Comment - Beer - Craft Beer & Big Brewers: It Can Be Done
Using Pete Brown's analogy - more of which follows - the craft brewers of this world are the Gorky's Zygotic Mynci to Anheuser-Busch InBev's U2, or the Ramona Falls to Carlsberg's Coldplay. Confused? Pete, it's over to you.
Spending much of my time on the ‘craft beer’ side of the brewing fence brings a great deal of delight to my life. But it’s not without its frustrations. One is that people automatically assume I hate mainstream lager brands.
If they are well made, and have a flavour profile that’s satisfying, structured and makes sense to my palate, I don’t mind them at all, and often drink them even when not under duress.
The only ones I hate are those that have suffered so many cutbacks in the quality and integrity of their ingredients and production processes that they have gone beyond bland, and into a murky realm where they actually taste offensive to the palate, and can only be drunk ice-cold, or disguised with a wedge of lime or splash of lemonade to disguise the inherent off-flavours.
I also hate it when some brewers say things like “What is inside this can/bottle means nothing. The only important factor is the label on the outside.” This is a direct quote from a marketer at one world-leading brewer. I can’t imagine many other product sectors where people would display such open contempt for the product upon which their salaries and pensions rely, a product they then expect millions of consumers to be passionate about.
My second frustration as a craft beer fan is that I spend large amounts of time believing I’m living inside a bubble, cut off from the rest of the world by an impermeable barrier of language, flavour attitude and belief.
Inside my bubble, there’s a revolution going on. People of all demographics are drinking beers that change their lives. They’re riding headlong into a new world of flavour possibilities and connoisseurship, a world where beer fulfils its two primary objectives of being a flavourful, refreshing beverage, and a fulcrum for social interaction, far better than it does outside.
But I feel cut off – at the top of this column, I talked about being on this ‘side of the fence’. It seems to me you’re either a ‘craft beer person’ or you don’t drink craft beer at all, and never the twain shall meet. I try to write about beer for a general audience, but always seem to be heard only by those who are already with the programme. The number of those people is growing, but the idea of craft going mainstream still seems distant.
I’ve been here before: when I was an indie music snob (Okay, I still am), I had to accept that my taste in music would be met with active hostility among my George Michael and Simply Red-loving friends. (What can I say? I’m a tolerant, sociable, forgiving guy). Maybe you could describe The Smiths or New Order as an acquired taste. But I had to accept that neither My Bloody Valentine, Flying Saucer Attack nor even Sonic Youth were ever going to be deemed ‘nice music’ for a dinner party.
The continued existence of a musical counter-culture is predicated on the fact that, while there will be occasional crossovers such as Oasis or Arctic Monkeys, there are some flavours of music the mainstream will simply never take to, even if these painfully cool acts on small labels with limited budgets were suddenly to try to win over widespread acceptance.
Does this analogy hold up with beer? Well, I think we’re about to find out.
I wrote six months ago about how craft beer had become a force to be reckoned with on a global scale in 2011, and that there were signs the big brewers were starting to take a keen interest.
Over the past two weeks, just-drinks has revealed that both Carlsberg and Anheuser-Busch Inbev are launching craft-style beers under new sub-brands: Backyard Brewery from Carlsberg, and ‘Project 12’ from A-B Inbev.
It’s tempting for someone in my position to dismiss these developments with a sneer. If I said this was a cynical attempt to grab a share of a market they don’t deserve, to appropriate a segment that exists precisely because it opposes everything these huge corporations stand for, there would be ample justification in that.
It’s tempting, again, to ridicule the beers themselves before actually tasting them, to point out that their press releases make them sound like mainstream lagers with just a tiny hint of added craft, and that those press releases display little or no understanding of what makes the craft beer consumer tick.
But, of course, these beers are not aimed directly at the craft beer consumer. And I’ll hold back any judgement on the beers until I’ve actually tasted them.
Because, while I remain deeply suspicious at these developments, overall I’m left with a feeling of quiet optimism.
Together with countless other advocates of craft beer, I’ve spent years trying to persuade mainstream drinkers to develop an interest in craft beer. I do so because I think they’ll like it. I think it will add pleasure to their lives. Frequently I host beer tastings where people who think they ‘don’t like beer’ are dragged along, and leave with a new-found passion for cascade hops or Bourbon-aged stout. They simply never knew it existed before or, if they did, there seemed to be no reason for them to try it.
We craft beer advocates are trying to burst the bubble from the inside, and it’s hard work. If mainstream brewers start to flirt with craft-style beers from the outside, they’re going to pull a lot more people in with them than we can attract by pushing outwards.
If the two sides can find ground upon which they can meet harmoniously - naïve optimist that I am - I believe all parties would benefit. The drinker would realise the full potential of what beer can offer them, and find beers they love. The craft beer brewer will have a broader audience more receptive and curious about their beers. And the mainstream brewer will have something in their portfolio that gives the bean-counters product lines with a little extra margin, and the brewers something they can feel reasonably excited about brewing.
What beer snobs like me sometimes forget is that the likes of Carlsberg and A-B Inbev routinely hire the best technical brewers in the world. If they allow these brewers to express themselves with beers that are not slaughtered in compromise by ill thought-out market research, this might just be the start of a revived, unified beer market.
Cue feedback-drenched guitar solo.
Hartwall plans to cut up to 8% of its staff and outsource part of its sales work, the Heineken-owned brewer has said....
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