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 ( – 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


Doom Bar.  Where did it come from all of a sudden?  Sharp’s Brewery isn’t 20 years old yet their flagship brand, named after a sandy marine ramp, that squelches around the low tide mark and is generally frequented by sea molluscs, crustaceans, kelp and assorted ships’ keels, is one of the UK’s fastest growing cask ales.  Fascinating.  And what makes it fascinating is that this is a genuine brand – it hasn’t earned its success as a function of a strong tied estate which gives a beer a springboard forward, gets it noticed; and it isn’t over-marketed. I mean, take the badge on the beer engine. It’s not exactly a design classic is it?    Simple, punchy, sure…but superlative design, no.  Then there’s the beer – purist or not, put a cask ale in a clear bottle and whether you like it or not, you’re supping on stoat¹ before you know it. And frankly, it isn’t a bad beer; equally it isn’t great, it does what it was designed to do: sit in the middle of the market and appeal to most.

doombarSo all this got me pondering on how brands get created.  Because despite CAMRA’s claims to the contrary, it isn’t marketing money. Oh sure, it helps, don’t get me wrong, and certainly, you would be utterly slack jawed if you knew how much money breweries (and not just the ‘big’ ones – let’s not fall into that trap) throw at winning and keeping distribution² (ie the stuff that we, as drinkers, don’t see).  And yes, it buys a nice font, and a few glasses for us to purloin, but there’s obviously much more to it than that.  Think of the brands that are spending big today: not that many. And think of the brands who have spent big until recently but just can’t stem the decline: Tetley’s, Boddington’s for example.  Broadly speaking, it seems that advertising money keeps you there, but it doesn’t get you there. More often than not in fact, it seems to be that the main audience is the Tesco or Morrisons Beer Buyer: ‘Look!’, the advertising says, ‘my owner is serious about me. List me, please!’

None of this explains Doom Bar that’s for sure.  Their approach has been to PR the hell out of their brewer, Stuart Howe, allowing him free rein, and slowly build from their heartland, out. And my, they’ve done this relentlessly and ‘executed’, as the Americans would say, superbly. Good for them.  But arguably, what they have done is no different to a vast array of other great brands, that have much more varied degrees of success. Take one example: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – it’s been kicking around for yonks compared with Doom Bar, but it sells nowhere the near hundreds of thousands of barrels Doom Bar sells a year…and is, if you’ll forgive my personal taste, a vastly superior beer.

It’s tempting to deconstruct the inputs of the brand. The stuff it’s doing and gets to market. It’s glassware. It’s assorted ephemera – drip mats and all that.  Even the pubs it’s sold in. The myths and legends that emanate from its PR team. But I don’t think it’s that. My theory is this: it’s groupthink, or clearly in this case, groupdrink.

Go with me on this. I run lots of research with consumers across all sorts of different types of products – dairy, coffee, tea, soft drinks, banking, snacks – you name it.  And one of the biggest issues I contend with is groupthink. The tendency for humans, when they get together or socialise to adopt collective behaviour, views, opinions and attitudes. It’s remarkable because it takes no time at all – literally minutes.  It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics in a group: here are total strangers – never met before, unlikely to ever meet again. Yet within minutes they are watching how their peers in the situation are reacting; what they are saying and how they are saying it. It’s an innate human trait – more than that, a desire to fit in.  All sorts of tricks are attempted to avoid it- typically, asking for individual, written responses, done in silence before the group start discussing.  Of course, there’s a huge amount of difference in opinion when you do this, but again, within minutes, the lifelines are being thrown out: ‘Well, when I first saw it (lets say it’s an idea for a new beer) I liked it, it sounded really appetising. But now I’ve heard what this lady has said, I’ve changed my mind’.  There’s lots of scientific study in this area and it confirms what you don’t want to hear: I’m afraid, just like in The Life of Brian, you’re not an individual.  Human tendency is actually to conform. And ultimately, be conservative.

