As consumer demands change in the face of wellbeing and sustainability issues, brewers are under pressure to act. Nigel Huddleston finds many are taking on the trends
It’s not an easy time to be a brewer in the 2020s.
The pandemic temporarily ripped the heart out of the on-trade; ingredient and energy prices are raising cost pressures at a time when consumers have less to spend; multinationals such as Heineken and AB-InBev have muscled into the craft space, intensifying pressure on prices and competition for listings; and upstart categories like hard seltzers, RTD cocktails, fruit cider and low alcohol this-that-and-the-other are nibbling away at market share.
In addition, there’s a creeping sense that a bit of fire has gone out of some of the more interesting parts of the brewing industry. Where, not so long ago, experimentation was the watchword, things feel a bit more safe as ranges coalesce around a spectrum of various grades of pale ales and crowd-pleasing premium lagers.
John Price, head of marketing at KBE Drinks, the supplier of Kingfisher, Lion, Dos Equis and Sagres world lagers, says: “As craft continues its journey into the mainstream, we think the middle ground is being ignored.
“There are currently lots of entry-level products competing for new drinkers in the easy-drinking craft territory – and there are lots of high-abv ales with very bitter taste profiles which are more suited to craft aficionados.”
KBE is aiming to energise the middle ground after teaming up with New Zealand-based Yeastie Boys as the UK distributor for its Gunnamatta Earl Grey IPA, Bigmouth gold ale and Superfresh Helles lager.
“It feels like there’s a gap for craft beers with an interesting taste profile which are both balanced and sessionable,” says Price.
Brewdog has arguably set the template for ambitious small brewers who want to cross over into the mainstream, gradually building distribution in both multiples and independents, while courting publicity to raise brand awareness. Perhaps most significantly, it’s taken craft ale into the bigger pack formats that the major international players and their slabs of lager have monopolised for decades.
As a result of the pandemic, says off-trade category marketing executive Miriam Thompson, “shopper frequency has reduced” in beer.
She adds: “We are seeing an opportunity to upsell to larger, more valuable pack sizes and formats, with nine of the top 10 craft beer SKUs containing four or more [serves]. “These larger formats are influencing overall category growth versus two years ago.”
But in the 21st-century drinks market there are more pressing needs than just catering for different supermarket shopping patterns. Sustainability and wellbeing are high on the agenda of increasing numbers of shoppers – and brewers are responding with big picture environmental commitments and more subtle tinkering with individual products.
Asahi Europe & International, whose brands include Pilsner Urquell, Peroni and Grolsch, recognises these pressures.
“The consumer momentum behind premiumisation, or drink better, is aligned to our portfolio objective to drive premium brands, promote less intense beers and to grow the usage of no-alcohol,” says chief marketing officer Grant McKenzie. Brewdog has set out its stall to be “the first carbon-negative beer business”, says Thompson, a process that includes reusing waste, renewable energy use and virtually abandoning bottles in favour of cans.
Sussex brewer Hepworth, for a long time the go-to expert for smaller brewers looking for bottling expertise and contract solutions, has just installed a canning line as part of a package of measures to try to achieve its 85% carbon neutral target by 2025.
But the move is also an indication of how far consumer acceptance of cans over bottles at the upper end of the beer market has come in a relatively short space of time. Chairman Andy Hepworth says the company is aiming to produce new beers specifically for the canned craft sector.
“Our limited experience of canning beers has been something of a mixed bag, which most brewers who have explored canning will relate to,” he says. “So many brewers we have spoken to have a horror story to tell about outsourced canning.
“Given our many years of successful contract bottling, the logical move was to bring canning in-house, which gives us complete control over the quality of our canned beers and means we can go to our contract customers with a new service.
“The thirst for canned beers looks set to continue growing, so we’re confident there will be demand from brewers.”
The moderation trend has been met full-on by a host of low/no-alcohol beer launches, but there’s been a noticeable turning down of the power in full-strength beer too. Session pale ales seem to be prevailing over higher-abv IPAs, and a sizeable tier of table beers, in the 2.5-3% abv band, has emerged to satisfy those drinkers who want to keep a handle on their overall alcohol intake while still feeling like they’re having what might be termed “a proper drink”.
In flavour profile and personality, the likes of Kernel’s Table Beer, Cloudwater’s And Relax, Pressure Drop’s Just You Wait and Burning Sky’s Rustic and Tail Crush brews are light years away from hard seltzer, but they have been summoned into being by very similar consumer trends.