On the eve of BrewCon 2019, the industry’s biggest conference, we spoke to keynote speaker Pete Brown, renowned British author and journalist.
Brown said his keynote speech (on Wednesday 4th September) will focus on marketing, going back to his time working on ‘megabrand lagers’ in his time in advertising before starting to write about beer.
“I think that what works in selling beer has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, in ways that favour craft brewers – even those with tiny budgets,” he said.
As British Beer Writer of the Year (2009, 2012, 2016) he’s also seen a lot of change in the industry, particularly over the past year, and it’s something that craft brewers are having to adapt to fast-changing markets.
“I think people coming to terms with buyouts and acquisitions [has been the biggest issue this year].
“I’m never delighted to see my favourite brewers bought out by large corporations, but this is a maturing market and consolidation is like a natural law in these cases – it can’t be avoided.
“Also, I don’t feel I have any right to tell someone who has put everything on the line and worked 80-100 hours a week for several years that they’re not allowed to take a big cheque because I’d rather they stayed small and independent.”
But the increased acquisitive activity has highlighted several issues for brewers, including the need to operate in a more commercially-focused way, as well as the territory grabbing of major brewers, who are finally catching up to the potential of craft beer.
But whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate. While it may help ‘professionalise’ the industry, and bring people that are really passionate about good beer in larger corporations, it also has its downsides.
“Concentration of ownership is rarely a good thing, particularly for the consumer,” said Brown.
“As a socialist, I always thought Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism, was the enemy. But… he too was totally against the domination of the market by a few powerful players.
“To him, capitalism was lots of small businesses all competing on the same terms for the attention of the consumer.
“What we have today is a gross distortion of capitalism and it should be better regulated – how can anyone have any influence over a company that owns a third of the global beer supply?”
Brown explained that the problem comes when the salespeople of big brewers come along and use their dominance to alter market conditions in their favour.
[It’s when they] use their scale and power to force perfectly good competitors’ beers off the bar. That’s not capitalism or ’the market’ – that’s corporate bullying and intimidation.
“Let AB InBev or Lion brew all the craft beer they want – but then let that beer compete on its own terms without distorting the market.
“Yeah, I know, I’m an idealist.”
With such experience in the brewing world, Brown has seen trends come and go, but the recent growth in demand for innovation and new and more bizarre styles could prove problematic, Brown said.
“I’m worried at the moment that craft could eat itself – it’s becoming too dominated by the need to leap on the latest trend.
“My last beer book, Miracle Brew, was all about hops, barley, yeast and water. I was promoting it at a craft beer festival and wanted to show a beer to illustrate the impact of each of the beer’s core ingredients, and there wasn’t a single beer on the list made from hops, barley, yeast and water!
“Everything was flavoured with an adjunct, or barrel-aged, or both. This makes me sound like an old fart, and I’m not at all against innovation or experimentation per se, but recently my local craft beer bar had a coconut-infused Tripel on.
“I wouldn’t mind, but Belgian Tripel is one of my favourite styles, and they’ve never stocked a straight Tripel! Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
While the merits of coconut-infused Belgian Triplel’s can be called into question, the premium status of craft beer shouldn’t be, he said.
“[With premiumisation] you raise [the customers’] expectations, they trade up, and then you’re back to the start again and you get them to aspire to something better.
“What was so incredible about the craft beer revolution was that ‘premium’ mainstream brands were telling us it was all superior ingredients, integrity, authenticity, taste and provenance, then along come small brewers who have more of each of those things than big mainstream brands have, and the big mainstream brands are appalled when drinkers start buying craft!
“They helped create the conditions for craft to thrive.”
That craft beer is thriving across the world is not in doubt, whatever the stage a local market is at in its lifecycle.
“‘Craft beer’ means an awful lot to a huge number of people right now. And the attributes all these people apply to craft beer are broadly consistent – interesting flavour, small-batch brewing, a range of styles, and arguably, local provenance,” Brown explained.
But for brewers, things could be looking a little more challenging in the future.
“It’s already getting much harder for the small craft brewer to compete – we have too many brewers competing for the same dollar, and they’re now competing against bigger, more powerful opponents.
“So I certainly think we’re peaking in terms of number of brewers. But I do not believe that this means we’re going to go back to drinking interchangeable beers made in factories by a handful of global corporations run by accountants.
“Someone who has gone on a journey from IPA to sours to Belgian beers is not going to turn around and say, :”You know what? On reflection, I think I preferred Fosters.”
“In the UK, craft beer is now 7% of volume. In the mid-1970s, lager was 7% of volume. I honestly believe that interesting, flavourful beer will continue to grow and grow – even as the market changes shape.”
Hear what else Pete Brown has to say at the IBA’s BrewCon 2019, which runs from Wednesday 4 September to Thursday 5 September concurrent with the Trade Expo, which runs until Friday 6 September, while The Indies Beer Awards Ceremony will be held on Thursday 5 September.
The IBA have also launched their event portal app – download now with the code BrewCon19.
Find out more about the speakers and events at BrewCon 2019.