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Craft Beer as Retail Category

When high street wine retailer Oddbins sent us a press release announcing a 179% increase in sales of craft beer in their stores during the last year, we immediately wondered how they were defining the term.

Oddbins own-brand craft beer.For retailers, this isn’t a purely academic question: they just want to keep track of whether people are buying whatever the hell craft beer is, and whether they should invest more in it in 2014.

(Wouldn’t it be interesting if Oddbins became the first national chain of high street craft beer shops? As it is, they’ve decided to get into the brewing game with an own-brand ‘collaboration’ beer, pictured left.)

Anyway, here’s what we gleaned from a few email exchanges with Oddbins’ PR people and head office staff:

1. The opposite of ‘craft beer’ is ‘mainstream beers’, which list includes  Hoegaarden, Spitfire, Bishop’s Finger, Hobgoblin, Stella Artois, Fosters, Peroni, Nastro Azzurro, Becks and Corona.

2. They believe ‘craft beer’ must be local, and so even some beers they consider non-mainstream are not included in their ‘craft beer’ category, e.g. Septem, Fix and (this is where the fault-line might lie) Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

3. Here’s their rather mission-statement-like definition in full: ‘… brewed by relatively small brewers and cider producers, local to our shops, who make beer or cider of outstanding quality with passion and integrity’. It won’t stand up to much challenge in a debating hall — ‘If a customer returns a bottle because of lack of passion, do you give refunds?’; ‘How much passion is there in your cash-in own-brand craft beer?’ — but it gives them something to work with.

4. These are some of the brewers whose beers they think are in the ‘craft’ category:
[ezcol_1half]
5 Points
Alechemy
Art Brew
Beartown
Beavertown
Bristol Beer Factory
Burnside
By the Horns
Celt Experience
Cheddar Ales
Compass
Deeside
East London Brewing Co
Fallen
First Chop
Fyne Ales
Innis & Gunn
Joe’s Cider
Kernel
Knops
Liverpool Organic
London Fields
Long Man
Millwhites[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]
Moncada
Old Dairy
Once upon a Tree
Palmers
Perrys
Pressure Drop
Quantum
Red Willow
Redchurch
Rocky Head
Shotover
Speyside
Stewarts
Sunny Republic
Tempest
Tickety Brew
Tryst
Vale Brewery
Wild Beer
Windsor & Eton
XT Brewing[/ezcol_1half_end]
Innis & Gunn might be the most controversial inclusion — few geeks have much time for what they (we) see as a range of novelty beers with nice labels. On the whole, though, it’s the kind of thing we’d expect to find if someone told us a shop up the road was selling ‘craft beer’.

There is some kind of discernible shape there in the fog.

17 replies on “Craft Beer as Retail Category”

Love the localism idea. Beer gets less “craft” the further it is from the brewery? Very “LocAle”. Kind of in tune with what I’ve heard from some of the more fundamentalist US craft brewers actually — the ones that really don’t want to export their beer.

If a US beer reaches the UK it can no longer be craft? I like that too. 🙂

Fun with definitions.

As for Innis & Gunn: WTF! FFS! IDK…

Their definition changes with where you are. What’s craft beer to me in Norway can never be craft beer to you in the UK, and vice versa. And no US beer can ever be a craft beer under this definition.

Quite frankly, this seems like a silly name for the category of local non-mainstream beer. Their use of the term “craft beer” is not going to match how anyone else uses it, so there’s not much to be learned here.

It’s noticeable that both Tesco and Morrisons have recently created dedicated “craft beer” sections in their beer aisles – although the main criterion for inclusion seems to be something in a 330ml or 355ml bottle.

It’s interesting because craft beer nerds are a nothingth of the UK population. If OddBins, Tesco, etc start sticking shelves labelled “craft beer” then, to far more people than currently use the term in the UK, “craft beer” will come to mean what is stocked on those shelves. Like it or not. Ho ho! 🙂

I thought that getting people to agree roughly which beers are “craft” was fairly easy – as you say, something like the ones listed above. What’s difficult is trying to write down a halfway objective definition that doesn’t a) disagree with the intuitive idea of which beers are “craft” too much or b) feature “appeal to hipsters” as a major criterion.

If I am not mistaken, Fix is a revived Greek beer, brewed from all-malt in a small, newly-established brewery: it should qualify unless one excludes all non-UK beers which is fair enough since all US names would be excluded.

Yet, Palmers, in business for a couple of hundred years, is in but not Sheps or Fuller’s?

I would include all independent (family-owned or majority) breweries since all are surely local in orientation. Fuller’s beers get a wide distribution but so do I&G’s.

