There’s been something of a furore over Carlos Brito, AB Inbev’s top dog, over his comments about beer drinkers being tired of choice – and for balance, it’s important to mention that he was specifically talking about distributors and retailers, and how much choice they could actually carry on shelves. Yet customer and consumer are umbilically linked, so by default he is saying the consumers too, are tired of choice. And according to ABI’s earnings release briefing, craft beer sales in the U.S. are slowing, hence it must be so.
As you can imagine, a furore. Because surprise, surprise, here are AB Inbev, now commanding one third of global beer sales, concerned about any affront to their brands, their competitive edge, their ability to dominate the market. An agenda of consumers ‘tired of choice’ means ‘you don’t need to stock unusual craft brands, but you do need to stock nationally / globally recognised brands‘ – ooooh, and look – we have lots of them.
The thing is though, the provocation from Brito does have more than an edge of truth about it, depending on how you view the world. Take the U.K. beer scene at the moment. ‘Explosion’ is not too dramatic a term for the number of breweries that have opened and continue to open. Each month sees a closure, but each month see many more openings. The leaky bucket overfloweth. Go one level below this and there are serious implications. Each brewery will have, say, a minimum of three brands, probably three of four core brands and then a selection of in / out products too. So let’s say that there are now (round numbers), 2000 breweries, each selling five beers. That’s 10,000 brands of beer minimum (someone I’m sure will have the actual numbers on this, providing they’re watching the press releases daily.). There are about 150,000 licensed premises in the UK. In theory that means most bars can carry an entirely different range from one another (OK, there may be 14 other ones carrying the same range nationwide).
Now clearly, this is theoretical. Because the truth is more stark. In fact, most bars have a limited number of taps and lines. Choice, in draught in particular, is not finite. Many of these lines will be keg, a small number hand pull. And of the 10,000 brands of beer on sale, probably 9,800 are craft and cask brands. The number of mainstream, keg dispensed, national brands is slight in comparison, dominant in sales though they are. 9,800 beers competing for, say, one of three hand pull spaces on a bar or God forbid, one of the keg lines owned by a multinational.
You can’t build recognised brands in this environment, unless you own an estate and demand they carry your range.
And there’s the rub. The truth is that there’s so much choice now that the market isn’t saturated, it’s super-saturated. Just like the supermarkets have bred a generation of deal junkies, rather than being tired of choice, we have a spoilt generation of beer drinkers who are trial junkies. You can see it where every you go. Looking along the bar. Spotting the new beers. Examining ABVs. Asking for recommendations, a sip, a third. Buying a flight of different beers. Every beer a different beer during the session. Switching between styles. Ever more choice at home.
Oh sure, there are implications for drinkers. It can be bamboozling. So many choices, where to start? Which style between the many I like? Which strength? Colour? Hoppiness or maltiness? Sweet, sour, bitter, dry? How to make sense of that, goodness knows.
There are implications for customers too. If you are in some way tied in to a brewer or supplier, how to offer the choice? How to run a business based on strong sellers with the roller coaster of guest beers being so important? How to manage the tensions (under the bar) between keg and cask, cider and lager, craft and real ale, spirit vs wine, whilst all the time having to deliver a stonking food offer. I love pubs, but it’s a hell of a job to get right, particularly with those damned drinkers constantly demanding something new every week.
But what’s the alternative? Take London just 10 years ago. I was in beer sales down there at the time. Most bars had some combination of Heineken, Kronenbourg, John Smiths and Strongbow, or Stella, Boddingtons, Becks Vier. Becks, Budweiser in the fridge. Everything else scrapping for space round the edges. Ok – so perhaps this picture is a little dramatised, but even if it’s only half true, compare it with today. Bars bursting with choice. Beers on rotation. New breweries introducing new styles. Rarely a Stella or Bud to be seen, at least in a place where you’d want to be seen too. Do we want to go back to a world of Stella, Becks, Corona wherever we go? Do we want to see Mr Brito’s thin, assassin smile widen further?
Give me the tyranny of choice any day.