Is 'innovation' a dirty word in the beer industry? - Comment

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This month, our beer industry commentator, Stephen Beaumont, looks at the innovation record of the brewing multinationals and finds them heavily reliant on the smaller, craft players out there.

Heinekens Blade draught system was unveiled earlier this month

Heineken's Blade draught system was unveiled earlier this month

In early October, Heineken launched a new draught dispensing system purportedly positioned to become the "Nespresso of draught beer". Called the Blade, the tabletop GBP499 (US$660) device pours draught beer from 8-litre kegs and is being aimed at bars and restaurants that do not presently offer draught beer.

The Blade comes on the heels of two previous Heineken draught-delivery systems, the BeerTender and The Sub, both of which were aimed at the home rather than the licensee market. Neither of these systems fulfilled their potential, as Heineken's commercial director for the Blade in the UK, Ross Mair, admitted to just-drinks earlier this month.

So, the world's number two brewer will be hoping that third time is indeed the charm with the Blade. But, even if this, too, falls flat, the Dutch brewer can take some solace in the fact that all three of its draught dispensers at least qualify as legitimate innovations.

Such is not always the case in the brewing industry.

The term 'innovation' may be one of the most abused in brewing

Indeed, the term 'innovation' may be one of the most abused in brewing, frequently applied to everything from a slightly different-shaped packages – recall that Budweiser's 'bow tie' can was touted as an innovation – to temperature-sensitive labels or a means of creating a second puncture that allows for faster and "smoother" flow from a can. More concrete and quantifiable innovation in brewing, meanwhile, either take places well behind the scenes, as with improvements in brewery technology, or arrives as developments that it turns out consumers don't particularly want, such as Miller's clear beer of the 1990s.

And, herein lies the problem that brewers - especially big brewers - have with innovation. If it is of the sort that makes their beer cleaner, crisper, purer or even a bit better, it's probably also something so complicated and technological that consumers either can't grasp the science or don't want to be bothered hearing about it. But, if it is an 'innovation' that garners press, like a new type of can or a different sort of package, it is either viewed as a marketing gimmick or proves to have a lifespan so short as to be forgotten almost as quickly as it is recognised. Sometimes, it's even a combination of the two.

Even broadly successful category innovations such as ice beer and dry beer have limited durability. Sure, you can still buy beers with one or the other designation on the label, but how long has it been since either was relevant to the marketplace? Quite long, is the answer.

In fact, about the only innovation in beer style that has shown significant staying power is light beer. And one other besides: American pale ale and IPA.

Which brings us to the other problem multinational brewers have with innovation, and that is the near-stranglehold that smaller and more nimble craft brewers have on it. For, ever since Sierra Nevada Brewing of Chico, California, came up with the idea of hopping their Pale Ale entirely with the previously-maligned (or ignored) Cascade hop, and in so doing created the modern American pale ale - the precursor to the American IPA - small brewers have been the ones best able to grab headlines with their style innovations.

It continued through the 1990s, when Bourbon barrel-conditioning was launched by the now Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned - but, at the time, still independent - Goose Island Brewing, and well into the new century, with the newly-popular process of kettle souring brought to prominence in 2015 by a trio of brewers from the US Pacific north-west. Absurdly high and previously unheard of alcohol contents (Boston Beer Co); continuous kettle hopping (Dogfish Head Brewing); the 'Italian grape ale' (Baladin); fruited IPAs (the then-independent Ballast Point); Aotearoa pale ale from New Zealand (8 Wired, among others): All creations of small, creative and experimental craft brewers.

Any large brewer that claims a true innovation of their own is likely to have it met with scepticism

So successful have the craft brewers been in their innovations, in fact, that any large brewer that claims a true flavour or style innovation of their own is likely to have it met with scepticism, if not outright cynicism. So, while Carlsberg's much-touted Re-Brew project, which produced a beer fermented by what is believed to be the original pure strain lager yeast, Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, scored points among the beer writers and industry people present at its unveiling, it caused only ripples of interest among beer consumers.

All of which leaves the multinationals stuck between the innovation rock and the gimmick hard place, searching for the next advancement in beer flavour or style that will take hold with consumers, while simultaneously turning out new packages and, yes, draught-dispense systems in the hope that one of them will take hold.

Sectors: Beer & cider

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