Experimentation, pushing the boundaries and changing perceptions; innovation was the driving force of the craft beer revolution, a movement that revolutionised the category, bringing new consumers and a multitude of new producers to it. But has the market now splintered itself into identity oblivion?
It goes like this. Beer, a drink with thousands of years’ worth of history, at one point, fell into a deep rut. Once an essential part of daily life, cask beer had become perceived as either old fashioned, warm, bland and the preserve of old men sat nursing it in pubs with yellow walls. Or else, in the case of lager, it was the bland, watery liquid that fired up football hooligans and domestic abusers, produced at scale by large multinationals. Neither was good. both marketed themselves to men only. And both were arguably devoid of passion, quality, and dynamism.
Then a curious thing happened. Young US brewers inspired by their travels across Europe returned with ideas of ways to update, reinterpret and re-craft classic styles, morphing them into something new, and crucially marketing them in unisex packaging that welcomed everyone in. The rest, as you know, is history, as the idea bubbled across the world to other key beer markets, who simultaneously both tore up, sometimes embraced, and rewrote the rule book. And ultimately influencing other categories to go ‘craft’ by emphasising the passion and the process behind them.
Was it all a great success? Largely. Though after the initial rush to market by would-be brewers everywhere, droves of early players were either bought up by the large companies they positioned themselves as the antithesis of in the first place, or else they folded, unable to run a viable business in a saturated market. And that was just the first wave.
An identity crisis?
Now, a good 15-20 years on from when the revolution started, where are we? Has it now burned itself out? Or even worse, is the craft beer movement suffering more than an identity crisis, but a complete lack of identity?
The thing is, craft – something that has eluded an official definition everywhere but in the US – has lost many of its key calls to action. Morphing from a movement to a marketing ploy, what does the category really now stand for, when half of the products on the shelves are owned by the players the originally rallied against?
It’s a well-trodden argument by beer purists, but do consumers in general looking for a tasty, reasonably priced, cool-looking beer really care? Arguably not. But as they category has fragmented, its also become increasingly hard to shop. Firstly, beer styles have ever fragmented, into some that don’t truthfully make any sense.
A fragmented market
A black pale ale shouldn’t and cannot be a thing. Innovation such as hard smoothies, pastry beers, double and imperial IPA’s, have kept things interesting, pleasing avid fans. Meanwhile a plethora of fruity flavours aims to stave off the onward march of RTDs, though it has yet to be seen how successfully. But with a total absence of packaging cues across the category, innovation and fragmentation has also made it incredibly hard to shop.
From a million cans with clouds in pastel hues, to cartoon spaceships, skulls, typewriter fonts on mono-coloured backgrounds, and countless geometric patterns, browsing the shelf doesn’t make too much sense visually.
However, in some ways, they’ve not had to. With the onset of the pandemic, brands had to migrate from a physical presence on shelves, to a digital one. Being instantly visibly identifiable as coming from a particular brewery took prominence over helping consumers navigate the category. To stand out and be found by consumers, brands were relying on a loyalty to themselves only. Now that consumers are back browsing shelves with offerings from a number of brands, many hope that loyalty will hold.
Where does it go from here?
However, the question is, where does the category go from here? Once forging ahead independently and creating its own trends, it's arguably now a follower. Previously known for full flavour, and heavy hops, brands such as Beavertown are now backing down, and aligning themselves with the wider drinks market. The brewer has just launched its Sunlight Lite Lager, which is not only 3.8%, but deliberately light on hops in order to be sessionable and easy drinking.
There’s no doubt, trends towards moderation and wellbeing have gone against the category in many ways. Now that it is forced to meld itself to meet the demands of the day, what does it really stand for?
The category needs to focus on a cohesive direction that makes sense with what the category now claims to stand for if it is to keep any distinct identity. There’s no doubt, that craft identity has so far proved lucrative. Will it take an old or new player to do it? Many of the biggest craft brands, from BrewDog to Camden Town have lost their credibility in calling out quality and independence issues among mainstream brands. And many others are going to find their premium priced beers a harder sell in the current squeeze on disposable incomes.
So maybe it will take a new player, focused on liquid alone to bring the focus back to what craft beer is, and should be; a nimble, pioneering category, focused on delivering the best possible brew.
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