‘Craft Beer UK: WTF just happened?’ A debate recap

Last week’s debate on the opening night of #imbc16 got me thinking (mainly because the ‘debate’ didn’t allow for enough time for some considered discussion).

In case you missed who was on the panel, here it is:

  • Paul Jones, Co-founder of Cloudwater Brew Co
  • Ian Garrett, GBBF Bières Sans Frontières organiser, long-time CAMRA activist
  • Matthew Curtis, beer blogger for Total Ales and Good Beer Hunting
  • Sue Hayward, owner of the recently shut Waen Brewery (here are Sue’s thoughts on the debate)
  • Jenn Merrick, head brewer, Beavertown (cut her brewing chops at York and DarkStar)
  • and myself, involved in IMBC since 2012, and other beery shenanigans

Our compere for the evening was Matthew Gorecki, former lothario of North Bar, now a consultant to the beer world, including IMBC and Marble Brewery, Manchester, as well as founder of Leeds Beer Week and Zapato Brewery. I should add here that I’m working based on my memory, and that I had a few tasty beverages beforehand…

Still ‘Crafting’ after all these years

Harkening back to the debate that was held at the first IMBC in 2012, Matt G opened a can of worms straight away: a definition of ‘craft’ beer in the UK. If memory serves correctly, only Matt Curtis was adamant that we need such a definition and an organisation such as the Brewers Association in the US — essentially, an effective lobbying group (which conveniently moves the goal posts of what a craft brewer is once in a while, when Boston Beer Company has hit the next milestone of millions of barrels.) I’m with Paul here, the UK has to find its unique way of moving micro or medium-sized brewing or non-macro brewing, if you prefer, forward. SIBA may be trying to do some of this, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly effective (yet).

Craft has already well and truly jumped the shark in this country. Examples are easy to come by, for instance, the Manchester Food and Drink Festival with an award for ‘Craft Ale Bar of the Year’ — fine, you want to come up with more awards for local businesses, I’m all for it, but don’t call it ‘Craft.’ Much like any other establishment, bars that happen to stock non-macro beer are choosing to do so for many reasons, maybe because it is cool, maybe because it is popular at the moment or maybe because they want to sell what they want to drink. Whilst CAMRA recently accepted Moor’s cans as ‘real ale’, it seems to me that that sort of accreditation is least of the industry’s worries. But I digress.

Regional and family brewers up and down the country have picked up on the term, either by setting up a ‘craft’ line of beers (see Marston’s Revisionist line of beers or Brains Craft Brewery, for example) so let’s face it, it’s marketing speak, no more no less.

The Cask Market

Now this one is yet another major can of worms, and we didn’t get to really get to the nub of it, apart from the fact that £50 cask offers are unsustainable. From what I understand, AWRS is meant to help with this, i.e., more of a paper trail, but I have heard of a certain brewery in the Manchester area that will offer the sale of six casks, seventh free… How to compete with that?

The problems with cask abound, the market is saturated, the quality is debatable, and pubs, let’s face it, for the most part, really do not know or care how to handle cask. Perhaps with the exception of tied houses, and maybe Wetherspoons, but certainly not the majority of ‘modern’ beer bars (in my experience). If it doesn’t drop bright quickly, it’s not going to be seen on the bar again. Nobody wants to give beers like Landlord the 5 days secondary fermentation in cask it requires, except Timmy Taylor pubs. (And even in TT pub I have had some underwhelming Landlord, sadly. Perhaps line clean is in short supply?)

Beers go on green all the time. Given two days in the cellar, tops. Conditioning in the pub? I’m going to put it out there: doesn’t happen anymore, at least not in bars and ‘craft’ establishments. There is too little training of staff in the proper treatment of cask beer. Maybe the staff aren’t interested in learning? Cuts both ways I suppose, but training is necessary. Cask ought be a a premium product, but it isn’t. The pressure on brewers not to tip a batch down the drain is huge. I know some brewers who have done it, despite riding perilously close to the edge financially — but one bad batch could ruin a carefully built up reputation. What’s worse, tipping beer down the drain or compromising on quality?

Rob Percival from Lallemand asked whether Sue thought if duty relief was potentially used to sell casks more cheaply, instead of reinvesting in the businesses. Seems fairly likely, although perhaps some of the duty relief is just used to pay off debts… Jenn reckoned this could very well be the case, given her experience at York Brewery.

‘What do I spend on marketing? Zero.’