So the question is: how do you get your brand to the trigger point? To that point of reputation where a few people, just a few, are actively drinking and recommending your brand.  And in a situation where the context is positive.  This for me, is the happy serendipity that faced Sharps. Wittingly or unwittingly I’m unsure, but they chose to build their brand out of Cornwall, and specifically that part that has a lower concentration of Cornish, and a higher (albeit seasonal) concentration of tourists.  Tourists with a predeliction to come back year in year out; to bring their children and pass on that gene. To pop down for long weekends whenever they can, and if fortunate enough, buy a second home down there.  To sail in the Camel Estuary and pop over to one of Rick Stein’s bistros for a spot of supper. This is the emotional context that comes washing ashore with Doom Bar. And before you know, you unknowingly want to fit in, so you order a pint…

It can be replicated too. Sure, not exactly (albeit  Adnams has the wind in its sails for a similar reason), but building positive context and association around your brand is doable. Take Brew Dog; unless you live in Pitlochry, it’s not exactly on your door step, but their positive context is the challenger, maverick attitude.  ‘If you think this, come to me’ it says. And Black Sheep – the name says so much; the Yorkshire values; the visual portrayal:  a small Stone cottage just in view between the wooded interlocking ridges of the Dales.  It’s this mental image, this mindset that we really buy into. And that’s what Doom Bar have got so right. And why we all want to drink what he’s drinking.


²Put it this way, UK Volleyball wouldn’t be experiencing any funding problems through to, oooh, let’s say the 2092 Olympic Games. They’re in Ulaanbataar by the way, order your Mosquito Spray today.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

On the up

Is your beer brand ‘On the up’?

That’s a question marketing types spend much of their working day trying to fathom an answer to. They will forensically rake through daunting data reports, ‘tracking studies’ or research findings (or at least they will pretend to).  Is it a ‘Brand My Friends Rate’ or ‘Drunk in the last 7 days’?  Sales reports may enrich the evolving story, as will findings ‘from the field’ (and by ‘field’ I mean the sort that was concreted over in the 1950s with a bar built on top, not the sort with cows gently masticating their fodder, if you get my drift).  Quantitative Research agencies (companies that deal with banks of ‘hard data’) make their living out of helping marketing managers reach a point of view which they can convince their superiors with.  Some big, household name companies won’t make decisions unless they have a positive read from this sort of analysis.

I was pondering on this, my past life, whilst drinking a bottle of a well known Italian pale-coloured beer at the weekend.  As I don’t work for the BBC, you don’t need to be Steven Hawking to know I am referring to Peroni ‘Nastro Azzuro’.  Clearly, here is brand of beer that is ‘on the way up’.  I quite like Nastro. Not the beer itself necessarily, which, whilst I wouldn’t be disingenuous enough to say I dislike, doesn’t really float my boat.  I can taste a little too much of the corn adjunct and too much of its 5.1% alcohol to an extent where it unbalances the beer.  That’s not the point though is it?  Because, as we all know, ‘We drink with our eyes’*.  And to the eye, Nastro is a damn fine looking lady.  Sultry, dusky, all Dolce Vita-ish, she tips her Prada sunglasses and looks back at you from under her mascara’ed eyelashes as you pour her into an hour-glass. “Drink me”, she whispers, “Let me caress your tastebuds”.  Come on. Tell me I’m wrong.

But there are other brands on the way up.  And they don’t rely on la bella’s allure and come-hither temptations.  Doom Bar for instance.  South of Watford Gap it turns up everywhere. Nice presentation; balanced taste, possibly, a nice glass if the bar is doing its job well.  It’s the ‘Wimbledon-on-sea’ Rock effect I think, all Crew-clothed and clad in Sebago deckshoes.  And ‘Doom Bar’ rhymes with ‘Ra! Ra!’, and “Huzzah!” which is rarely nice for the Chelsea Farmer brigade.

Other brands seem, in ‘health’ terms, to be on a downward track. Stella Artois comes to mind, even though she still gets around a bit.  Others still seemed to have missed their time – to my mind Budweiser Budvar and Cobra could have done with a gentle nudge a few years back. They may have missed the rocket to Rockstar status, although our Indian friend is definitely giving it a go and with India developing as a destination of choice for Brits at the moment, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Yet pulling it all together, simply explaining this nebulous, intangible phenomenon, this magic, with the statement of ‘We drink with our eyes’ just won’t do. There must be more science to it. Hell, there must be more art.  How to understand whether your beer could soar in the Heavens or face a future, naked, emaciated and lugging its bedraggled, hopeless, chinless self along the floor of life, whilst being ritualistically flagellated by the cudgels Mr Tesco – well that must be a worthwhile cause.

I started with the art, I’ll be honest, my favourite bit, and this is nothing to do with me being a beer** artiste. Beers ‘on the way up’ seem to have three moons which orbit and shape them.  Let us call these moons: the Look, the Liquid and the Legend¹.

The look. Oh, here’s the heresy.  It’s the most important one.  Perhaps not as a lover of beer, but as an everyday person who buys things and gets through life as best he can, this is the one.  Let’s face it – this is what Nastro Azzuro does brilliantly.  A story – in fact, not a story because this is true, and I am sure very familiar to you.  Question: where did you first have Nastro Azzuro?  Who were you with? What were you were eating?  What life were you living then?  My answers: Pizza Express, with my (now) wife, eating Pizza, olives, salad of some description, perhaps some dough balls, living la Dolce Vita. In Chester³.  Sound familiar?

