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As a big fan of craft beer, this seems a strange question, but it comes off the back of a bet I’ve had with a local real ale pub landlord. I’ve been bet that “Craft Keg will not exist in 10 years”, that it’s fad will have passed. It is only a small wager, £10 increasing with inflation, probably enough to buy 3 pints of the stuff when it comes to pay day, but it shows that keg beer still splits some parts of the beer world.
It started with a chat about my day out in Leeds as detailed in last weeks column, and I got asked a simple question “Is Craft Keg just Keg Beer”. The answer when you take away all the branding is yes, it is beer dispensed from a keg with CO2 or 70/30 added, that is a fact we cannot deny. Is the term “Keg Beer” avoided now by modern keg beers due to its links with the late 60’s to mid 80’s homogenisation of the brewing industry and the resultant set of bland keg bitters, ales and mild beers, along with the decimation of dozens of local beer brands who were primarily cask ale producers.
Possibly so, lets take an example, of those who have heard the “Watneys Red Barrel” or “Watneys Party Seven”, how many have actually drank it. Probably a minority percentage, but these names are well known among the beer world as what was bad about keg beer at the time. There was probably dozens of others just as bad, but Watneys is the usual sacrificial lamb for the period. Lets not forget that the 1970’s necessitated the need for CAMRA to be formed to help campaign for a stop of the decline of real ale production and pubs selling cask beer.
Keg beer was what was killing cask, so there is a historical feud going back over 40 years and still existing today with the CAMRA leadership. If you look at the mainstream keg beers in our pubs today with brands such as John Smiths Smooth, Tetleys Smoothflow, Worthington’s Creamflow and Boddingtons Draughtflow, you can see their point. These are the direct descendants of those 1970’s bland mass produced beers. There is the older generation, probably the one before myself, who went through this era and it has probably put some of them off keg beer for life and frankly I don’t blame them one iota if the current mainstream face of keg beer are the brands above.
This is where I stop agreeing with a certain pub landlord. My thoughts are that in 10 years craft keg beer will still exist and be a healthy sector of the market on trade. However a lot brands we now call craft beer or craft keg will be far more widely available across the pub estate of this country thus losing their craft tag and will just become another premium beer offering on the bar. Like now, there will of course be a large number of small craft breweries who produce small batches of beer and will be mainly available in the local / more specialist bars and shops and more will join them over the next decade although the growth we have seen in the last 10 years in brewery numbers will slow down. Such a boom cannot last forever and it will start to reach saturation point eventually.
A number of brands will move into the ranks of national producers of good quality keg dispensed beer (I’m deliberately dropping the craft tag here). A prime candidate being Brewdog who are arguably the largest craft keg producer in the country at the moment and are building an ever expanding bar empire. Their beer is available across most of the Wetherspoons estate with “This is Lager”, there beer is also in most, if not all, major supermarkets. They have plans to grow even more, but the management will come to a point in their growth where they have to choose the path between remaining a craft brewery (abet a very big one) or expanding and risking becoming the mainstream.
The other danger to the sector is that the major volume producers will try to penetrate the Craft market and dilute the term enough to render it no value in differentiating genuine beers in that sector. Look at where Craft Keg started, in the USA the craft breweries were formed to fight against generic national brands like Coors and Budweiser. Over time they took a chunk of market share from the majors, so the big brands started to buy up the bigger players in the craft market quietly (ABInBev buying Goose Island), and are now forming separate “craft” breweries. However the regional craft keg scene is going from strength to strength still, and several players (such as Samuel Adams) are now national brands in the USA.
To see where the future might head, look to a country 10 years ahead on the craft beer path.