For a long time, craft beer seemed untouchable. Pubs of all variety were forced to supply a selection of Malawi-brewed IPAs, and you wouldn’t dream of opening a new burger restaurant if it didn’t come with at least four different stouts named after esoteric German philosophers. Last year, when the overall UK beer market experienced the worst drop in sales since 2012, the craft beer sector grew by 23 percent. Even Morrisons stocks your favourite sour brew pale ale.
However, across the world, the craft beer bubble may be about to burst. Despite the industry appearing to be untouchable, brand fatigue is threatening the bespoke beer market—i.e. people are getting bored of £7 cans of beer that taste like sock. According to research from GlobalData in the Asia-Pacific region, the “craft” concept is no longer valued by customers, who see its use as an excuse for drinks manufacturers to charge more for their product. It’s a similar story in the US. The craft beer boom there is beginning to slow, with only a 5 percent growth in 2017, compared to 16 percent in 2015.
The problem might be that craft beer has become too generic. For an industry that capitalises on its individuality with bizarre names, bespoke packaging, and flavours more fruity/sour/bitter/hoppy than your local’s lager; its products have become too mainstream. Craft beers nowadays are about as interesting as Shoreditch or Vans trainers. It's an “edgy” choice for the 42-year-old estate agent popping to Dalston on a Thursday night because he read about it in Time Out. Basic, thy name is craft beer.
Running alongside craft beer’s growing ubiquity is its problem with women. While the beer industry—like many—has its own particular problem with diversity, craft beer seemed to produce its own special type of “beer bro.” The one who, in the middle of a busy pub, will declare loudly that lager is “just a different type of beer! Like ale or stout!” despite you literally not asking, and pride himself on having several tattoos of semi-naked women. The craft beer bro is worse than the regular CAMRA beer festival bro, because he is ostensibly part of a more modern drinking culture, and therefore better than the 60-year-old man who hits on you by saying that he has a daughter your age. The craft beer bro may be more inconspicuous, but he is no less sexist
And it's usually this kind of bloke who runs a beer company that sells “Raging Bitch” pale ale, “Waging Wench,” or “Double D.” You need look no further than Brewdog’s recent tone-deaf media stunt, in which they released a “Pink IPA,” to see how wrong some parts of the craft beer industry have it. (Brewdog’s beer, which had the tagline, “Beer for Girls,” claimed to be shining a light on sexism in celebration of International Women’s Day, by, er, perpetuating it?)
What does it look like from within the industry? I ask Jenn Merrick, former head brewer at London-based craft beer company Beavertown Brewery, whether such backwards thinking is threatening craft beer's growth.
“The industry has a lot of growing and changing to do, and what it's going to look like in ten or 15 years might not be known to any of us now,” she tells me over the phone. “What people are looking for as employees and what people are looking for as consumers are companies that represent those progressive values.”
“The industry has a lot of growing and changing to do, and what it's going to look like in ten or 15 years might not be known to any of us now.”
While brand fatigue and dated views may stifle some areas of the industry, there are many who believe that the trend is nowhere near dead. “I think it will continue to grow because consumers who have come over to the more modern styles of beer are probably not going to go back,” Merrick says. “We've got people for life once we've given them a taste, so those products will continue to be popular.”
Pete Brown, a member of the Guild of Beer Writers and three-time winner of its Beer Writer of the Year title, agrees.
“A recent survey of business leaders said that across the whole of food and drink, craft beer was the most important trend in the market, for the fifth year running,” he explains over email. “There’s simply no data whatsoever that suggest a decline in the UK—quite the opposite. Every day I see evidence that points to continued growth and engagement.”
Brown does, however, understand that the industry has some improvements to make.
“The traditional pub has been associated mainly with white males for hundreds of years,” he says. “It’s become far more diverse over the last 20 years or so, but it does tend to move a bit slower than other institutions. But craft beer bars are at the younger, more urban end of the pub scale, and are moving much more quickly.”
What does he think craft beer’s biggest challenge is? “I’d say the main problem is people who can’t wait to see its demise.”
“The thing is, people have been dismissing craft beer as a brief hipster fad for about eight years now, and clearly they were wrong.”
Sorry guys. Celebrated too soon.