The beer market, like life, seems to be full of delicious ironies.
Here’s my favourite one at the moment. Pretty much every day, I encounter someone arguing that craft beer is a meaningless term describing a product that doesn’t exist. It’s just marketing. It has no precise technical definition. Therefore it’s useless.
Well, it’s a point of view. But what troubles me is that many of the people who hold it are perfectly happy to go around talking about ‘premium’ products and experiences, which, when you think about it, really is astonishingly hypocritical.
The word ‘premium’ has a dictionary definition (as, incidentally, does ‘craft beer.’) In fact there are several definitions of ‘premium,’ two of which are relevant and recognisable in beer. The first is with regard to price: ‘above the usual or nominal price.’ The second is ‘to put a premium’ on something, which is to ‘regard or treat as particularly valuable or important.’
And yet the beer industry doesn’t use these ideas; it defines premium in relation to alcohol content. Premium lager is above 4.5% ABV. Premium ale is above 4.2% ABV.
By this logic, Skol Super (9% ABV) is more highly regarded and sells at a higher price than Pilsner Urquell (4.4% ABV), and Tesco’s Own Label Strong Bitter (5% ABV) is more premium than Crouch Vale Brewers Gold (4% ABV), one of only two beers that have won Champion Beer of Britain in two consecutive years.
It’s nonsense. And yet this is the measure of ‘premium’ the beer industry officially uses.
Thankfully the drinker sees things in a different way. When Molson Coors was developing Carling Zest – a low strength, fruit-flavoured lager – it asked focus group respondents to map different drinks according to how premium they felt they were. Carling Zest, at 2.8% ABV, was regarded as more premium than any mainstream or ‘premium’ beer brand.
This is because it was new, different, and had a specific appeal to a generation that’s less bothered about alcohol ‘bang for your buck’ than mine was at their age.
Carling Zest wouldn’t make premium or even mainstream in my own personal evaluation of beers, which shows that notions of what is valuable and important, and therefore worth paying more for, are completely subjective.
But it’s more important now than ever that pubs figure out what their drinkers regard as premium, and stock it accordingly.
We’re all painfully aware that the average punter doesn’t visit pubs as often as they used to. Research for last year’s Cask Report showed that the average frequency of pub visits for most people is now about once a month. Of course, that’s alarming. But it means that what people expect from the pubs, and the nature of the pub visit, is changing.
Take the whole issue of ‘pre-loading,’ where younger drinkers meet up and drink quite a lot before heading out to a pub or bar. We’re rightly concerned about the price disparity between pubs and supermarkets that encourages people to do this, but there’s another side to the equation.
Research by CGA Strategy shows that once these people finally get to the pub, having saved so much money on their supermarket booze, they actively want to spend it on super-premium products. They want drinks and experiences that the supermarket can’t offer. They actively want to spend over the odds, whether that’s on a gin brewed with a rare botanical that’s only grown on one mountainside in Tibet, a cocktail that takes three days to make and exists only as a concept inside a glass of smoke, or a craft beer that’s been aged in barrels made from the fossilised wood of Noah’s ark.
When people go to pubs less often, they’re not going to the pub because it’s a default option, but because they want a specifically pubby experience. If they’re only going once a month, they want it to be different and memorable.
Cloudwater’s Double IPA is the most sought after craft beer in the UK. Each new batch sells out in minutes, and sells for up to £10 a pint in pubs. You may well think that isn’t justifiable. But even in a climate of deep financial uncertainty, some people are more than happy to pay it. They’re not stupid: the beer’s scarcity; the cost and volume of hops it uses; and above all the flavour of the beer all make it worth paying more for. It also happens to have a high ABV, but that’s neither here nor there.
Premium, like craft, does exist. It also had people who care about it a great deal. But there are many people who are at pains to tell you how premium they are, which always strikes me as a bit suspicious.
Premiumness, like craft, and like being able to tell a good joke, is something you demonstrate rather than something you tell people. You can spot the genuine article pretty easily as soon as you see it.