What’s changed today? Well the bottle design has evolved slightly (important emphasis that). You can get it on draught now – but note how careful South African Breweries are with where they let it go (in the main).  And the font. Ye Gads, look at it. She’s wearing a catwalk evening dress and making all the other fonts look like the Ant Hill Mob.  Contest over.  But wait. The glass. Be honest. How many have you got in your cupboard?  People drink Nastro for the glass. Men and women; old and young, Wimbledon to Wilmslow to Wishaw.

The liquid. Nastro is OK.  It has an edge (5.1% vs other ‘premium lagers’ at 5%) and it’s most certainly not offensive.  There’s no lingering, bitter astringency so it appeals to most or can be tolerated by the beer snobs like me.  Marketing text books will say you need a rational product difference or a functional reason to believe. Brewed in Italy and imported? So’s Moretti.  Brewed with corn⁴?  So’s Moretti. Uh, oh.  The theory may have a loop hole.

The legend.  Simple consistency & application of a single thought, year in, year out.  Nastro = Italian style. That’s it. Now keep a look out for the adverts.  Take a second look at the packaging, glassware, font.  Italian flag colours? Yup, ever so ever so subtly.  Macho men in the adverts?  Nope, instead, dreamily beautiful, sophisticated, ever-so-ever-so-slightly unapproachable women. Appealing?  Yep – to us all.

Yet, there’s science too. Behavioural science.  This is all quite hip ‘n’ trendy stuff in the world of research at the moment, but the theory is actually almost 100 years old.  Simply put, the behavioural science says this:  whilst we like to think we make rational, logical and structured decisions in our lives, actually the majority (95 – 99%) of decisions we make are seemingly irrational, illogical and to the observer often contradictory vs. what we say we’ll do. The ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefore’s’ aren’t for here and now, so let me simply summarise why this is the case by saying ‘it’s because we have to do loads of stuff everyday’…the brain can’t cope, so it learns all sorts of short cuts. And these shortcuts – our personal lenses on things, biases, opinions – all have implications for beer.

Consider anchoring (alas, not Anchor Steam Beer, that particular delight will have to wait).  Our brains want to make quick decisions so they tend to form early opinions and then stay anchored to them.  Back to Nastro – your first experience. In a poshish Italian restaurant, with your favourite pizza and perhaps an extra topping, good company and a ristretto to finish – why not?  As emotional anchors go, that’s not a bad place to start. Then rewind and repeat for a few years and your brand has a good foundation in people’s brains.

Or framing.  We’re all familiar with the kamikaze (I am allowed to use that in these PC times -apologies in advance if not) pricing in supermarkets over the last few years, and ‘premium lagers’ have not escaped notice.  Reassuringly expensive Stella Artois on ‘Two For £14’ or whatever, frames Nastro as something more special because it hasn’t got involved.  Stick to your principles, keep your look consistent, as Nastro has done, and your competitors just make way for you.

Or the effect of perception.  If you have a good, or bad, opinion of something, then your brain wants to show how bright and clever you are by confirming and reconfirming that decision. So Nastro continues to ‘show up’ nicely in Pizza Express and you just continue to justify why it’s such a great choice you’ve made. Then you see it somewhere else, and you tell your friends… and remember, we’re a herd species so we love to take a recommendation from someone else.  Again, think of Stella Artois – it’s been discounting it’s price hugely for over a decade but it still the beer of choice for lots of people.

There’s more and it’s a fascinating field of investigation.  The revelation for me is that I now realise that is is possible to plan to be lucky if you understand how the brain works, and then, like Nastro have done to their credit, resist the temptation to fiddle.  The trouble for the big beer brand owners is that they need all the data, all those questionnaires, to prove they should keep their job. This new behavioural science at last seems to be supporting common sense – but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Peroni Come Hither

Come hither.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on posterous, April 2012

*Actually, I don’t. If you do and want a free tip for a more effective mode of consumption, try the orifice on the front of your face below your nose. It’s genius.


** Some rather unkind acquaintances of mine have used alternative descriptors.

¹ There is a fourth ‘L’ but I can’t remember what the ‘L’ it is²

² I’m here tonight, and twice on Thursdays. I thank you.

³ Actually, it could have been ‘Est! Est! Est!’ In Knutsford. Much the same, especially if you’re Jeremy Clarkson. 

⁴ I can tell you’re tempted.