Inspired by the Back Seat of the Tour Bus
This week we kicked off a nation-wide tour of the UK, the Juicebox500. You can find out more about it here, but this post isn’t about that. Well it’s a bit about that, but more so it’s about what comes next.
We recently announced a £2 million brewery expansion and since the announcement we've been having discussions with various interested parties from across the industry, be it brewing friends, customers, beer drinkers or media. More often than not the conversation steers to the state of brewing in this country. It's a conversation that is both interesting and confounding at the same time, with new breweries still opening every week, some commentators have begun to predict the beginning of the end, but who can possibly say; when is enough, enough?
The UK is the most saturated brewing market in the world, it has a unique and long-serving history and we wanted to give our take, an insiders view if you will, on they lay of the land and the future of the global craft beer phenomenon. It all begins this week with the Juicebox500.
A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by a media outlet looking to jump on board the Juicebox500 tour, they weren't going to be able to make all 11 dates on the calendar but they wanted to report on the tour from inside the belly of the beast. I immediately thought of William Miller in Almost Famous, a young man who (somewhat naively) followed a story only to find out about the realities of eking out an existence in the public eye.
The approach to join the tour was a bit of a reality check in regards to how brewers (and breweries) are now perceived in the public eye. Alongside full time bloggers and journalists, there is a new wave of twitter and instagram accounts pulling tens of thousands of followers. Breweries drop big beers like musicians drop their latest track, there's parties and PR and fanboys and girls blow up about them on social media. So how does this play to our mild British sensibilities? Isn't it all a bit too much...
Kind of but not really.
There has been a growing divide in British beer over the last decade, this has accelerated greatly in the last 3-5 years and is predominately focused on two relatively meaningless terms, 'real ale' and 'craft beer'. We haven't done the research as to where the term real ale was conceived however we attribute a lot of its success to CAMRA, real ale's self proclaimed champion and to some degree governing body. Unfortunately CAMRA has of late become a victim of its own success... by clearly defining its role and goals and broadly dismissing competitive products, it now finds itself in a conundrum as to what to do about craft beer.
On the other side of the fence craft beer (broadly considered to be modern, hoppy beers, packaged into keg, can and bottle, ready to serve) has a much looser definition, however tends to be more inclusive. Craft beer effectively focuses on breweries that are small (relative), independent and genuinely passionate about what they do, not purely driven by increasing shareholder profitability. This loose definition would encompass the vast majority of cask 'real ale' brewers in this country as rightly it should.
So why the divide? Pride? Stubbornness? Nostalgia?
Is it a carry-over stigma from the early CAMRA days, old vs young, us vs them, a nice quiet pint down the pub vs breweries collaborating with creative minds the likes of artists, musicians and designers.
Whatever the reason, overall beer consumption is in decline however one area of the market, craft beer, is still seeing strong growth. This growth is seeing a number of agile breweries move into craft beer and some who had once straddled both camps focusing purely on craft within their business. We boil this down to a perception of being more on trend, craft beer tends to receive more column inches in popular media, has a global presence and tends to garner larger followings on social media. This changing of the guard (if you will) means that we are now finding established cask brewers looking to collaborate with the up and coming craft brewers, the idea being that they can win new drinkers and boost their street cred in a more youthful market.
With this new emboldened persona for beer and smaller brewers stealing market share from the big guys, it seems like a good time to jump into the game, right?
Let's take a step back from commercial brewing for one second and look at where a number of new entrants into the market are coming from. The success of Fourpure has come from a passion and knowledge of beer, underpinned by a sound knowledge of business and investment in the right people. Many new entrants into the market are coming from one of two areas, either a.) grass roots home brewing backgrounds; their knowledge and passion for beer is sound however there may be gaps in brand, marketing or sales - the things that help people buy your beer. Or b.) business, marketing or sales background who might have a great idea for a beer name or some cool labels, but can't get quality, consistent beer out on a regular basis.
Ok, so there's some confusion and miscommunication around agreed industry standards, and people are launching businesses without the necessary grounding or skill set that might be required to succeed. It sounds like pretty much any other market place to us and they all tend to self-regulate, what's different about beer? When will the market reach full saturation and when will breweries begin to close en-masse?
From what we can tell it won't be any time soon.
As communities we've started to change, the rapid gentrification of London is a key indicator as to how we now want to live and co-exist. The mass-homogenisation of the eighties has fallen by the wayside and we look for provenance, individuality, love and care in the products we buy, the food we eat, the entertainment we seek out. It's possible to be a local brewer for your local community. Consumer behaviour is seeing us switch from mass-produced faceless products to tangible things, made by people, with us in mind. Bottom line is it's possible to survive, to grow and to even thrive as a brewery in the current climate.
Of course like any other industry there will be some breweries who's products may not be up to scratch or just can't figure out the mechanics of a competitive market place, but for the new brewery that opens their doors tomorrow, it's not all doom and gloom and we hope you can make a real go of it. It's a great industry to be a part of and if you shrink it down and squeeze it into a nutshell, it's pretty nice to be a rock star for a day.