Innis & Gunn lager cans

Last November, Heineken took a big step into DTC beer with the launch of its Beerwulf Marketplace in the Netherlands. The pitch was this: shoppers would be connected to third-party beer sellers, creating a kind of Amazon Marketplace for beer drinkers.

The UK launch date is due sometime this year, but it’ll open at a tricky time for beer online. “Online sales hiked massively during lockdown, but there’s been an equally massive decline since we’ve come out of the pandemic and returned to normality,” says Crawford Sinclair, commercial director for Edinburgh brewer Innis & Gunn.

While it will undoubtedly widen shopper choices of beer online, it’ll have to compete with the plethora of beer brands’ webshops – including Innis & Gunn’s – as well as Amazon landing pages such as that run by AB InBev for its beers.

There is scepticism over how much further the market can go – even from KBE Drinks, which runs the Wanderlust DTC platform for alcoholic drinks.

“Whilst this has proven to be a great way to drive trial of our brands, we don’t believe DTC will ever be as disruptive to the beer category as other categories,” says marketing head John Price.

Top of the reasons is that supermarkets and convenience retailers “offer such great value” it’s hard for smaller DTC services to compete on price. That’s coupled with the fact that beer is expensive to post and pack, being heavy and sometimes even breakable, Price explains.

So beer that tends to do well on this platform is the stuff not stocked in the mults. See Wanderlust’s top-selling brands: Ichnusa from Sardinia, Dos Equis from Mexico and Lion from Sri Lanka. Price says these “have cult followings but very limited off-trade distribution”.

“Conversely Kingfisher, our flagship brand, sells very little on our e-commerce platform because of its extensive distribution in the off-trade,” he says.

That thirst for niche beers is catered for by the subscription services that thrived during lockdowns.

Beer52, for example, offers eight beers a month plus a magazine and snacks for £27, often in the form of themed boxes.

Similarly, Brewser allows shoppers to flit between breweries each month. But at a higher price of £38 a month, it’s more at risk of falling by the wayside at a time of penny-pinching.

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