Craft beer* is on the up. Smaller breweries are challenging the big boys for a share of the lucrative drinks market, and their unusual marketing tactics (think BrewDog) along with a focus on quality products and authentic, story-driven branding, are going down a storm with young affluent drinkers across the land.
Nowhere more so, perhaps, than in London – so it’s no surprise that what promises to be London’s biggest and best ever event dedicated to craft beer (with food and music on the side) is set to launch in the Capital this summer.
We’re fond of the odd bottle of the crafty stuff ourselves (in fact our junior copywriter has just bought shares in micro-brewery start-up Hop Stuff) – so we’re pretty excited at the prospect of the London Craft Beer Festival. Especially as it’s in our east London backyard.
Here, in an exclusive chat with the festival’s founders – long-time friends Daniel Sylvester (DS) and Greg Wells (GW) – we raise a glass to the rise of craft beer, find out what makes for a good festival, and discuss the importance of authenticity in brand-building.
(*For older readers, just think ‘real ale’ with added vim and vigour).
SM: Where has the explosion of interest in craft beer come from?
DS: It might seem a bit cliché but I think it really is an anti-globalisation sentiment. People are tired of mass-produced things, they want an experience and they want to know a little bit about what they’re drinking, where it’s come from, how it’s been made and the person who made it. Especially in London, I think young people do have a little bit of money to spend on quality products – I certainly often notice that in today’s 20-40 year-olds. They’re more inclined to go for a product that is an experience, whether that’s craft beer or an artisan baker, new pop-up shops with unique items, anything that is a little bit special. I think craft beer has really drawn on that in terms of experience.
SM: On your website you refer to London as ‘a true beer city’, do you think there’s a good selection of beers, pubs and events like your festival happening in London? Could there be more?
Yeah I think there’s a great range, and I also think there are more breweries and pubs popping up everywhere, which is great to see. I think the Great British Beer Festival is the most prominent festival for the more traditional ales, and I think our festival will hopefully represent the best festival for craft beer. I think in London we’re seeing a lot of exciting things, and sort of pushing things too – hopefully we can be one of the best craft beer producing countries in Europe. That’s actually one of the main points we want to push with our festival, that London is a fantastic place for craft beer.
SM: What have you tried to do with the festival to make it special?
We spent about seven months consulting breweries about festivals in other countries, finding out what they wanted and what their experiences have been.
We’ve hand-picked all of the brewers who are showing and as a result we’ve had a lot of requests from other breweries asking to be involved, telling us it would be an honour to be included next to the guys we have – we’re really proud of that. Our ambition is that by next year all the breweries will get a sense that it really is an honour to be asked to show at our festival, an acknowledgement of your skill and what you’re doing. Our aim is to make this the leading beer event in the UK with the best brewers feeling honoured to be there.
SM: How did you select the exclusive group of brewers that will be coming? Was it a personal thing, or did you set out objective criteria?
GW: We started with a few favourites that we knew – the key ones were the likes of The Kernel, Brodie’s and Mikkeller – and then we spoke to them about their favourites. I think every brewer has their own favourite brewer! So it grew organically, from conversations with them. I think it’s the right way to go about something like this in terms of getting the right level of commitment from the brewers, making sure that everyone’s working in the same direction.
SM: How does the way that the craft breweries have branded themselves, especially the really active ones like BrewDog, affect what you’re trying to do?
GW: I would say that craft is quite a generic term, but what it means when applied to beer production is the 100% commitment to delivering a quality product. When you have that passion and creativity going into your product it allows you to do more adventurous things with your brand identity – because you have that passion to back it up. Fundamentally that’s very different to more mainstream lagers that may be more cost-engineered. What you have there is less of a product and more of a brand, which can leave you a little bit vulnerable when you’re faced with a beer consumer that is looking for quality. BrewDog clearly have a strong, punky personality and that’s who they are, but the great thing is their quality allows them to use that personality as their brand. You win both ways.
SM: Often these brands still emerge quite strongly, even inadvertently, as a result of that personality. It seems like if you have a great story that can shine through almost organically?
GW: Yes I think so, and because the stories are all true that really helps as well. The stories are all based in the product, or the places that they’re made. I think people can tell that. In some ways those stories are the new way of marking yourself out as a premium product – you can’t fake it.
SM: Because they’re not marketing themselves like the larger breweries that have a big advertising budget, how do they get the word out?
GW: I think it is about festivals, and social media. What they have is a really strong, close community that beat the drum for them. They let people into their breweries, throw great events. Things that bigger brands don’t do. This gives them those really ardent followers that will advocate for them, talk about them, come back to their brand over and over again. Even though it’s not really big in terms of numbers, they’re really big in terms of passion.
SM: With people who aren’t so familiar with craft beer, who might perhaps think ‘beer is beer’, how do you convince them that beer can be as varied and interesting as wine?
GW: I definitely do think that it is becoming more accepted but we’re not quite there yet. If you were to go into even a very good restaurant now the beers on offer would probably be towards the lower end of the quality range. If you compare that to how things are in Germany, where they’ve been using great ingredients and protecting their methods of production for years you get a much better sense of how things should be. I do think that people want to know more about what they’re drinking now, the knowledge around beer is growing and while I’m not sure you could ‘taste test’ the difference between the product of one big brewery lager and another. I definitely think you can tell the difference between a craft beer and a mainstream lager though. The products are fundamentally different. I think we’re taking the first steps toward that way of thinking, but we’re on the way.
The London Craft Beer Festival – featuring 18 world-class craft brewers – takes place at the Oval Space, Bethnal Green, E1, on 15-18 August 2013.