Taste the difference: Microbrews on the march

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Major breweries are battling for market share as the taste for “quality” beer takes hold in supermarkets and pubs. Geoff Cumming follows the consumer-led revolution.

As the big breweries move into craft territory, beer connoisseurs worry about a drop in quality. Photo / Natalie Slade
There’s never been a better time to drink beer – or talk about it.

Lion and DB, the once-dominant brewers, are elbowing their way into the fast-growing craft beer market as flavoursome boutique beers squeeze their mass-market quaffers for shelf-space in supermarkets and liquor stores.

Though overall beer consumption is continuing to fall, boutique sector production is growing by 10-15 per cent a year, despite the price premium.

Mainstream pubs are broadening their tap range in response to consumer demand for ales brimful of specialty hops, malt and yeast – though many remain shackled by exclusive supply deals with Lion or DB.

The former duopoly’s response, including buy-outs, new labels and marketing campaigns, has craft beer aficionados spluttering into their pints and venting on online forums where craft beer is evaluated in terms usually associated with fine wine.

Lion’s purchase of boutique stalwarts Emerson’s this month prompted boycotts and speculation that the multi-national would soon water down the award-winning range.

Though the bile subsided after assurances of ongoing independence, a new talking point is the launch of “craft” ranges by Lion-owned Speights and DB-owned Monteiths.

Lion’s expanded Speights range – new “crafted batch-brewed” varieties are Triple Hop Pilsner and Golden Pale Ale – follows DB-owned Monteith’s “Brewers’ Series” in 500ml bottles, including an IPA, Pacific Pale Ale and Apricot Wheat Beer.

Lion has just launched Crafty Beggars, a range pitched at “drinkers who want to experiment but find full-flavoured craft beers a bit daunting”, says brand director Danny Phillips. This follows the addition of a 500ml pale ale to its Mac’s range and the return of Great White, a well-regarded wheat beer that fell victim to the Christchurch earthquake.

DB is about to counter with yet another craft label, Black Dog Brewery, after placing much of its focus on redeveloping Monteith’s, retiring head Brian Blake told the Business Herald this week.

The developments suggest the honeymoon may be over for the boutique sector in a market which was this week shortlisted for a Ministry of Economic Development project to pinpoint export opportunities for food and beverages.

Though still representing a small percentage of all beer sold (particularly when big-brewery-owned Mac’s, Monteith’s and Boundary Rd are excluded) the craft sector is experiencing exponential growth: small-to-medium brewery production rose 15 per cent in the six months to December 2011 and the boutique share of supermarket sales is rising. Countdown’s beverage merchandise manager, Andrew Dixon, says craft sales make up 10 per cent of beer sales and choices are broadening in response to consumer demand. Foodstuffs, owner of New World and Pak n Save, says the craft beer segment grew 19 per cent by value in the six months to September 1.

Four and six-packs of brands including Tuatara, Moa (successful enough for a recent public float), Epic and Harrington’s are now squeezing premium ranges such as Steinlager, Becks and Heineken for refrigerated shelf space. Most retailers are also making room for single bottles in sizes ranging from 500ml to 660ml, where established names like Epic, Renaissance and Stoke Bomber are joined by a giddying array of micro-brewers.

Premium wine retailer Glengarry’s has gone a step further, offering Stoke Bomber’s Kiwi IPA and guest beers in “growlers” (refillable bottles) while expanding its boutique beer range.

The bonus for health watchdogs is that we’re drinking less, but better. Though beer consumption continues to fall (a further 5 per cent in the nine months to September 30), old staples such as Lion Red, Tui and DB Export are being squeezed out as beer drinkers go for quality, despite the pricetag.

The revolution in the beer aisles is drawing comparisons to wine in the 80s and coffee in the 90s – upheavals driven by consumer demand for quality and distinction over homogenised (some say insipid) quaffers. The number of small breweries (under 40,000l annual production) doubled from 15 to 30 in the four years ended 2011, while the total number of breweries went from 48 to 68. More than 40 per cent are exporting and a third are increasing their export growth, research for the Brewers Guild shows.

