The very term Craft Beer is never far from the headlines in the drink and hospitality trade press. In the UK, craft beer has become the sweetheart of the pub revival movement, where landlords have had to bolster their food and drink proposition in a bid to take on the burgeoning high street casual dining sector. Equally important is the off-trade of beer which has also seen its market share shrink as wine, cider and spirit based drinks appear on more and more shopping lists. Conversely, the US has had a far more level playing field, and the craft beer market is in a state of much greater maturity – 75% of the US population of legal drinking age is now no more than 10 miles from a craft brewery. This is largely because the US beer tradition has been aching for reform for some time, and the need to present customers with a better beer proposition has existed for years.
It seems obvious that there are differences between the UK and US markets, but less so that there is a significant difference in the definition of the craft beer product itself. In the US, there are several strict, clearly defined criteria that make a beer a craft beer. Company organisational and ownership structure, manufacturing methods, ingredients and output are all areas where compliance is essential. The UK simply doesn't have this set of rules, and as Bob Pease, CEO of the American Brewers Association said, “The cat is already out of the bag, and brewers haven’t acted quickly enough to get a concrete definition for ‘craft’ products in the UK, meaning that it is now too late to do so.” This could be a real problem for the UK craft beer scene; there are already some 1,300 breweries, many of which have sprung up seemingly from nowhere. If the notion that more is better, then this is a very encouraging sign, but this lack of regulation over what is and what isn't craft could be a serious problem. In the US the moniker serves much as Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) does for wine – it guarantees the consumer will be getting what they think they are, and that the artisanal market is protected from unnatural domination to some degree at least.
But can this lack of definition actually be positive for the UK craft beer market? Firstly, it has facilitated extraordinary growth. In the last year, 200 new breweries opened their doors, while many long-established breweries are re-branding their offering to bring it more in-line with what consumers perceive as "craft". However, over in the US, the story is similar, yet the growth is far more rapid, and much like the UK, this is signalled significantly by global drink manufacturers getting in on the action. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Budweiser and supplies 50% of the US beer market, has spent more than $200m acquiring craft breweries in 2015. Keeping in mind that they are limited to a 25% maximum shareholding in such acquisitions (in order to maintain their classification as craft breweries), this amounts to an investment in many hundreds of US craft breweries. By comparison, the UK shows more modest activity in this respect, though it is still worth noting that Camden Town Brewery, and Meantime Brewery, both of which are phenomenal success stories, have been acquired in their entirety by Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller respectively.
The UK craft brewery industry does boast one significant achievement over its bigger more mature US stable mate. In 2015 UK craft brewery exports rose by 33%, comparing extraordinarily against the not-too-shabby 16% figure raised by the US. Melissa Cole, author of Let Me Tell You About Beer says “Partly it’s because we [UK] have such category-defining and iconic beers, but mostly because we make the most sessionable beers in the world. There’s huge global interest.”
There certainly is a significant shift towards the consumption of craft beer in the UK and US, and the products offered are in many ways comparable. The UK does certainly have a lot of catching up to do if its to compare in terms of size of sector, but it is widely accepted that both UK and US craft breweries are turning out some outstanding products. A cautionary word for the UK; without regulating what defines a beer as craft, and without limiting the scope for massive drinks companies to get in on the action, the show could quickly be stolen by the big boys.
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