It should be as I see it, for England, any new or old-established independent brewery, any SIBA member for example, that profile.

I guess there will always be inconsistencies but as you say there seems an overall pattern and if it works for U.K. that’s good.

Gary

Gary — Mark Dredge wrote a long piece about Fix a little while ago.

If we were running a shop and trying to entice people in with the promise of ‘craft beer’, we probably wouldn’t include Palmer’s in our selection. Oddbins’ logic is probably, however, that Shepherd Neame and Fuller’s have national distribution and are therefore ‘mainstream’, whereas Palmer’s are rarely seen outside the West Country.

Thanks, and it must be that very “locality” that fooled Oddbins so to speak. Yet the error if such it is points to the illogic of excluding small older independents (e.g., also Donnington, Holt, Hyde, assuming they bottle) but not newer ones. It can’t be based on product choice since since some oldsters are putting out Yank-style beers or likely will soon. Most of the names on the list seem more the recent new wave too, not the 70’s-80’s old wave, but again not a logical distinction to my mind. Anyway one can’t gainsay how a retailer views its market, but it does suggest that the advised drinker should look solely to palate to decide what is crafted in nature. I looked up Palmer’s range and it looks superb – I tend to prefer the old style anyway – and good tosay they’re carrying the banner for Tally Ho today!

Gary

Quick correction, since I recalled after Tally Ho is an Adnams beer. But Palmers list it too under cask so I guess both market a beer of this name (?).

Anyway I meant simply to underline the traditional nature of Palmers and was delighted to see that some in England rate them as craft.

Gary

Are there many branches of Oddbins left? They were one of the first places in the UK to push the US new wave, 20 years ago – Anchor, Sam Adams, Pete’s Wicked Ale etc – revelatory at the time. As was Brooklyn lager, which Thresher used to sell then.

ultimately, I don’t worry about it too much, and you nailed it with your last line “On the whole, though, it’s the kind of thing we’d expect to find if someone told us a shop up the road was selling ‘craft beer’”.

Trying to define Craft Beer is generally a fruitless task, but I think there’s enough stuff in Oddbins’ definition that most people would agree with that I’m fine with how they’re using it.

Pretty much any definition of Craft Beer will throw up problems when you try to nail down the details and lead to outraged questions of “well, but that means XYZ brewery wouldn’t count”. “Craft Beer” really is something you can only really speak in generalities about, rather than definitive terms (much like you do in your “what we mean when we say craft beer” piece).

The important thing for me is the “spirit” of the definition being used and the company policy (a concept I can’t think of a natty way to get across – but think along the lines of ‘the spirit vs the letter of the law’).

There’s enough in their definition that I agree with (and it’s noticeably not an exercise in cynical rebranding of, say, fosters as craft beer), and the beer that they stock is good enough that I’m more than happy to overlook any peculiarities their definition might throw up and get on with life and, more importantly, having a few beers!

I worked for Oddbins for a few years while at college (late 80s – early 90s). I was into good beer before I started there, but with the ethos of intelligent passionate staff (incluing the buyers) & supporting staff through the WSET exams, plus an ever-expanding range that included some great beers, my interest & knowledge grew enormously.

At the time Oddbins was a subsidiary of Canadian drinks giant, Seagram, but it seemed they pretty much left them alone, as long as Oddbins made OK profits & sold a chunk of Seagram’s somewhat crummy brands (Monterey Vineyards anyone?).

But as BT suggests, in the national off-licence world, for decent beer, I’d say Oddbins were light years ahead – Anchor, Pete’s Wicked & later, albeit briefly Rogue “bomber” bottles & some other big name US craft beers; 2 biere de gardes; a decent Belgian range incl Trappists & La Chouffe; a great Dutch Tripel, “Dizzy Bull”, & good UK micro/regional beers from pioneers & stalwarts such as Sam Smith’s, Courage (Russian Stout!), Traquair House, Caledonian’s revolutionary organic beer Golen Promise & pale & hoppy Deuchars, King & Barnes had a great range incl the sublime annual Xmas Ale, Salopian’s original brewer/owner Martin Barry had a madcap mix of beers (with smoked malt, cherries, raspberries & oats, spiced, dark & pale wits, a beer with every malt he could find! – Entire Butt). If memory serves we also sold some of Nethergate’s own excellent beers, plus some fascinating brews based on almost-lost styles like a decent IPA & Porter – commissioned by Oddbins, and brewed by ex-Ruddles headbrewer, Tony Davis at Nethergate.

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