There has been a beer revolution in recent years, which has been driven by the American 'craft' brewers, who revolted against the big beer 'factories' (AB, Miller Coors, Pabst, etc) and created a whole new beer drinking culture.
The mantle has been taken up in the UK, although the lines are more blurred over here: we have cask ales, as well as keg beer and lager. The growth in the UK brewing industry has been phenomenal and there are now over 1,400 breweries, with new brewery openings averaging three a week, and over 8,000 beer brands - we have more brewers per head than the USA.
Everyone wants a piece of the 'craft' action: the new micro-brewers certainly do; the old world brewers too, although, arguably, they already brew craft cask beer; and the global brewers, who have finally woken up to the threat of the new beer revolution.
This has spawned a profusion of counterfeit craft, whereby brewers, and their designers, are creating a craft look and feel that is purely ephemeral, with no real commitment to the craft values.
As Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association, says, when talking to the USA craft brewers: "Your success is the result of developing your brand and your image; knowing who you are and why you do the things you do. It's about establishing core values and defining who you are as a company. This is the cornerstone upon which to build your brand."
'Craft' is all about putting the art into artisanship and creating great beers which differentiate themselves from the more mass-produced alternatives.
NEED TO BE DIFFERENT
The big issue created by the proliferation of new breweries is one of differentiation. Walk down the beer aisle of any Whole Foods store and the design bling is overwhelming: few brands stand out. The bar landscape can be equally confusing: tap handles are the big thing for the Americans and they come in all shapes and sizes. Bars can have up to 100 beers on tap and trying to order a pint when confronted by a forest of handles might give you a panic attack…
The poor drinker is often challenged when trying to make an informed choice, as there is too much visual chatter in the category and not enough clarity. As designers, we can create any look and feel to order and in this sector there is endless inspiration, with tens of thousands of beer labels and endless beer books to reference… it is too easy to simply follow the herd.
It's a bit like body ink, another favourite of the millennials (who are a major market for the new wave brewers). We think we are being unique and different by having tattoos, until we go down to the beach and find that everyone else has similar body ink, even Grandma.
Today's beers have a similar issue, individually the brewers think they are creating something special and beautiful…until they appear on shelf, or on the bar, and simply become part of the crowd. Brand mapping and market placement is key.
TELL THEM WHAT'S IN THE BOTTLE OR CAN
Too often the brewer and designer are focusing on the individual beer brand, instead of championing the passion and individuality of the brewer, or understanding the recipe and style of the individual beer.
Telling the drinker what the beer tastes like is a good starting point - a learning that can be had from the wine category. Remember, there are over 8,000 beers in the UK and the diversity of beer is amazing, there are even more styles of beer than there are of wine.
ORIGINALITY VS BUDGET
Probably the biggest issue for the designer is integrity. Most of us want a beer brand in our portfolio, and beers are trending. Brewers are notorious for focusing more on production than brand, and too often seem more than happy to follow the crowd. Budgets are often tight and it is too easy to simply emulate what is already in the market, and ignore the true value proposition, vision and passion of the brewer.
Despite the market growth in craft, the overall beer market, by volume, has been in decline and there is arguably an oversupply of brewers – consolidation is on the horizon. The brands that will win through are those that invest wisely in their brand and have a strategic view.
For the designer, taking learnings from the US market is good, simply emulating our favourite beer is not good.