Earlier this week, esteemed British Beer writer Roger Protz wrote in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, warning that the end may be nigh – the purchase of our young, beloved craft breweries by big brewers and mega corps could be the death of them all, leaving only the largest with their heads above water.
His argument: brewing is done at a production facility rather than a brewery, individual beers become separate, omnipresent brands, and history shows that the product itself is changed to better suit the process. These things threaten to remove the craft from the individual brewery.
But worst of all, the power of the parent company allows the beer to be sold with slim margins. Lower prices, but higher market share. It doesn’t make a fortune, but it outsells competitors and stifles their chances in the market place. And once they’re out of the way, prices can rise gradually to a healthier margin with no alternatives for your customers to turn to. This threatens the existence of all craft breweries.
BrewDog also pointed towards product leveraging in their pledge of allegiance to craft beer. AB InBev’s ‘Promo-Opti’ plan gives massive discounts to outlets on the crap, but high-selling products like Budweiser as long as the outlet takes some of their crafty brand products like Goose Island. In this way, AB InBev gets its beer onto all lines in the bar, preventing the smaller breweries from even getting the chance to compete for the cash in your pocket. Just another way for big brewers to prevent craft competitors from making sales.
All of these factors point to the death of the craft brewery. But was there ever such a thing as craft beer?
You could never put your finger on what craft beer was. Nobody could. There was no definition. That’s because it was fluid. It was a collection of things. It was designer brewers like Mikkeller and nanobreweries and enormous, employee-owned businesses like New Belgium and mysterious, niche producers like Cantillon. They were defined by what they were not, on a case by case basis. Craft was an adjective, rather than a noun.
And apparently, the adjective is applied when brewing is done at a brewery rather than a production facility, individual beers don’t become separate, omnipresent brands, and when the product itself is not changed to better suit the process. At least if we are to take the opposite of everything Roger Protz said.
But there’s a problem. When a beer is produced at a brewery not owned by its “brewer”, then they are just using the facilities for production. Thus, Mikkeller and all other gypsy brewers brew their beer in simple production facilities, otherwise totally unrelated to their brand.
Even craft beer can be omnipresent and have brands that become standalone. Ever thought “I wish I could get hold of some Punk IPA.”? Of course you haven’t. It’s everywhere, and BrewDog are currently recruiting a brand manager to make sure it always is. The USA’s 9th largest craft brewer, Stone, has recently set up Arrogant Bastard Brewing Co., which produces the eponymous beer formerly brewed by Stone. Still a craft beer?
And if you think any brewery has ever decided against changing a recipe due to the demands of the brewing process you’re out of your mind. It’s what happens when you make a product and don’t have infinite money.
In other words, if these are the things by which we define craft beer in opposition, then there never was craft beer.
But that’s not all. If craft beer is about keeping things independent and limiting aspirations of growth, then there was never any such thing as craft beer. Every brewer gets in the business to sell their wares. They go out of their way to grow the business. And at some point, there is a payout. For some, like Camden, it comes in the lump sum provided by AB InBev. For others, like BrewDog, it comes from the profits gained by being the dominant force in the UK “craft” beer scene.
Brewing is a business, even for the small guys. It’s not necessarily cutthroat, and collaboration certainly exists, but it’s a business nonetheless.
It’s time we took craft beer down from its romanticised pedestal. It’s time to admit there is no such thing as craft beer.