There are grumblings from deep within the craft beer movement that their underdog status is being exploited by the larger brewers, a tussle for authenticity BrewDog is fighting by trumpeting its independence.
When the news broke last month that brewing conglomerate AB InBev had bought trendy craft beer brand Camden Town Brewery for £85m, purists slammed the brewery for selling up to the big guns. Scottish craft brewery BrewDog was one of the most vocal and immediately de-listed Camden Town Brewery brands from its 43 global bars, which it explained in a telling blog post titled ‘Nailing our colours to the mother fucking mast’. The Drum caught up with BrewDog to find out why it will never sell out and why independence is the new craft.
“2015 has been a bad year for craft beer. Global beer mega corporations, the ones who destroyed, bastardised and commoditised beer over the last 50 years have been acquiring craft breweries left right and centre.” That was the opening gambit to BrewDog’s scathing blog post on its website last month in response to the Camden Town Brewery buyout.
And CTB isn’t alone. Last year craft breweries Goose Island, Meantime, Elysian, Lagunitas, Ballast Point, Nøgne Ø and Golden Road were all acquired by bigger brewers who, amid sliding beer sales, are looking to bet on the winning horse that is craft beer.
“When Camden [Town Brewery] announced that they were selling, the response on social media was almost like grief so it shows that people are really passionate about the breweries that they support. It’s not just another company to them it’s something they are quite emotionally invested in,” BrewDog head of marketing Sarah Warman told The Drum.
“At BrewDog we are exceedingly dogmatic about the whole approach that we have. Our mission is to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. We're not driven by cost so it’s [selling to a larger brewer] just something that BrewDog would ever do in a million years.”
While the craft brewer’s raison d'etre is to spread the passion for the category, Warman argued that companies such as Budweiser maker AB InBev are driven solely by profit margin, not taste.
“A big multinational would be able to provide discounts for its customers if they were to buy a craft beer and then they would get discounted rates on other lines such as Budweiser, hence they are then squeezing out the opportunities for independent craft beers to get that fridge and shelf space and that’s where the actual threat lies for us,” she said.
The power of craft
Although the threat the likes of MillerCoors et al pose to the burgeoning craft industry, it’s easy to see why they want a piece of the pie. In the US for example sales of craft beer (including craft-style offerings) reached $20bn in 2014, doubling sales just five years prior, and the category is tipped to reach $36.3bn by 2019, according to a 2015 study by Mintel.
The report also found that 23 per cent of respondents drink craft beer, with craft consumption highest among those between the ages of 25-34 (29 per cent). The steady growth of the category is due, in part, to the 55 per cent of respondents who admitted that they are willing to spend more for craft beer than non-craft.
“It’s an amazing scene in the UK because it’s so eclectic," said Warman.
"It’s an exciting time for craft beer so we mustn’t forget that with all this doom and gloom with a lot of breweries selling out that actually we are in an amazing position and have got some great beers being produced in the UK and we are setting a world standard at the moment."
The rise of independence
The sale of craft brands to bigger brewers has of course opened up a can of worms around the term ‘craft’ itself. Can a craft beer still be a craft beer if its owned and marketed by a conglomerate? “Independence is becoming a much bigger phrase in the whole industry because ultimately, if a brewery is owned by another brewery, then that bigger brewery wants to gain margin, wants to gain market share and see their stock market position increase. They are not in it for the passion and the flavour and the interest in beer,” continued Warman.
“The craft brewers who are independent, that’s what they care about because there’s no point for them to be focussed on those numbers. Obviously they have to be aware of them because they are a business at the end of the day but they are not run purely as a business and they are not run by board members who don’t even drink beer.”