Someone working for a marketing consultancy once asked me if a big global brewer could create craft beer.
“Of course,” I answered. They’ve got the brewing expertise and access to ingredients.”
“So how would they do it? What would they have to do for it to be craft beer?”
“Simple: they just have to put the brewer in charge of the process and let him or her brew what they want, without interference from the marketing department or the accountants. Then they need to skip their usual process of innovation funnels, workshops, endless rounds of research and approval ‘gates’, and just get it on to a bar as soon as possible and see if people like it. If they do, just scale it up from there.”
“Oh, they’d never do that.”
“Well, they can’t make craft beer then.”
Craft has created shockwaves that have been felt in the brewing industry. It may still be a niche sector, but it’s revived interest in beer and is recruiting new drinkers. It’s also creating a new standard of pre-miumness, and higher margins that benefit everyone in the busi-ness of making and selling beer.
But the growth of craft has also blindsided the handful of giant corporations who control most of the world’s big beer brands.
First, it challenges their belief that the brand is more important than what they, hideously, refer to as ‘the liquid’. It suggests that what’s inside the can or bottle is more important than what’s on the label.
Second, it challenges the universally held assumption that the beer drinker is simply in search of ‘easy drinking refreshment’ — that people are scared of flavour and don’t want it in their beer.
In 2015 all the global brewers ramped up their response. They’ve snapped up craft brewers or launched their own craft ranges.
Last month I was judging the Brussels Beer Challenge, a global competition that includes every beer style you can think of. Normally in these competitions the overall standard is generally poor, punctuated by one or two absolute stars that you want to find and drink for the rest of your life. This time, the technical standard was very high, but many of the beers were boring.
I tasted pale ales, wheat beers, kolsch- and helles-style beers that I might have mistaken for mainstream lagers if I hadn’t known what I was drinking. I suspect I was tasting the response to craft beer from large brewing corporations: yes, we’re brewing these eclectic styles. But we still can’t quite be convinced that the drinker really is after flavour rather than simply a more artisanal image around their easy-drinking refreshment.
And then, two weeks later, I found myself at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, with a group of American lifestyle journalists. We were there for the unveiling of a new bar that’s been installed in the brewery’s old pilot plant. Guinness has poached the head brewer from one of Ireland’s leading craft breweries and given him free rein to create whatever he wants.
They put his beers in this bar, and only this bar. The ones that people like will be looked at for scaling up and wider distribution. They’ve done exactly what I suggested to my consultant friend a few years ago.
Some were OK, like the beers I tasted at the Brussels Beer Challenge. Others were stunning. I found myself planning a campaign to get the Imperial Milk Stout and the Dunkelweisse into bigger production.
Yes, Guinness is brewing an Imperial Milk Stout and a Dunkelweisse.
The one characteristic all the beers shared was balance. They were elegant rather than raw; flavourful, but not alienating. Guinness may have cracked the middle ground between bold craft adventurers and the mainstream.
During the launch, the people from Guinness were careful not to use the word ‘craft’. And this made me think, for the first time, that we may not need that troublesome word for much longer. In debating whether a brewery or beer is craft or not, we’re in danger of missing the broader point: the craft revolution is making all kinds of brewers explore more interesting, flavourful beer.
I can see why this might cause some consternation for craft brewers and their hardcore fans, for whom craft is a movement, a stand against the corporate dominance of everything. But from a drinker’s point of view, if the big guys are now making better beer, that has to be good news.