Once the preserve of passionate individuals, with a niche following and limited profitability, the UK's craft brewers are now carving out a market of their own within the country's food and beverage sector.

The industry as a whole is now progressing from recovery to long-term sustainable growth. The global economic downturn hit the sector hard, with consumers forced to rein in their spending on anything other than the essentials. But, one of the more unusual side-effects of the crash was a shift in some consumer habits from big brands to more bespoke, personalised products. The term 'micro-brewery' dramatically evolved, from a by-word for real ale lovers to an on-trend cult encompassing a wide demographic – from young urbanites to mature consumers looking for a drink that has been 'crafted' rather than mass-produced.

From cult to mainstream 

Sales figures for artisan and craft beers back up the buzz both within and outside the drinks industry. The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) revealed an estimated 1.55m barrels had been sold in the UK in 2013 alone. Conservative estimates suggest over 7.8m people throughout the UK are regularly consuming craft beers. And, it's not just the UK that's witnessing a growing thirst for specialist brews: Between 2000 and 2010, craft beer sales in the US rose from less than $3bn per year to more than $7.5bn per year.

In the 1990s, ambitious individuals combined talent with drive and made their millions in the tech sector. Today, many of the talented and bright business stars of the future are making their mark in craft breweries.

Only seven years ago, two university graduates set up a craft brewery in rural Aberdeenshire. Their aim was to exploit a gap that they saw in the market, creating bespoke beers with a 'punk' edge. BrewDog now boasts that it's the UK's largest independently-owned brewery, producing more than 120,000 bottles per month that are shipped across the globe. Around 140 miles south, in Edinburgh, another international success story is Innis & Gunn. The firm was originally set up as a joint venture with William Grant & Sons, but eventually evolved into an independent entity. Last year, the business sold 15m bottles of its specialist beers to the UK, the Nordic countries and North America. It's now the number one craft brewer in Canada and number two in Sweden.

But, if the industry has witnessed a David and Goliath battle, Goliath is starting to fight back. Pub giant, Greene King, has invested GBP750,000 (US$1.3m) on an 'innovation brewery'. The facility will be exclusively used to trial new, exclusive craft beers. Meanwhile, Fuller's has entered the growing market, following the GBP3.8m purchase of west-country micro-producer Cornish Orchards last year.

Branching out

As the one-time niche craft beers and ciders become increasingly mainstream, and the market becomes more crowded and competitive, there is a need for the brewers that started the revolution to innovate and diversify. The same passion and methods that launched the UK's micro-brewery success story must now be used to create a long-term, sustainable future for the industry.

The natural route for products to continue to grow is export. For companies like Innis & Gunn, that option is already paying off. However, the jump from local to global carries significant risk and isn't always the best mid-term option for growth.

Diversification could be the key to continued success. BrewDog has already moved successfully into franchised bars, with around 20 venues now open to drinkers from Dundee to Sao Paulo. Meanwhile, Fuller's has entered into a joint-agreement with craft cider and pizza restaurant chain, The Stable.

Finding alternative channels of distribution and exploring new markets will ultimately help to maintain the rapid growth that we are witnessing in one of the country's most exciting new industries. Last year, figures from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) revealed there were 187 new breweries launched in the UK.

The sector is becoming increasingly crowded. But, with continued entrepreneurial ambition and an innovative, global outlook, the industry should have a bright future.

Grant Thornton UK LLP is a business and financial adviser. The firm is a member of Grant Thornton International, an organisation of independent assurance, tax and advisory firms with around 31,000 people, across 100 countries. Grant Thornton provides advice for organisations to help boost growth. Proactive teams, led by partners in these firms, are available to solve complex issues for privately-owned, publicly-listed and public sector clients. For more details on the company, click here.