Where next for craft beer?

The craft beer revolution may be retreating from its explosive peak; but it’s here to stay and its impact on the market will be long-lasting.

Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed a journey from being a traditional ale (and sometime lager) drinker to being a DIPA and Saison swiller. But, recently, I felt that journey had reached a crossroads. A bank holiday BBQ with friends meant I needed to buy beer; so, in the preceding week, I scoured a host of craft beer sites looking for the interesting brews that would inspire my taste buds and put me ahead of my chums in our ‘craft beer arms race’. Naturally, my friends were all engaging in this daft competition too. As a result, we washed down our burgers and bangers with a raft of very expensive, incredibly strong and, largely undrinkable, beers from flamboyant cans. This is probably atypical and, quite frankly, sad behaviour but I suspect that many beer drinkers will have experienced echoes of this scenario.

There are signs of craft beer growth slowing in the US, and I can see why it’s appeal may be waning. Firstly, there’s the problem that assails modern consumers in so many areas of their consumption – choice paralysis. Whether it’s on or off-trade, making a decision has become infinitely harder as even bog-standard boozers have a dizzying array of beers stretching the length of the bar and mainstream supermarkets range scores of craft SKUs. Remember the good old days when you could just ask for ‘a pint of best’ and you knew what you were getting?

Then there’s the cost and strength – a bruised wallet and thumping head after my BBQ were my initial triggers for writing this! Obviously, when beers cost £6 a can and weigh in at 8.5% ABV, they can’t be a part of mainstream session drinking (highlighting the limitations to growth for the category). Linked to this is the fact that the same hop-forward, premium-priced craft beer – which feels well-suited to drinking in a Dalston industrial estate taproom – seems out of place in the neighbourhood pubs of the suburbs and provinces.    

Finally, craft is finding it hard to retain its cool. On the one hand, the leading-edge of craft is part of the caricature of the achingly cool hipster which is becoming passé. And on the other, as big brewers buy up the micro-breweries or develop brands which invoke craft tropes, the authenticity of the category is being chipped away.

But that’s not to say craft is dead. The impact of Punk IPA and its ilk is likely to be similar to that of punk rock. Punk rock raged and snarled during its 18-month peak in the late 70s before retreating from the limelight; but it continued to influence music and culture for decades to come. Similarly, craft beer taps into too many long-term established trends to simply evaporate.

Provenance has excited food and drink consumers for years, making even the most mundane product sound interesting (who knew Himalayan salt could be so exciting?!). Craft beer plays to this brilliantly with beers brewed super-locally. The focus on provenance is aligned to other enduring trends around artisanal product, collaboration and experience. These are brought to life on a trip to any microbrewer’s taproom. (On a recent visit to Beavertown I enjoyed a small-batch collaboration with a Danish brewer next to the tank it had been brewed in, whilst I ate street food from a local start-up.) What’s more, experiences like this are ripe for social media sharing/boasting and the edgy can designs are highly Instagrammable too!

In addition, with younger consumers less likely to drink regularly and the consumer trend towards small treats, there is genuine interest in unique, special products at a premium price-point amongst a key group.

So, what does all this mean for the next few years? For my money, I suspect a slowing of UK craft growth but for it to remain a sizeable fixture on the drinking scene. Craft beer itself may change, with more lower percentage options – like table beer – proliferating, and some of the more extreme flavours falling by the wayside (particularly away from taprooms and specialist sites). In an effort to play to the desire for artisanal product and social media-friendly experiences, craft brewers are likely to put even greater focus on events and gifting.

And of course, there’s no doubt that craft has – and will continue to – influence the mainstream. Think big brewers producing hoppier styles and playing with more daring branding.

Next BBQ season I suspect I’ll be drinking a 4.5% pale ale whilst listening to Sham 69!