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Craft beer movement here to stay

Reports of craft beer’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The logic seems to be that what goes up – and craft beer has risen like a turbo-powered balloon, with a new brewery opening every two days in 2016, and independent brewers reportedly increasing production for the seventh year running – must come down.

Maybe that’s true, or maybe not. After all, homosapiens have never gone back to living in caves and rubbing sticks together to stay warm. Sometimes, progress sticks.

The craft beer movement isn’t just another movement. It taps into several long-term trends, including our love of novelty and variety and our passion for brands with local provenance. And this broad appeal may be enough to keep the beer market fizzing, even as new drinkers come of age for whom craft beer and brewpubs are no novelty, but just another feature on the beer landscape. Britain has changed irrevocably from the land of the pint of lager. Mintel research shows that between 2010 and 2015, sales of lager dropped by 8% – but that’s just lager. The same research shows 27% of Brits drink ale or bitter, while one in five drink craft beer.

For these drinkers, as well as their more sophisticated elders, the endless changeability of craft beer is the one thing about it that never changes. When the beer lovers who attend the annual Great American Beer Festival tell us that sour beers, porters, stouts and barrel-aged strong beers are going to be some of the next brews to fire up the UK drinker’s imagination, there’s no reason not to believe them.

Go forth and experiment

That’s the joy of the craft movement. Whenever people get restless and want to move on, there’s something new to move on to. Experimentation provokes conversation – and that’s the human aspect of beer consumption that sends people to the pub or bar in the first place.

For instance, my local pub used to be as lacklustre as any throwback to the pint-swilling 1950s. Now it has a back room covered in pump clips, ranging from the curious to the thoroughly obscure. Some aren’t great, some are really polished but they are all local, and you can bring in your own food (they only serve sausage rolls and scotch eggs, also made locally) and just try new beers. It is impossible to see how any beer-lover could get bored with that.

There is no way to overestimate the importance of beer’s ability to tick all the provenance boxes. You can drink your way around the UK these days. In fact, pretty much wherever in the western world you go – and we’re living in the most footloose era in history – you can find a local beer to sample, and perhaps to pick up again back home for a swift reminder of holidays past.

It’s not either/or

With so much choice and more cropping up all the time (pundits are emphasising the importance to brands of innovation and fresh offerings in 2017), how do you draw the increasingly sophisticated consumer, buffeted by options, towards your brand? By ensuring that every element of the design, from the shape of the bottle to the typography on the label, truly reflects the way you want your brand to be perceived. An under-considered look, which once suggested authenticity, passion, and a penniless, bearded brew nut concocting the Next Great Ale in his garage, now just suggests an under-considered product. The craft beer market is thriving – but it has certainly moved on, and grown up.

There’s no better example of this than Brewdog, which has practically become, in brand terms, the Google of beer. Brewdog has outgrown any notion of local (particularly with its brewpubs, now opening up even in the US), to become a lifestyle brand. But it has done so with immense intelligence, tapping into that witty, irreverent, slightly rough-around-the-edges aesthetic that perfectly suits its brand image.

Brewdog no longer has the handmade, homemade look that so many craft beers love. It started out anti-design, which was a look in itself. Now it’s much slicker and more polished, but retains the slight flaws that keep a brand human and inspire the emotional connection that every brand needs to thrive. Cleverly, Brewdog has borrowed design elements from the big brands which are, ironically, the most crafted of all when it comes to design. It’s design looks different, which is ideal, as long as it’s better. Brewdog’s design is.

Innovate…and differentiate

There’s been lots written about the increasing encroachment of big business into the artisan beer market, and that’s fine. In fact it’s amazing to see, for once, massive companies like Guinness (with their Hop House 13 Lager) taking their lead in design from smaller craft breweries. Mass-produced beer has its place. This is a more easy-drinking, consistent offering – and a lot of people buy into that, and into the look that says, “we spend money on our design” (and therefore, by implication, on our product). There’s room for everyone in this market – at least, everyone with a quality product.

It’s easy to underestimate how many messages, some subliminal, the design of a beer brand conveys. And not just the branding and packaging. I’ve worked on the design of a great many bespoke beer and cider glasses, which blur the lines between packaging and 3D brand sculpture, yet repay huge dividends in terms of an enhanced brand experience. The 3D packaging itself offers further expression. An off the shelf brown bottle? Here’s a real ale that’s all about natural ingredients, which need protecting from UV light. A can with a raw, edgy design? There’s the money for a million-pound filling line sloshing around somewhere, no matter how artisan the branding may appear.

Not everyone will pick up on these clues. But in an increasingly sophisticated market, plenty will. Send conflicting messages or project an inauthentic look and consumers will struggle to buy into the authenticity and passion behind your product. Get the mix right and you stand to recruit loyal followers that will subscribe to much more than just the beer you are selling. Or…they are drinking.

A market fizzing with possibility

A crowded market can be daunting, but in a popular field, one that’s still expanding, it’s also an opportunity. All those brewpubs, all those grocery shelves stacked with beers, all those column inches. Session ales and double IPAs, lower-alcohol beers, fruit flavours – even peanut-flavoured beer. There’s a great future here for the passionate producer, entirely in touch with his or her product and consumer, and able to convey the power of their brand and the joy and dedication that went into creating that brand. It’s all about getting the right message across, loud and clear.

PB Creative, a brand and packaging design agency, was founded in 2010 by Pete Hayes and Ben Lambert, after working together for over 15 years at various big name design and branding agencies in and around London.

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