brew by numbers

I’m going to say a couple of politically incorrect things,” said Chris Lennert, COO of Left Hand Brewing Company, striding into the middle of a packed brewery hidden inside a railway arch in Bermondsey. “Big brewers are getting their asses handed to them, and they’re scared.”

The sentiment expressed by Lennert at the launch of Left Hand’s latest beer is a common theme within the craft beer community. At last week’s Craft Beer Rising festival one didn’t have to look hard to find gutsy independents willing to let rip at the ‘big guys’.

Craft beer is indeed rising in the UK - the number of microbreweries is now at its highest since the 1930s [Camra] - and its growing popularity is increasingly attracting the interest of big multinationals.

At Craft Beer Rising, the likes of Guinness were showing off their products next to one-man brewing bands, while MillerCoors has invested in craft beer through Blue Moon, and AB InBev with Goose Island, among others.

This, in turn, is causing something of an identity crisis for the fledgling sector. Investment from major brewers has the potential to drive the craft beer concept even further into the mainstream - something both small and big brewers stand to benefit from.

On the flipside, many indies believe the idea of big corporates getting involved is anathema to the craft ethos - and they fear the success of the craft brewing movement could be undermined as consumers grow wary of “fake” credentials. Corporate ownership of small, artisan brands is already a controversial topic, with recent media exposés highlighting Tata’s ownership of Teapigs, ABF’s acquisition of Dorset Cereals, and the fact Rachel’s is owned by Lactalis Nestlé.

‘Fake’ craft credentials

Brewers like Lennert are not pulling their punches in warning about the ‘dangers’ of pretend-craft. “They’re trying to deceive you guys,” Lennert told his Bermondsey audience. “They’re not being transparent. It matters who makes your beer. If you don’t know who’s making your beer, ask.”

Chris Hall, sales and media co-ordinator at Brew By Numbers strikes a similar note. Consumers are happy to pay a premium for craft products because they are buying into a ‘story’, he says. That means transparency and openness are key. “We want the customer to be able to walk through the front door and meet the people who brewed the beer.”

Diageo, however, shows it is possible for big brewers to do craft well - provided they get the proposition right and are upfront about their involvement. Guinness is now producing several craft-style spinoffs under The Brewers Project name, with its West Indies Porter entering the UK’s top 50 ales just a year after launch, and it launched its latest beer, Hop House 13, this month. Sales director Ronak Mashru says it is possible to reconcile scale with authentic storytelling. “Hop House 13 carries the Guinness name and brings 256 years of brewing passion and heritage which we know people trust.”

Given the importance of “story” to the craft beer proposition, however, big brewers are having to up their game. “There is a growing demand from consumers for drink experiences with authenticity,” says Mashru. “It is therefore more important than ever for bar staff to be able to confidently share their knowledge and experience of the category.”

Small brewers like Lennert have storytelling down to a t. If multinationals want to become a permanent part of the craft scene, they too will have to make compelling storytelling a priority.