I’m quoting Paul here, after both Sue and Gazza from Hopcraft had a bit of a go at Cloudwater, for lack of a better word. But as he said, he’s a consumer first and foremost, and what Paul does with the Cloudwater Twitter feed and blog is to give the customer what he or she wants, which is, in many cases, simply information. Which hops, and when? What yeast? What is the thought process behind this release? It should not come as a surprise that people willing to spend a good amount of their disposable income on non-macro beer would like to know the backstory. The same goes for the cheese, meat, fish, vegetables, and coffee they buy.

The gist of Gazza and Sue’s argument seemed to be: we can’t sell our beer because of Cloudwater. Can it be that simple? Maybe, just maybe, Cloudwater are giving the market what it wants? The beers sell easily? The plethora of styles give the customer a lot of choice? The reality is that, according to The Telegraph, half of start ups fail within five years of inception. Cash flow issues are a huge part of this, with businesses routinely not paying each other way beyond the 30 day payment terms that are typical. A vicious cycle ensues.

I suspect the reasons for some brands selling and others not lie elsewhere. The market of non-tied bars and pubs is still very small indeed. As we now have 1,700 breweries in the UK, more competition fighting for fewer tap spaces — Sue owns a bar in Cardiff, Paul’s brewery tap and now the Pilcrow (co-owned with Jonny Heyes of Common, Port Street, The Beagle, and IMBC) points to a brewery and tap model that has been on the rise of late (see Magic Rock, Mallinsons, BlackJack, Moor, BBNo, Redchurch, Buxton, Hawkshead, Northern Monk, Marble, North, Beavertown, Wylam to name only a few).

It makes complete sense. If the beer (or a beer) is sub-par at the brewery-owned tap, well then maybe it’s time to review the brewery QC processes more rigorously rather than ‘just’ to blame the bars or distribution chain (though I do think the distribution chain is another can of worms that I may open at another time).

Bars and pubs aren’t daft. They want to get in products that sell. And sell quickly. Sitting on stock is a dangerous game, not to mention expensive.

Where do we go from here?

Again, we had little time to discuss this at all, my point with mentioning Wetherspoons was merely to suggest that importing cans from Sixpoint and selling them at a ridiculous price point may well get more people interested in non-macro beer. (Full disclosure: Given Tim Martin’s support of the Leave Campaign, I personally have no desire to give him or his establishments anymore of my money. But that’s my choice, I’m not going to judge others on grabbing a can of Resin.) Matt Curtis also raised concerns over US breweries dumping excess stock in the UK; namely Point and other brands brought in by ABInbev (i.e., Goose Island and Blue Point Brewing).

Undoubtedly, the UK beer scene has changed dramatically since the first IMBC in 2012. Whether or not the ever-growing number of breweries is sustainable remains to be seen. Personally, I would like to see a shift towards quality and consistency, not novelty for the sake of novelty. And finally, non-macro breweries retain a small fraction of the market, so putting any energy into infighting is counter-productive.

Time constraints prevented us from speaking about sexism in the beer industry… now that would’ve been a quiet and considered debate, for sure (sarcasm alert!)

If you attended the debate, I’d love to hear your thoughts — perhaps my fellow panelists will chime in, too, as my recollections are surely a bit patchy…

Thanks for reading.



17 thoughts on “‘Craft Beer UK: WTF just happened?’ A debate recap

  1. Pity I missed this, but only did the trade sesh this week.

    “we can’t sell our beer because of Cloudwater.” – bollocks. Firstly they don’t even produce enough cask beer to meet demand, secondly their cask range is very limited. Perhaps they have more of an impact on the keg side… but even then, they’re producing way under demand.

    And people buy it because it has so far proved to be consistently damn good.

    Do some certain breweries seem to “steal” the limelight… perhaps. But it is not maliciously and it is certainly not by buying their way into the market like the mega-breweries do.

    Do they have an unfair advantage? Well, some are clearly very well capitalised and that certainly does help. But I know others who’re doing well & selling at full production making great beer on kit best described as “a bit bodgey”.

    There are many problems with the cask market, which you cover some of, and a key one is simply saturation of the limited free-of-tie volume available and under-pricing of cask by breweries of all scales.

    If I were to pick something to blame for the problems in the FoT cask market at the moment it is mainly that: saturation. (Leading to desperation.)

