I’ve been lucky, in setting up Aethos Management Consultancy, to have work to do from the outset, including a market research project for a microbrewery. One of those times when you’d love to take your work home with you! I was once a pretty active member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), and I’ve retained a keen interest in the sector. If nothing else, then certainly as a loyal customer!
Brewing in Britain has changed out of all recognition from the 1980s, the time of my first interest in the industry. In those days, smaller breweries were in retreat, struggling to compete with heavily marketed leading brands of bland (but easier to brew and distribute) keg beers or licence-brewed versions of continental lagers. Any small brewery that made a name for itself was often bought up and assimilated by big breweries intent on getting bigger. Being a CAMRA member back then felt a bit like being part of the Rebel Alliance in The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, there were outposts like Ruddles or Castle Eden, but sooner or later they fell under the onslaught of the Dark Side, aka Whitbread Best Bitter, Hofmeister lager, et al.
Yet now there about 2,000 breweries doing business in the United Kingdom, with the market for traditional ales and craft beers holding up while the demand for mass-brewed keg beers and lagers dwindles. To give some context: in the 1980s there was just one brewery in my home county of Derbyshire – and that was a brewpub. Today, according to ratebeer.com, there are 72.
What has caused this transformation? There’s no single answer – a variety of regulatory changes have favoured smaller brewers over recent years, and of course CAMRA was highly effective in whipping up a market for high quality beer. But I also think that brewing in Britain has been a good example of successful premiumisation in an industry which the big players were pushing into commoditisation. There IS a market in the UK for produce made on a relatively small scale, marketed on quality, authenticity and distinctiveness. And people are willing to pay premium prices for it.
The pendulum has certainly swung – but of course, it could swing back. There may be troubles ahead… can the market sustain 2,000 breweries? Can real ale traditionalists and craft beer hipsters get along, or will a new beer schism appear? Will successful new craft beer breweries be bought out by the big brewers, just as the likes of Ruddles and Theakston were snapped up in the past? Well, whatever the future holds, it’s heartening that quality and locality are now very much a part of the conversation when talking about British produce in general, not just beer. Perhaps we are finally starting to understand what the French mean when they talk about terroir!