Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Craft, Kraft and corporate craftiness

Being fond of a tipple or two, I've been delighted by the craft beer boom that continues apace. While I'm supportive of CAMRA generally, I disagree with their snobbish attitude towards craft ales. As I see it, the more options there are to avoid pissy cooking lager, the better.

I enjoyed the fruits of the boom in Cardiff in September and in Birmingham in November, visiting BrewDog bars in both cities. BrewDog can claim to be at the vanguard of the movement (if it can be called that), and rightly so, though I do wonder whether they've outgrown that punky little oik image and are in danger of getting a bit too big for their boots. Co-founder James Watt was recently quoted as saying, "My worry is that we aren't growing fast enough". Why the hurry? Why the burning desire or pressure to grow at all? They're on the verge of becoming just another corporate bully - a far cry from their roots as a small independent brewer of bespoke beers.

And what of the corporate bullies already firmly established - how are they reacting to having their stranglehold on the market loosened by brazen upstarts like BrewDog? In two ways: either by developing their own "phony" craft beers or by swallowing up the microbrewers. Thankfully, neither strategy appears to be having much effect, in the US at least, where their new products are merely cannibalising the market share of their old ones rather than winning a bigger slice of the overall pie.

Both of the strategies mentioned above involve a degree of deception on the part of the parent company. When microbrewers are snapped up by major players (such as InBev buying Goose Island - incidentally, that would no doubt be why Goose Island can be found in all Wetherspoons now), you can guarantee that latter will be careful not to make the relationship evident to loyal consumers who purposefully avoid mass-marketed products. The same goes for other supposedly small and ethical/luxury companies and the big brands who control them - you wouldn't know from the packaging that Seeds Of Change is owned by Mars, The Body Shop is owned by L'Oreal and Ben & Jerry's is owned by Unilever.

Of course, these relationships are often uneasy and inevitably involve ethical compromise under corporate pressure. Green & Black's was secure enough when it was owned by Cadbury, but the takeover of Cadbury by US giant Kraft has left it exposed. But inventing your own phony high-end brand can also be a risky business, as Walkers seem to have found out with their Red Sky crisps range.

It'll be interesting to see how things pan out in the UK as craft beer continues to grow in popularity, though the existence of small, thriving, independent microbreweries all over the country is reason enough to be optimistic.

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