Things have gone a little crazy for the "craft beer" movement in the UK over the past few weeks. First The Guardian are claiming that the writing is on the wall for the popularity of craft beers and then the BBC chipped in to the scaremongering with a report on how the hops beloved by trendy bearded hipster brewers worldwide are running short. Could the craft beer movement in the UK be heading towards the end? Well probably not for a little while yet, but I'm under no illusion that craft will be going strong forever. Craft beer is a bubble and it inevitably has to pop.
Allow me to do some naval gazing on the craft beer scene - in the UK at least anyway. I can't even being to guess what's going to happen in the US. I believe there are two reasons which will lead to craft beers decline. First is that craft isn't really spreading out to the regions, and secondly London is getting over saturated with new brewers that are offering a similar product, usually tremendously hopped IPA's or mega boozy stouts and porters. When I was in Birmingham there was plenty of exciting, well made beer but I didn't see anything from the craft "heavyweights" such as The Kernel or Beavertown. The craft movement is still very strongly London based, with perhaps small pockets of activity in places such as Manchester. The issue is what happens when the London hipsters move on to the next latest trend, and they will move on eventually. Sadly nothing lasts forever especially in the fast moving capital.
When the bubble finally pops not everybody is going to survive, for varying reasons. Some craft breweries will have enjoyed the ride and naturally call it a day. Others will fight to keep going but with the customer base becoming smaller they will have trouble making an impact on the marketplace. Some may get bought out. But others may do quite well - but they may not be considered "craft". My opinion is that to survive they will have to leave behind the craft ethos and become more commercially minded. Below are two examples of breweries that I think are prepared and a sure bet to survive the bubble bursting.
First up is BrewDog. Love them or loathe them, they are a big operation and were lucky to start at the beginning of the craft beer revolution. Their greatest asset is that they have their own bars, which are a valuable shop front for their beers and invaluable for spreading the word about their product and building a solid customer base.They even have their own off licenses now with BottleDog, a canny business decision. The crucial thing about BrewDog which will make them succeed is that thanks to their bars they have a presence nationwide, and not just in London. In fact they are even spreading abroad with openings in Tokyo and Finland. What BrewDog are doing is no different then a tied house such as Fullers or Sam Smiths - they just have a different image. If things did start to go pear shaped for them I think one of the big brewers will buy them out and keep the brand going. I can only see BrewDog going kaphut if the owners refused to sell on.
Another interesting thing about BrewDog is that I would consider them a "lifestyle choice" brand. I think a lot of punters choose to visit a BrewDog bar or have a BrewDog beer because it projects an image, the same way people drink particular brands of champagne or drive a certain brand of car. The whole "punk" attitude, anti-corporate stance and crowd funding is a very clever and effective way of getting a very loyal customer base. Luckily their beers are pretty good but even if they weren't I think BrewDog would still do well.
The second example of a brewery that I think will survive is Thornbridge. This may be a controversial choice as some may not seem them as craft. But I think that's a good thing. Thornbridge have done a fair bit to open the eyes and taste buds of the casual drinker to the world of more adventurous beer, mainly through the quietly groundbreaking Jaipur which is widely sold thanks to the Nicholson's chain. Not only is it a great beer but it's an excellent gateway beer to the world of big hopped ales that craft is famous for. I consider their beers to be craft as they are clearly dedicated, they're happy to brew practically any type of beer, and nearly all of them succeed. But it's also perfectly valid to consider them to be a regular brewery and that's why I think they'll survive the bubble bursting. They have the edge by being commercially minded, and have cleverly embraced both the craft and mainstream market. Their beers sit quite comfortably in both Waitrose and BottleDog. Camden Town and Oakham breweries are similar to this and I think they will also continue to do well.
BrewDog and Thornbridge are two breweries I can confidentially predict carrying on after the dust has settled, and it's testament to the exciting but volatile world of craft that I can't put a safe bet on any others. The breweries I worry about are the London based ones that aren't making much impact outside the capital, such as Beavertown or Siren and others in the "Bermondsey Mile." It may be that they don't care if they're short lived - they're just enjoying being part of a popular scene. But it would be a shame to lose some talented breweries and tasty beers. Ultimately I feel that to survive the craft bubble breweries have to leave behind some of the craft ethos and be more commercially minded. BrewDog have clocked this - will the others be able to do the same?
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