The thorny issue of ‘craft’

Over a quiet beer or two, I have been wrestling with a dilemma.  Actually, no, that’s not right, as a dilemma is something you can’t satisfactorily resolve.  Rather, a thorny issue:  when is craft craft or not craft?  To stretch it further, are big brewers who sell ‘craft’ beer simply responding well to the drinker trends in the market, or are they being just plain crafty?

The Motley Fool (www.fool.co.uk) – a network of bloggers offering advice and gossip on companies and share performance – recently penned an article on US craft beer sales. It made for interesting reading:  although craft beer is only 6% of the market place, they are growing strongly, up 14% in the last year according the American Brewers’ Association – in an overall market where per capita consumption is declining.  Interestingly, the big brewers’ performance within this was marked. Miller Coors’ Blue Moon brand grew by 50% between 2009 and 2011, and Leinenkugel’s grew by 20%.  Anheuser Busch is also a player. They have bought Goose Island and also launched their own craft brand, Shock Top, the latter growing 70% year to date*. In comparison, more established players – the genuine craft brewers it is argued – are growing much more slowly.

Raspberry WheatWe drank Shock Top Raspberry Wheat in the Salty Dog in Sarasota – with no idea it was an ABI beer. Inspired marketing or a confidence trick?

There are two really interesting dynamics going on here.

First, that there is a debate going on about ‘craft’ at all.  Big companies get big for a whole host of reasons – luck, daring acquisitions, market expansion, exploitation… and brand building skill.  If they spot an opportunity to sell brands to drinkers, they’ll do it, and endeavour to do it with scale.  As far as I’m concerned, if a drinker is happy that a beer is a craft beer, then whether we agree on principle or not becomes purely academic: it is. Get over it, and start competing.

Second is the debate about what constitutes craft?  The answers are invariably couched in a hotchpotch of measures: volume brewed; use of adjuncts purely for taste, independence.     This is missing the point – a point bigger than beer. What manifests itself in beer as ‘craft’, is a slew of market trends impacting right across food and drink products: national, regional, local, provenance, authenticity, passionate producers, natural ingredients, interesting tastes & textures, original recipes – I could go on.  It’s popping up in tea, coffee, wines & spirits, across all foods from fresh meat and veg to ready meals and snack foods.

So what’s the connection?  These trends are tapping into our desire to emotionally connect in some way to our roots – however we define them as individuals.  This could show itself as national pride or local knowledge; it can show itself as truly authentic or re-interpreting the past, but importantly it doesn’t define itself by scale.  Look at Rachel’s Organic or Yeo Valley – organic, touchy-feely, yes. Niche – no. Or Tyrell’s Crisps, Red Sky or Kettle Chips.  Made from potatoes (not substitutes), interesting natural flavours, lovingly fried in kettles, yes. Niche – no. Or Sam Adams, Blue Moon, London Pride, Doom Bar – interesting, unusual, brewed with care? Of course.  Niche – no.

It’s good news all round for brewers, but as it’s about more than just the beer – it’s great news for brewers great and small.

*Clearly, that’s in the year to the date of their earnings release, not the year to date this year.  Mind you, January sales up 70% would be no mean feat.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, February 2013

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