    The solution… “special sauce” that I simply cannot define. I’ve had this discussion with good brewers who I know and love… we’ve brainstormed just how we could get them to get even a small part of that recognition. Brand and networking is one facet, and hard to replicate. Another is, I’m afraid, the beer – often as good as it might be, it just isn’t Magic Rock/Cloudwater/Buxton good (and the pale hoppy style du jour is the main culprit here.) Hey, Buxton did them all a favour by dropping cask even, and Magic Rock’s pricing cuts their cask out of most of the market (they may have been very wisely prescient there given what Brexit poised to do to costs…)

    This said – Gazza’s beer I know a bit and I know it has that edge too. (Sue’s I don’t know so much but I hear good things.) The question is: how do we get it to sell in reasonable volume at high demand at a decent price-point. Number 1 is do not complete with the trash – and Gazza certainly doesn’t. If I were to pick one thing that might add friction to Hopcraft beer it is probably: branding. And not to say the existing branding is crap, it’s just not SEXY. Yes, it matters. Sadly, perhaps.

    From my PoV looking after folk who buy and shift high vols of your beer is another… but I would say that wouldn’t I. And no Cloudwater don’t do me any special deals as such, but I do buy a pretty decent volume of their stuff (when they have it to sell) and they recognised that to get me there I needed (non-financial) support to ramp up to that point and to rely on them being wise and sensible about how they get their product to market. (Unlike the scattershot randomness of most breweries with zero strategy.) So perhaps there’s another factor there to be aware of: market smarts. Strategy. Forward planning to long term goals.

    BUT – there’s no one silver bullet. I think you need to have all of these things and perhaps more.

    You can’t blame someone for doing a job better than you. You’ve got to look at how you can match them, no, higher – how to beat them. (In the nicest possible way of course… this being the beer industry and we’ll all “good”… right… ha.)

    Right… I’d love to reply to a pile of other points in this but I think I’ll end up writing a whole damn book. And I’m no expert. I’m in much the same place as all of the battlers out there in brewing… trying to make a small & fragile business work against the odds. We mostly start-ups here, in a volatile industry in interesting times… and in the long run many of us will fail no matter how hard we try not to.

    I look forward to you writing about supply chain quality Claudia 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great write up Claudia.

    I thought I’d dig in a little more into the assertion I made during the panel discussion that I’m first and foremost a consumer (given that’s what chiefly informs my creative and commercial decisions).

    When we set up Cloudwater and ran our first few brews my biggest fear wasn’t that consumers wouldn’t resonate with what we were doing, it was that we wouldn’t make the beers that consumers really wanted to drink – it is our professional duty to not only pour a beer folk really want, but to look to preempt the progression of tastes and benchmarks to give the consumer what they didn’t yet know they really wanted.

    We applied every bit of sensory feedback, internal critique, and industry knowledge and insight we had between us (which in our start up team amounted to over 20 years professional brewing experience, and over 40 years beer retail and management experience), in an effort we continue to develop to this day, to deliver modern, progressive beer to a modern progressive market. Anything less would risk us presenting as somewhat more traditional, classical (in both cases you could say rather more static), or could see us incorrectly evaluate the value and relevance of our offering to the ever evolving modern beer movement.

    Last year we made 2015 Cloudwater beer. It started out quite intensely bitter, and occasionally acrid, with a few early (and embarrassing) appearances from diacetyl, odd protein flocs in bottle, and even a bit of brett creeping into a few gyles, to our surprise. We ended 2015 with the best IPA we’d made to date, the beginning of our DIPA series, and having made as many process gains as we could.

    This year we made 2016 Cloudwater beer – still some mistakes occurred, but we mostly managed to protect the consumer by resolving issues in house before beer was packaged and shipped. We determine what is 2016 beer by seeking out the best examples within each beer style (from breweries anywhere in the world, our focus has never been on UK beers only, as a modern beer drinker is well travelled through the consumption of beers from around the world), and asking as critically and positively as we can, what would be required to match or even (however ridiculous the question sounds as we stumble along somewhat more proficiently than before, but a long way off our quality targets) better the leading examples? Why not just produce last year’s recipes again? Well, because, first and foremost, the ingredients have evolved and changed, second because what consumers are excited about evolves several times annually, and third because we love evolving too – it stretches us to look day after day at how we’re doing in the eyes of the consumer.

    Whether we or anyone else in the industry likes this reality or not, everything we do has a timestamp. And whether we as industry professionals are comfortable with consumer reviews or not, it is the consumer that keeps us afloat today, and collectively mandates any growth in production in the future.

