A value beer brewed in one country may be positioned as premium when exported to another

A value beer brewed in one country may be positioned as premium when exported to another

When a brewer talks about the value category, does the consumer understand what is meant? How about premium? Super-premium? And, what about craft? just-drinks' beer commentator, Stephen Beaumont, considers whether these terms mean as much to consumers as they clearly do to the global brewing industry.

Twenty years ago, beer menus in most North American bars and restaurants were pretty straightforward affairs. Sure, the brewing industry might have had its multiple designations - 'value,' 'premium' and 'super-premium' and such - but, for the beer consumer, the choice was very cut-and-dried: domestic or imported.

The use of 'micro' in relation to beer inevitably brought to mind the image of tiny glasses of ale

Of course, that was before the widespread adoption of the terms 'craft brewing' and 'craft beer', which replaced their less universally-adopted predecessors 'microbrewing' and 'microbrew'. That's because many of the formerly-modest operations these latter terms described had grown significantly in scale, and also because the use of 'micro' in relation to beer inevitably brought to mind the image of tiny glasses of ale.

Today, most menus boast at least three categories, including 'craft', while some feature many more, itemising beers by style, colour or even more evocative terms like 'quenching' 'bold' and 'sessionable'.

In a marketplace that has seen the number of entrants swell exponentially since the turn of the century, it's hardly surprising to see that the brewing industry has likewise expanded its repertoire of classifications, adding 'craft' and 'flavoured malt beverages' to the mix, among other, less consistently-employed categories. Unlike the growing classification of beer at the consumer level, however, industry tags seem to be growing increasingly ill-defined, or at the very least blurred.

Take the recent case of Heineken in China, for example. Through its tie-up with Snow brand owner China Resources Enterprises, announced earlier this month, the Dutch brewer is angling for access to the growing premium beer category in the world's largest beer market by volume. As reported by just-drinks, however, analyst Euan McLeish suggests that brand Heineken's higher price - about 30% more than Budweiser - means that the brand has effectively skipped a category and will be fighting in the super-premium rather than premium sector, thus facing off against brands like Corona and Kronenbourg Blanc rather than its presumed foe, Budweiser. 

In China, the difference between premium and super-premium is price. In the UK, on the other hand, the divide between regular and premium beers has traditionally been based upon alcohol content, with premium lager beginning at 4.5% abv and premium ale starting at 4.2%. The term super-premium, meanwhile, seems more dependent upon pricing. A 5.5% lager, therefore, could be considered premium unless it's priced at a notably higher level, in which case it is super-premium, or is brewed by a small operation, which makes it craft.

Turn your attention to the US and the waters muddy further, with regular, premium, super-premium and other categories being defined in different ways by different segments of the industry. According to most sources, for example, Michelob Ultra is defined as a super-premium beer, although it is also, technically, a light beer and so included in that category by some. And, while we're talking about light beers, Bud Light variants such as Bud Light Lime and Bud Light Chelada are commonly classed as super-premium, but basic Bud Light is merely premium.

Clouding the waters further, the partially Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned beer rating website, ratebeer.com, defines a premium beer as something that "straddles between the mainstream Pale Lager and Pilsner" - hardly where most drinkers would place Bud Light. Like most consumer-focused publications, the site doesn't even acknowledge super-premium.

That which is a mass market beer in its home country can assume all sorts of guises when exported to another

Further still, that which is a mass market beer in its home country can assume all sorts of guises when exported to another. Take the helles lagers of Munich's 'Big Six' breweries, for example. While few Bavarians would argue with the notion that a Löwenbrau or Hacker-Pschorr Edelhell is a lovely beer for day-to-day enjoyment, fewer still would make the case that either is super-premium. Transport those same beers to far-off shores, however, or even brew them in a different country under licence, and they quickly become revered and worthy of inflated price tags.

None of this even touches upon the notion of craft, the definition of which seems to fluctuate almost hourly. It could be argued with some conviction that consumers, as with art, still know a craft beer when they taste one, but for the industry the term has become so convoluted that it is in the process of being all but abandoned by the very organisation that originally championed and popularised its use, the Brewer's Association of the United States.

What this all means going forward is obviously unknown, but it seems likely that the further blurring of the lines identified above shall follow as the beer market grows still more complicated and diverse.

For industry sources, at least, I'd suggest that pricing will eventually be all that separates all of the various categories, including craft.