The boutique (small-to-medium) sector’s share of the craft market has improved from 30 to 34 per cent since January, sales trend data shows. McCashin Brewery – which launched the Stoke and 660ml Stoke Bomber range in 2010 – was recognised last month as the South Island’s fastest growing business (and third-fastest in the country) in the Deloitte Fast 50 Awards. (The company founded the Mac’s range in the 1980s before being bought out by Lion).

Ironically, the “craft” beer posing the biggest threat to the old duopoly comes not from a micro-brewery but from Asahi-owned Independent Liquor, with its Boundary Rd range.

Best known for RTDs and budget beers NZ Lager and Ranfurly, Independent launched Boundary Rd last year after chief executive Julian Davidson witnessed the craft beer explosion in the United States. Priced for craft beer fans on a budget, it has soared to a 20 per cent share of the craft market, mainly at the expense of DB’s Monteith’s range. Independent has since entered the tap beer market, encouraging independent pub owners to avoid exclusive supply and discounting arrangements with Lion or DB. But Auckland’s bar scene, with notable exceptions, still lags behind Wellington which has declared itself the country’s Craft Beer Capital.

The blurring of craft beer boundaries has rekindled debate over the big question: what exactly is craft beer? Some maintain brewery size and ownership rules out the spawn of Kirin-owned Lion, DB (part-owned by Heineken) and Asahi-owned Boundary Rd.

Society of Beer Advocates (Soba) secretary Dale Cooper says the big players’ craft offerings are a mixed bag. “The worry is people perceive it as real, good quality craft beer when sometimes the quality may not be there. It’s a case of marketing over substance, though in some cases they are trying to make good quality beer.”

Cooper says bigger breweries tend to be more cautious: “It’s the craft guys who try outrageous flavours and one-off batches.”

Lion’s Danny Phillips says heavily flavoured beers still make up a very small part of the market.

“People are trying to exclude us from the conversation but the definition of craft beer is irrelevant. Some of the Mac’s range isn’t as challenging flavourwise as some other craft beers but it’s perfect for someone wanting something a little bit interesting but not hard to drink.

“We like to call Mac’s, Speight and Crafty Beggars ‘popular craft’ whereas Emerson’s and Little Creatures [also now fully Lion-owned] may be ‘experimental craft’.”

Some fear the big players and their marketing budgets will make it harder for existing micro-breweries to prosper and put off boundary pushing newcomers. But rather than a belated attempt to squash the upstarts, the multi-nationals are simply going with the flow, observers believe.

Dr Mark Glynn, associate professor in marketing at AUT University, says their response was predictable. “Craft beers appeal to the young and mid-to-high income drinkers so big brewers want to be part of the market, even at the risk of cannabalising their existing products.”

Brewers Guild president Ralph Bungard agrees the new entrants and Emerson’s tie to a major corporate may be no bad thing. “What generally happens is the sharp end of the craft beer market is quite a low percentage of consumption. When you get big brewers entering, it helps to broaden the palate and more drinkers are attracted to craft beer. It drags mainstream drinkers to craft beer and the next step seems not quite so big.”

But the Emerson’s buy-out has still rekindled unhappy memories for some who claimed Lion’s 1999 takeover of Mac’s brought a toning-down of flavour, making it cheaper to produce and closer in taste to the more common “insipid” lagers.

Beer commentator Neil Miller, writing on the Emerson’s takeover in Beer and Brewer magazine, said experience both here and overseas suggested that “sooner or later the corporate accountants want to tweak the recipes”. But most accept Emerson’s is unlikely to change or lose its edge while founder Richard Emerson and brewer Chris O’Leary remain involved.

Soba’s Dale Cooper: “It’s all about getting good beer out there – whoever makes it.”