    As MD my number one job in steering Cloudwater in a good and positive direction is to work out what the consumer really cares about that we really care about too. With as much creativity, flair, honesty, commercial sense, and attention to ever higher quality standards we’re moving forward, and we’ve no intention of slowing down – after all, every gain we or any of our peers (near or very far) make towards excellent modern beer is a gain in the consumers favour, and that’s vitally, centrally, and chiefly important to me.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Hi Claudia,

    My husband and I attended this talk; great experience, thanks!

    What I took from Sue’s comment regarding Cloudwater was that she believed their success was down to marketing, first and foremost, and how difficult it is to compete with a brewery with such a huge marketing budget (which as I recall prompted Paul’s assertion that their marketing budget was nil).

    From the POV of a consumer; by the time I saw any Cloudwater advertising (namely their sponsorship of Indy Man last year) I was already sold. I discovered one of their beers in a local bar, and have sought them out ever since – I can say the same for all of my beer loving friends and the other breweries we literally chase from bar to bottle shop.

    To further JollyGoodBeer’s comment, I agree, branding sure has an impact – we’re tempted in by the branding that suggests upfront that the beer offered is the kind we’re on a never-ending quest to discover (loosely described by the term “craft beer” but only to those outside of our sphere of obsession). The branding for Waen for example brought to mind a Hobgoblinesque brew which wouldn’t have compelled me to try them out of a range on offer – but that’s just me.

    It’s the beer itself that keeps us coming back, though – and is the deciding factor on whether we patronise a bar or pub.

    In terms of the future – snagging the market share in beer sales, I realise we probably fall into the category of beer-geek and aren’t quite representative of the lager-drinking masses, but I’m of the opinion that the same can apply to them – make what a customer wants, and not only will they drink it, they will seek it out. Any brewery able to come up with a “Gateway Beer” that can be distributed to said masses can snag a huge swathe of them, I think. I think PunkIPA has come closest so far to a gateway beer for the masses, but how to acheive anything on a larger scale than that…?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to post, Susie, and I’m glad you enjoyed the debate. You make some very good points indeed, especially on brand recognition but that at the end of the day, you come back to the beer. I think you’re right, Punk IPA definitely was and perhaps still is a gateway beer — and it’s BrewDog’s blessing as well as curse. A curse because people may remember it fondly, and now find it not to taste anymore (consumer tastes move on and there is something called the lupulin shift, where you crave more and more hops…) and a blessing because it has obviously made the brand and its meteoric rise.

      Interesting times, for sure.


  4. I Enjoyed attending the debate in many ways but it has left me slightly disillusioned since. I have to say as much as there was some interesting debate I was quite saddened by a lot of the anger and Brewers turning on Brewers in this debate. For the first time in my experience of working in the brewing industry the are are section of angry and dissatisfied Brewers turning on what should be friends. Unfortunately, I came across the same sentiments from a Brewer at a SIBA regional meeting yesterday also. I think a significant amount of small breweries will go out of business in the next two years and I think it will be a good thing long term.

    That is not to say I do not emphasise with the hard time a lot of Brewers have and the long hours they put in to grow business but unfortunately liking beer and working long hours does not necessarily make a good business. People forget that breweries are businesses after all.

    There is a lot of accusations thrown at Cloudwater which seems little more than thinly veiled jealousy. Yes, they have had investment to a level some Brewers could only dream of. My questions back to these people are; Are Cloudwater abusing this investment? Are they a negative force within the brewing industry? Are they aggressive and forcing others out of a tap space?
    No, on the contrary they have invested in good plant, excellent people and are an open and positive producer. They strive, like many breweries do, to improve and to be part of a growing culture and dialog in modern beer. Why hate them for doing it well? Again, jealousy.

    Above and beyond this they have a business plan and business sense. Which is why they will not only survive as a company but grow.

    I have always heralded our industry as a fraternity that works together with respect and friendship. I hope this rising anger does not tear us all apart. Call me a bluff old idealist!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I know a good number of brewers struggling… and when some “young upstart brewery” comes along and grabs the limelight I know some, fuelled by frustration and stress, can lash out… claiming unfair advantages, and all sorts.

      For many of these folks their breweries represent years of their lives & all of their money. In some cases their homes (mortgages) and families may be under threat as well. And the emotion involved can cross over to irrationality at times.

      Is is sad to see… but I worry we’ll see more of it and as you indicate will see more breweries crushed by circumstance. It’s great to all be chums all the time… but reality can be harsh & people get emotional.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for commenting, Rob. The camaraderie and general helpfulness among small producers ought to be something to be proud of and to encourage — it’s why consumers love this slice of the industry too and I can fully understand your disillusionment.

