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For beer commentator Stephen Beaumont, the recent activities by Carlsberg in the UK signal the end of the war between 'big beer' and craft beer.

Does the replacement of brand Carlsberg in the UK with Carlsberg Danish Pilsner signify a turning point in the wider beer category?

Does the replacement of brand Carlsberg in the UK with Carlsberg Danish Pilsner signify a turning point in the wider beer category?

Since Carlsberg debuted its new Carlsberg Danish Pilsner in the UK earlier this year, following the move this month with the daring "We lost our way" advertising campaign in support of the expression, many have deliberated over the risk the company is taking and its subsequent chances of success. What has not been as widely considered, however, is what this one pivot might mean for the beer industry as a whole. 

I'm in no doubt that the Danish brewer is taking quite a gamble in denigrating its old product while touting the glories of its new one: It's understandable that this bold move has drawn considerable attention. What has been largely overlooked, however, is that in taking its flagship brand more towards the craft side of the UK beer market, Carlsberg has become the first global brewer to openly acknowledge a fundamental shift in the buying habits of the general beer-drinking public. 

To fully appreciate this, we need to travel back in time a few decades. 

In the early days of craft brewing, when US breweries like Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer were struggling to earn consumer trust - and beer industry observers around the world viewed what was going on in North America as a curiosity, more than the beginnings of a movement - the multinational brewers regarded what was then known as microbrewing as a mere blip in the market. This near-sighted and somewhat patronising view was nowhere better illustrated than in a mid-1990s article in the Wall Street Journal, professing that microbreweries had enjoyed their time in the sun and consumers would soon be heading back to their Budweisers and Miller Lites.

As the 20th Century gave way to the 21st, however, attitudes shifted and the big brewers began launching their own lines of craft-styled brands, from Miller's 'Reserve' line to Anheuser-Busch's Elk Mountain Amber Ale. When that didn't work out so well - almost all of those early efforts have long since been retired - they started snatching up their still quite small but growing competitors.

In the second decade of this century, of course, craft brewery acquisitions have become so commonplace as to hardly raise an eyebrow, with pretty much every major international brewing industry player laying claim to at least one or two locally- or regionally-focused breweries, and some, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, owning a bevy of small breweries all around the world.

Still, for all the credibility these activities bestowed upon the craft sector, it was still, well, the craft sector. While major beer brands continue to bleed sales in markets like the US and Canada, the volumes provided by craft brewers like Goose Island in Chicago (owned by A-B InBev) or Trou du Diable in Québec (Molson Coors), or even California's Lagunitas (Heineken) don't even come close to offsetting the losses being experienced in mature western markets by the legacy brands.

Which is why Carlsberg's latest move is so momentous. In replacing Carlsberg Lager with Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, and noting publically that the former was, in fact, "probably not the best beer in the world," Carlsberg has become the first large, multinational brewing group to acknowledge that the tail is now wagging the dog. Craft beer brands no longer compete just with other craft beer brands; they also vie for the same consumers as the world's most storied and historic beer brands.

It's a move that echoes the recent calls of some industry observers to stop segmenting 'big beer' and 'craft beer' and simply speak of beer, period. And, in many ways, it makes a lot of sense, given that even the traditional bastions of international beer brand dominance, like hotels and sporting venues and even cruise lines, are now being infiltrated by craft and speciality beer brands. So long as the international brewers continue to deny that they're competing directly against the likes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Thornbridge Jaipur, they'll be unlikely to stem the sales losses being effected by those very brands.

Of course, what we could ultimately wind up calling 'The Carlsberg Approach' might not work, either. As my just-drinks colleague, Andy Morton, has already observed, "denigrating your product is a risky business because it treats your consumers as suckers". The Danish brewer's approach runs the risk of putting off as many beer drinkers as it attracts.

Regardless of its success or failure, however, the new Carlsberg Danish Pilsner and its associated marketing campaign will be remembered as momentous for the way they finally - and very publically - bridged the gap between beer and craft beer, acknowledging that the Budweiser, Meantime and Carlsberg consumers are, in fact, the same person.

It's an approach likely to become increasingly commonplace in the very near future. 


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