American craft beer taking UK by storm

Eric Idle once declared that American beer was like making love in a canoe – “fucking close to water”.

Three virtually identical brands dominated the market and a visiting Brit would struggle to find anything interesting to wet their whistle after a day spent treading the sidewalks. Nowadays that could not be further from the truth as the US has firmly established itself as the world leader in the craft beer market, a hotbed of innovation, diversity and creativity. There is even a beer called Wet Your Whistle IPA, produced in a microbrewery inside an independent cinema in Texas.

The multinational owners of the beers that Idle lamented realised they were under siege and fighting a losing battle, so they set about snapping up the exciting, maverick breweries that have taken the market in an exciting direction. Private equity funds have also jumped on the bandwagon, and the list of breweries taken over – in full or partly – is vast: Lord Hobo, Funky Buddha, Magnolia, Anchor, Short’s, Monkey Paw, The Bruery, Lagunitas, Wicked Weed, Deep Ellum, Karbach, Victory, Brooklyn, Revolver, Terrapin, Hop Valley, Independence, Moonlight, Southend, Devil’s Backbone, Cigar City, Four Peaks, Breckenridge, Ballast Point, Dogfish Head, Saint Archer, Golden Road, Firestone Walker, Logsdon Farmhouse, American Sky, Abita, Perrin, Oskar Blues, Full Sail, Elysian, Bayhawk, Founders, Alpine, 10 Barrel, Southern Tier, Sweetwater, Uinta, Bluepoint, Boulevard, Coney Island, Angel City, Goose Island – the list goes on and on.

Many of the breweries immediately benefited from a massive rise in distribution and scale, but a consumer backlash is now brewing amid concerns over diminishing quality standards. In the States, 55% of beer drinkers now say that independence is a key factor when making a purchase, so the Brewers Association has introduced an independent seal to differentiate small and independent breweries from those owned by the multinationals. “As big beer acquires former craft brands, beer drinkers have become increasingly confused about which brewers remain independent,” says Bob Pease, chief executive of the Brewers Association. “Beer lovers are interested in transparency when it comes to brewery ownership and the seal is a simple way to provide clarity.

“While small and independent craft brewers represent 99% of the 5,800-plus breweries in the US, they make just 12% of the beer sold in the country. The rest of US beer sales come from ‘big’ beer, along with imported brands. As large brewers continue to have unprecedented influence and acquire millions of barrels of formerly independent beer, the seal differentiates in a crowded and increasingly competitive marketplace.”

In the UK, the Society of Independent Brewers has been running an identical scheme since 2016 –the Assured Independent British Craft Brewer seal. Yet the bestselling SKUs in the off-trade craft beer category, as monitored by IRI, are Brewdog Punk IPA, Hop House 13, Brewdog Dead Pony Club, Brooklyn lager and Goose Island IPA. Diageo owns Hop House 13, AB-Inbev owns Goose Island, and Brewdog sold 23% of its business to the private equity firm that owns Pabst Blue Ribbon. Brooklyn Brewery sold a 24% stake to Kirin Holdings, but it is enjoying surging sales in the UK. That all suggests that the UK beer drinker is not too concerned with who owns the beer, as long as it tastes great, looks enticing and enjoys strong distribution.

Range of options

“Development in craft beer from across the world is continuing to excite consumers,” says Liam Newton, vice president of marketing at Carlsberg UK, which distributes Brooklyn in Britain. “The US is known for producing craft beer that offers a range of options for those looking for both simple and more complex flavours. These styles have influenced much of the way craft is enjoyed in the UK and highlights the reflective nature of trends across the pond.

“Brooklyn lager is New York’s hometown beer and is a popular choice for consumers getting into the craft scene. Brooklyn Brewery offers quality lager from a trusted and authentic brand with real craft credentials, and is arguably so well liked due to its accessibility.” That is another important point. Beers such as Booklyn and Hop House 13 are less challenging than some craft brews, blending the cold, fizzy refreshment of lager with the added complexity of a traditional ale. They may be a gateway to more challenging brews, but many consumers may just enjoy them and stay there.

“The brand is also continuing to experiment with flavour combinations, demonstrating great quality and producing brews that are developed to go well with food,” says Newton. “The way a drink matches with food has become a regular consideration for consumers when choosing beer. Brooklyn lager is the perfect accompaniment to barbecue classics such as burgers and hot dogs, as well as Tex Mex style dishes. The brand’s latest limited-edition brew, Naranjito, is a citrus-infused pale ale that pairs perfectly with warming barbecue flavours as well as rich cheeses such as Brie.”

It is also worth noting that the US is a more mature craft beer market than the UK, and the backlash may soon hit these shores too. Independent bottle shop owners will have little time for brews owned by the multinationals, and they will find more than 5,800 independent US breweries to choose from. Three-quarters of these brews have adopted the seal. Pease believes the US has plenty to offer British beer retailers, despite the great strides made by homegrown craft breweries in recent years.

“Latest export figures from the Brewers Association reveal that American craft beer export volume increased by 3.6% in 2017, to 482,309 barrels,” he says. “This growth is impressive when set against the thriving domestic brewing scene in the UK and proves that the UK’s taste for full-flavoured, high quality, diverse American craft beer remains strong.

“We see a number of reasons. Curiosity: beer drinkers seeking out innovative, diverse beers are unlikely to limit themselves to one style or country. Experimentation: beer drinkers are constantly looking for what’s new, what’s rare, what’s next.  They are more discerning and more adventurous than ever. Innovation: American craft brewers are pushing boundaries with groundbreaking, cutting-edge beers that are unique, unusual, intriguing and not bound by tradition. Variety: a rising tide floats all boats so a beer drinker who enjoys domestic beers will also seek out quality, imported craft beer. American and UK craft beer are not mutually exclusive, rather we see them as complementing each other. One lifts sales of the other and vice versa. Variety drives sales.”  

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