James Watt, who has a PhD in self-promotion from the University of BrewDog, has just issued a press release revealing impressive growth figures for the Aberdeenshire brewery, and declaring at the same time that the “UK craft beer revolution” (whatever that is) is “scaring” the country’s beer giants into trying to buy themselves a slice of the artisanal brewing action.
Molson Coors buying Sharp’s brewery “is an act of panic, not commercial nous”, according to Watt. BrewDog’s 230 per cent sales rise in 2010 compared to 2009 reflects, Watt says, “a tectonic shift in the mindset of British beer drinkers”, and according to him the Canadian-American giant, brewer of Carling in the UK, “can see the change is coming and recognition that the market is shifting … they, along with every other mainstream brewery, are shaking in their boots. Companies that sell beer through sales offers, discounts and marketing gimmicks alone are just not sustainable any longer because the craft beer revolution is redefining the expectations of UK beer drinkers.”
Um – I don’t think so. Really. I wish it were all just as James says: I’m delighted to see BrewDog doing so well, and it would be fantastic to see an army of Carling drinkers pour their over-promoted lager down the sink, turning instead to BrewDog’s Punk IPA. (Incidentally, for the man who brought us a 55 per cent abv beer sold in bottles inserted into stuffed roadkill to talk about “marketing gimmicks” smacks of the pot calling the washing machine black …) But that ain’t going to happen.
Despite its dramatic sales increases, which is easily as much to do with its own promotional abilities as the excellence of its beers – it gives the impression of getting more publicity than almost every other small brewer in Britain added together – BrewDog is a pimple on the backside of British beer sales. It’s not the rise in output of a small brewer in the far north-east of Scotland that caused Molson Coors to buy Sharp’s earlier this month.
Rather, this is a perfectly sensible tactic in marketing warfare: as Pete Brown’s last report on the market showed, not only is cask ale climbing in the British pub market where other sectors are falling, but within the cask ale market, local cask ale brewers saw volume increases of five per cent, while the big multinational brewers, including Molson Coors, saw their cask volumes fall by 11 per cent. The job of Molson Coors is to be, as much as it can, a one-stop shop to pub company beer buyers. Cask beer, at 15+ per cent of the pub beer market and rising, is a small put important part of almost every pub company’s offer to its customers. But if, as a brewer, your own cask beer offer is proving less and less attractive, and you don’t want your pub company customers to buy their cask beer from elsewhere, then the sensible move is to acquire a local cask brewer yourself, and shore up that wing of your attack.
“Buying a small brewery does not buy you a craft beer soul,” Watt says, but personally, having seen how well Steve Wellington has done with the White Shield brewery at Coors in Burton, where he seems to me to be producing beers with soul and passion, I don’t believe giant brewer automatically equals soul-less beer.
All the same, I think that whatever label you give it – craft beer, artisanal beer, “beer with soul” – the sort of stuff you and I drink, dearest reader, will remain a minority passion for a very long time yet. Molson Coors certainly knows that, even if it would like some of the profits to be found in that minority: if James Watt really thinks he’s actually frightening the likes of Coors and Heineken, he’s very deluded, and I fear he looks an idiot by making such a claim.