      We collaborate in so many ways, someone needs advice, we share it, someone needs a speciality malt or is short on hops, we help each other out. This gets communicated on social media a lot and may enhance the impression that everyone gets along. It’s important to talk about these things, I think, there is probably far too little time for small producers to reflect on the changing nature of the industry, but it’s important to do so.

      Debates are a good thing, it gets people thinking. Let’s keep working together for the good of the industry.


  5. Thanks for writing this up. I completely forgot about it on the night and was keen to go, especially as I remember the first (equally heated) one back in 2012!

    If you think back to 2012, ‘craft’ was starting to gain a foothold in the UK beer scene and some of the more established breweries were probably wondering what they were gong to do about it. Some did nothing and carried on (those, especially the smaller ones, most likely now invoived in a race to the bottom on price or seeing established accounts turn elsewhere) and others adapted and followed consumer demand and evolving palates.

    Around this time and heading into 2013 we saw a surge in new breweries many of whom have gone on to establish themselves firmly in an increasingly crowded market whereas others have closed down or started to struggle. I think in 2016 we’re perhaps starting to see this repeat itself within the ‘craft’ ecosystem. Of those breweries who came on the scene around 2012/13, how many are still doing the same thing as they were 3-4 years ago? Have ‘craft’ consumers moved on since then? Yes, and I think only the very best can survive through blind repetition and you’d sure as hell better be good at what you’re doing.

    Something Paul says above struck a chord with me – he’s a consumer first and foremost and has followed and been part of the beer scene in the UK for a long time (as have most of his staff). Cloudwater didn’t just spring up overnight early last year with a bucket of cash and a big hammer. His point that Cloudwater will always be consumer driven rather than just carrying on blindly with what works today is, I think, crucial to any new or more established brewery.

    That said, I do think smaller breweries need to continue to work together against ‘big beer’ – and my that I mean the macro producers. We’re still but a blip in terms of market share. Yes, big beer is certainly paying attention now and responding through acquisition and other strategies but let’s not make their job easier by starting to bite chunks out of each other.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great article, good to see some print on it considering I missed the actual talk.

    To come back to one point, branding. No disrespect here is intended towards Gazza & Hopcraft but his beer names and the pump clips are, to my knowledge, chosen by him. They often seem somewhat esoteric unless you know what the meaning is (usually I don’t!).

    Now some may feel I’m talking hogwash but I do feel that beer names / pump clips / branding that the layman can understand helps to sell the sell the beer. Simple, well designed and understandable to all.

    I have loads of respect for Cloudwater because it seems that everything has been thought about / discussed in advance of actually doing it. Like planning their journey in advance. I think some breweries get too tied up with the day to day stuff, without thinking outside the box. More like a working hobby than a business. And yes, of course I do realise that many breweries do not have the resources or manpower of Cloudwater. They just appear really well organised with a clearly defined plan

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great write up Claudia, and some cracking responses and opinions too. I was astounded when I heard that this had kicked off at IMBC on the Thursday evening, and can only echo Rob’s point that it’s a real shame that there seems to be a growing animosity in the beer industry pointed towards those that are successful. I find the accusation that Cloudwater are responsible for the folding of another business as absolutely disgraceful, it is their passionately analytical approach to constantly improving that makes them successful – yes, branding and marketing is important but the real consumer response to Cloudwater has been based on their delightfully transparent outlook on social media and their blog. No question is too big or small nor sneered at from a pedestal. As small businesses, we all need to realise that only we are responsible for our subsequent success or failure. The model that Cloudwater have is one that should be embraced and encouraged, not criticised.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rich. I think the underlying problem here is perhaps that much of the micro or small brewing sector and small businesses in general, perhaps, have always been chronically underfunded. The UK lending system isn’t like the US, where businesses are able to get huge loans to pay for brew kits that actually work and aren’t held together by gaffer tape. Whatever your road to market is, taking the risk of setting up a business, looking after employees, readjusting business plans to the realities of the environment — these are all to be commended. Running a business is difficult, and I tip my hat to everyone who commits himself/herself to that.


  8. Thanks, Claudia, for the summary. I feel sad that having read it I cannot help but imagine crabs. Has mentality changed or has success in this sector really become exclusive? …either way, it suggests the end of an era of mutual prosperity.


    1. Hi there, beermeansbusiness, apologies for my late reply, I only saw this yesterday. I do think there is still mutual support, but the niche to sell the product is still pretty small, and the margins particularly favour economies of scale. It feels a bit like there is a transition ongoing now, whereby the one-man band is becoming more and more unsustainable. Thanks for reading!


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