Towards the end of last year a minor controversy erupted in the Australian brewing world over what craft beer ‘really’ is, as if there is a single definition that will guarantee that the beer you buy in the bottle is as good and pure as the heart of the brewer who makes it.
During the discussion, regular reference was made to the US craft beer scene where some believe a Utopia exists where brewers and beer lovers are united behind a single definition that sees all live in peace and harmony. This myth has been shown by the current most popular thread on US-based beer ratings site BeerAdvocate and the discussion that has exploded in the blogosphere. It shows that even in the US not all oars are pulling the same way.
The seeds of this kind of silly infighting have already been sown in Australia, where beer that is brewed under an approximation of the US craft definition accounts for a fraction of one per cent of the total beer market. What will it be like when Australian craft beer achieves the penetration that it has in the States and the top five independent craft breweries are the size that Little Creatures is now? (That is assuming that they can finance growth to that size without being seen as ‘selling out’.)
If the US example shows Australian beer drinkers anything, it is that ‘big’ is not bad if the beer is good. With craft beer (using a wider definition of the segment) growing at 30 per cent a year, the biggest problem many small breweries have is not how to sell the beer they are making, but how to expand their production to keep up with demand for it. On the other side of the coin, the biggest problem reported by many pubs is getting reliable access to craft beer citing distribution costs, availability, quality and consistency of the beer as matters slowing their take up of craft beer, not contracts.
If craft beer is to grow to match the expected demand, beer entrepreneurism is much needed, though when the Australian versions of Jim Koch, Sam Calagione and Kim Jordan appear, will they be celebrated by our beer geeks (and if you have read this far, there a fair bet that that’s you) when they grow the market along with their businesses, or be disparaged for having sold out or being over-rated?
Just a thought.
Our pocket guide to the US discussion: