amazon Kindle, Apple Books and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The Jutoh file has to be uploaded to each one separately, and each has its own formatting quirks. It takes another couple of days, and quite a lot of patience. But when it’s done, your ebook is available for sale anywhere in the world!
This is an important point for a book like this one: the topic is far too niche for any publisher I’ve approached, but publishers have to make something work on a territory-by territory basis. Publish this way, and you’re looking at one publication for a global niche, which starts to look far more financially viable.
Quite a few people seem to enjoy my books as audiobooks but they often ask why I don’t read them myself. Well, I’d love to and now’s my chance! We’re recording it on GarageBand, which comes as standard with MacBooks. I’ve spent £60 on a good studio-quality mic, and will be rigging up a makeshift studio with duvets and clothes driers to deaden the ambient noise. We’re starting tomorrow, and after a bit of mixing and editing, we should be uploading for sale before launch date. More on this next week when we’ve figured it out.
Because the book is currently only listed as an ebook, I’ve had a lot of enquiries about a print version. We cannot finance a full print run ourselves: fortunately we don’t have to. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer a print-on-demand service. You can’t make this available for pre-order until you’re in a position to upload your final text, so it’s going to be a tight squeeze on this one.
Marketing and Promotion
Writing a book is one thing. Publishing is another kettle of fish entirely. And then there’s trying to spread the word.
I’ve sent early drafts out to a few people in each key territory: UK, North America, Australia/NZ, and South Africa. Hopefully they will like it, and if they do they will hopefully spread the word.
I launched my Patreon a couple of weeks ago. The timing was key: I’ve put some special offers in to encourage sign-up, including a £10 tier that gets you a free copy of the book and your name listed in the back. I’ve also done advance previews, access to deleted content, and first dibs on tickets to…
I’m doing a Zoom launch on the evening of the 25th. I’m keeping it to 30 people so there’s a reasonable chance to interact. The chance to join went out to my Patreon yesterday, and if there are any spaces left, we’ll open it on a first-come-first-served basis on Monday. All of these give talking points to help raise awareness of the book without resorting to simple repetition.
Later on this than I would like to be, I’ve compiled a ‘trade’ and a ‘public’ mailing list. Liz used to work in PR so we’re fairly confident about writing a good press release. The trade one will major on the debate over the meaning of craft beer, while in the public one we’ll focus a bit more on the story of our challenge as a couple to write and self-publish this book in 13 weeks during Lockdown.
Those are my ideas – obviously all amplified via social media channels. If you’ve done this before or have any ideas of your own that aren’t listed here, please feel free to comment!
My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)
You wait ages for a book and then two come along at once. Here’s a new project I’m delighted to be working on with CAMRA Books: “The Art of Beer”.
In a perfect world, as a full-time writer of books you should be promoting the book that just came out, finishing off the next one, and planning the one after that, all at the same time. Lead-times are long in publishing, and a years gap between finishing one project and starting the next can easily turn into a three-year gap between the publication of one book and the next.
It never works out like that in reality. Timelines get stretched in some places and compressed in others. Coronavirus has really exacerbated this.
So: the paperback of my last book, Pie Fidelity, was published on 23rd April but thanks to warehousing and distribution issues related to lockdown it is only available this week. I’ll come back to that later in the week.
My self-published book, Craft: An Argument, is almost finished and will be published on 25th June.
And now I’m starting work on my next one. The Art of Beer will be a lavishly illustrated book about beer design and packaging, published by CAMRA Books in October 2020.
I came into beer from marketing and still occasionally get involved in consultancy on packaging design. As Chair of the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards, I’ve had the job of overseeing the judging of best beer packaging design sat a time when designers have thrown the rulebook out of the window. Now I get to celebrate all of this in book form.
It would be very, very easy to gather together images of the coolest craft beer labels and cans around at the moment, and fill a book with wonderful designs like these:
And we will certainly be doing a lot of that. This is book to be gazed at with longing.
But I wouldn’t be able to think of myself a a writer if that was all it did.
So while the book will major on beautify craft beer designs, it will also tell the story of beer design, labelling and packaging from when it really took off as a discipline in the late nineteenth century until the present day.
We’ll start with why brands became so important, looking in particular at why the UK’s first ever registered trade mark was for Bass Pale Ale:
The first UK trade mark
We’ll look at the theory of how branding is supposed to work, and the tricks designers use to make a product stand out from the competition, and make you desire it.
We’ll explore the how and why of beer logos:
Since 1964, the ‘e’ n Heineken has been tilted so it ‘smiles’.
Milton Glaser’s original sketches for the Brooklyn logo
We’ll talk about why some brewers prefer typographical designs, and how that works:
Devastatingly simple, universally admired, and much copied: The Kernel
And we’ll look at why certain picture-led routes are enduringly popular:
Local history is enduringly popular for cask ale
We’ll also be looking at the history of bottles and cans, the clever use of different bottle shapes, crown cap designs, and secondary packaging such as gift boxes, six-pack holders and so on.
If you are a brewer or design agency that is really proud of your design work, and you’d like it to feature in the book, please drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. We have only two rules:
1. While we’re not limiting this to British beers only, any beer featured must be readily available on sale in the UK.
2. Whole there’s a lot to be written about poor or questionable design, this book will only feature designs that the team think are beautiful or are otherwise important in the history and evolution of beer design.
So please – sen us your beers! And if you’re a beer fan rather than a brewer and you think there’s a beer we should definitely feature, let me know. (And thanks to everyone who did so when I asked this question on Twitter and Facebook last week.)