Colin Johnson from Crisp Maltings chaired a discussion between Eddie Lofthouse; founder Harbour Brewing in Cornwall; Bill Laukitis of Rye River brewing company in Kildare, Ireland; and Jim Wakefield of Somerset’s Pulpt Cider; about the trends and challenges facing the reported 2,000 craft brewers in the UK in 2019.
Attempting to avoid the subject of Brexit, the panel highlighted a number of areas that could provide challenges and opportunities for the sector in the next 12 months.
Increased emphasis on educating from within
The most pressing issue highlighted by the expert panel was the difficulty brewers face in recruiting staff who have extensive brewing experience and expertise.
“In my experience of getting graduates from universities they have all of the knowledge but lack some of the technical skills,” Johnson explained.
While Lofthouse highlighted that Harbour Brewing company runs a training and apprenticeship scheme, and assists staff with funding for diplomas and qualifications, the brewer finds recruiting experienced staff difficult.
“We’ve been trying to recruit a head brewer for a while now and it’s not been that easy. There is simply a shortage of very skilled brewers who can give you consistency,” Lofthouse added. "Lots of brewers go and set up their own breweries now.
“The vocational element of training is still missing from the industry. We have to find the right way of learning for people. There needs to be more formalised training out there.”
Laukitis added: “For a lot of breweries that have opened recently in the craft sector, finding an experienced person is challenging. We’ve trained most people internally. Our brewery is five years old, I’m the head brewer but I came in as a home brewer. You take passion and you sculpt it.
“We’ve had to take a passionate group of people and help them along the way. If someone’s there for the right reasons you’re going to persevere with the challenges and figure it out. But there could totally be more programmes available.”
More technical cider training
According to event host Gabe Cook, there is only one provider of technical cider training in the UK at present. However, he highlighted that "technical intensity" in the cider sector is on its way in the form of new qualifications being made available and skilled staff coming across from winemaking backgrounds.
Jim Wakefield of Somerset’s Pulpt Cider explained that the category suffers from a broad gap in expertise that can be bridged by a stronger focus on cider making qualification. “You’ve got a few very very big companies in cider and hundreds of small companies – hobbyists or people brewing at home – you haven’t got many people in the middle ground," he explained.
“What I think we want from a cider perspective is for people to breach a bit of a ceiling and start making more cider."
More innovation in the cider category
The degree to which craft cider is perceived to be behind beer was also addressed by the panel, with Johnson, drawing upon his experience of the drinks trade in Glasgow, explaining that the cider category’s current state resembles where beer was a decade ago.
He explained that cider lags behind beer in terms of language, education and needs to present it in a modern way.
Wakefield added that cider often struggles as a result of traditional thinking and a perception of low value. “Cider is often seen as the poor relation of beer,” he explained. “But, with beer, there is an explosion in a very positive way, new ways to do things, creation, marketing, innovation. These things are happening with cider but on a very small scale.
“Encouraging people to stock more cider and understanding the depth and breadth is a big challenge. It tends to be the independents who support new things.
“The way that we’ve approached cider is probably more from a craft beer approach. When I started to pick up the different ciders you don’t understand what you’re buying – we’ve tried to change the way we approach things with cider. Cider can be exciting fresh, different and have lots of variety.
Drive for Irish taprooms
Rye River’s Laukitis explained that licensing legislation in Ireland has prevented smaller brewers from building a step in culture to capitalise on tourism, which is long associated with beer.
“The Irish market is very different to the UK market because we have a greater barrier to a brewer becoming part of a community,” he explained.
“All the breweries I know are working towards pushing legislation that means that brewers don’t have to apply for a separate licence to open a taproom – that’s a big barrier for small brewers. A taproom would generate community – what brewing as about.
“We definitely have groups that are lobbying. The current change is that breweries are going to be allowed to open for a period of hours during a day to serve beer – you still have to apply for that licence. It has to almost be sold as a tour at the moment. What you need to be able to do is open your doors. If you can do that your route to sales is much clearer.”
Tough route to market
Lofthouse highlighted that the route to market for small brewers was becoming increasingly squeezed by larger companies buying out craft breweries and increasing their share of beer taps on a bar.
“In Cornwall, we’ve got Sharp's and St Austell – which own 60-70% of the pubs. There are more than 40 breweries in Cornwall and a limited number of taps.”
Discussing the current growth in big brewers’ presence in pubs, Laukitis added: “If you can drive initiatives locally that’s the best way to get consumers involved.”
Increase in ethical brewing/marketing
Wakefield highlighted that in an era when companies and brands faced greater scrutiny over their ethical stance craft brewers of both beer and cider have a unique opportunity to emphasise their provenance, with cider, for example, having the advantage of being gluten-free.
“People are just drinking less but what they drink has to be better quality, which is good for anyone here. What comes with that is paying more, understanding provenance and buying into the credentials of a company – is it interested in the environment and looking after its staff. This is where a smaller company can build a better reputation more quickly.”
Beer in smaller measures
The proportion of Millennials who abstained from drinking grew from 18% to 29% in the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, with one of the key reasons for this being the financial bind many of them find themselves in.
One suggestion to overcome this is to offer smaller pours behind the bar, for example one third pint measures, which not only encourage more responsible drinking but allows customers to understand a beer’s flavour and quality rather than quantity.