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Comment - UK Brewers try to Catch Some 'Craft' Cool

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Changes are afoot in the UK's beer sector.

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Many of the nation's - indeed the world's - oldest, most traditional breweries are breaking out of their comfort zone to embrace the trend for all things 'craft' and American. Beer drinkers in the UK have been turned on for some time now by the vast array of beers being produced on the other side of the Atlantic. But, it is only now that the UK's most established brewers are catching up. 

In the last few months, there has been a plethora of launches. First it was Greene King with its Charlie Parker-inspired, US-style IPA, Yardbird, then Charles Wells released its collaboration with Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery. After that Fuller's came along with its 'craft' lager, Frontier, then Marston's showcased its Revisionist 'craft' lager.

(The only slight reversal is news that Shepherd Neame will try to sell its Spitfire beer in the US. But, the Kent group already brews Samuel Adams under licence in the UK for Boston Beer Co.)

So, why all the activity? 

It's partly down to the direction in which drinkers' tastes are heading. Cask ale has been enjoying a renaissance for some time now in the UK, evidenced by the record number of breweries setting up in the country. Beyond this, however, the sub-category of 'speciality' or 'craft' beer has outperformed even the traditional UK cask market, with 10% volume growth in 2012.

A new generation of well-travelled British beer drinkers are, frankly, a bit bored of many traditional beers being turned out by some of these brewers. Having experienced the remarkable things that can be done with beer, hop-heavy IPAs and pale ales, the idea of supping on a slightly warm, and in comparison, flavourless, bitter, no longer appeals.

Image is also important in the race for the craft beer prize, as younger, fashion-conscious drinkers turn to the category. So, being seen supping some edgy, US-influenced brew scores more hipster points than perhaps a beer from some stuffy British brewer.

No doubt, also, the relative big boys of the UK's brewing scene are looking over their shoulders at the country's smaller players. More and more niche brewers are bagging bar space, again, as pub owners react to changing tastes.

The continued demise of more “traditional” style English pubs will have had an impact too.

The term 'craft' in itself can be seen as a slippery marketing concept, and has been the subject of a heated turf war in the US. No such controversy has yet to emerge in the UK. 

It is little wonder that the UK's family brewers are trying to catch a bit of cool. Ultimately, it's a case of adapt or die.

Some of these companies may have been around for hundreds of years, but these days tradition, increasingly, counts for quite a lot less than it once did.


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