Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Beer Innovation Summit 2014

Beer Innovation, they say, is largely marketing bullshit.

But, perhaps, whilst it might be nothing more than clever use of bullshit to gain competitive edge, that might just be innovation in itself.

I'll let you ponder that one.

The key point made by the innovation skeptics is that there really isn't anything new in the beer world. Barley wines, oak cask aged beers, imperial stouts, mahousively dry hopped IPAs and even eisbocks have all been done before. Kegged beers, serving beers out of fancy bottles, more art than beer, or any other fancy, value added claptrap, is nothing new.

Indeed, as a brewer who would like to be innovative it becomes increasingly difficult these days to come up with ideas that really are new.

Never-the-less, I feel that microbreweries do tend to be more innovative. Even if that innovation is nothing more than exploring how a more diverse acceptance and broader appeal is developed. Even if the product is similar to what has been produced before, perhaps even many times, if it reaches a new audience, or if it enables consumers to accept a less homogenous range of products, then this is certainly helpful.

My own living memory is not yet half a century in length. It might be getting close, a fact I'm not entirely happy about, but there we go, at least it does enable me to draw on some experiences and empirical, if anecdotal knowledge. I'd like to be more certain about some facts before the start of my memory, and if I were not so busy I'd do some research. However, I feel I can hopefully generalise some historical accepted situations to help illustrate my thoughts.

The vast majority of beer sold in this country today is some form of 4% ABV fizzy yellow liquid. The differences, in my mind, are much more to do with branding than flavour. On the one hand it could be said that this is the case because this is what people want. Whilst this might be true, at least in part, I also have some reservations.

I often compare beer to wine, spirits and other beverages. I also feel very nervous about doing so, after all, beer should be able to compete on it's own terms. I still think it is important to look at where we can learn lessons from a broader market, and so avoid the pitfalls of accepting the status quo as an unmovable certainty.

Beer has become, as a general rule in the mass market, very narrow in it's product variation, quite a surprise considering beer's real versatility. In reality the general public think of lager, bitter and stout and not much more. They think that anything over 5% is just plain crazy, and yet those same people will drink wine at 13% or whisky at 40% plus. Why?

Then there is the biggest bug-bare of mine when it comes to beer. Beer is, in general it would seem, quite masculine. My exploration of why this might be the case has gotten me into quite deep water, which continues to bother me. However, whatever the reasons, it must be something that most readers of this blog would agree with me on; beer is still considered by the vast majority of the general public as a mans drink, and nice ladies don't drink beer. The fact this is so is quite wrong and disturbing.

I cannot think of a single food or drink that divides along gender lines like main stream beer does. Are hops such a violent repulsive flavour as to inherently and instinctively alienate females? I really don't think so.

The generally accepted view among beer enthusiasts is that beer used to be stronger and more varied than it is today. The narrowing down and masculinising of the beer market would seem to me to be partly as a result of mass production and associated marketing.

Equally, and I'm drawing very much here on anecdotal experience, people who prefer to consider themselves more sophisticated don't tend to drink beer. TV often doesn't feature beer, although I do notice this is an improving situation, but for sure, many beer writers recognise that getting work into main stream media is not easy. A key blame for this is that up-and-coming editors and media types couldn't possibly be seen drinking beer and are much more likely to hang out in trendy wine bars. This then relates to a bias towards wine within the main stream media.

Whilst not universal, wanting to be successful, or wanting to be seen to be successful, biases the ambitious away from beer.

I've been invited to sit on a panel entailed "The State of the Nation" at the up coming Beer Innovation Summit, where apparently "top beer writers and brewers will discuss the challenges facing the industry"

Last year I was amongst a number of people who criticised the PMA for not choosing various important groups to be represented in the speakers. To me, it was obvious that micro-brewers were missing. One could assume that I've now been elevated to the rank of either top brewer or top beer writer by the fact I kicked up a fuss last year. Or perhaps I'm one of the token minorities.

The other objection, which I'd have to admit I failed to notice until it was pointed out, was that it was a very male dominated line-up last year. This year our panel includes Marvarine Cole, which I'm delighted about. Equally, Sarah Barton, who has already made her mark in the industry by being proactive about inclusion of people irrespective of gender, will also speak at the summit. Emma Reynolds from AB InBev is also to speak. It does still seem to be male dominated however, so I'll reserve judgement until after I've attended.

For me, the most powerful form of innovation that could be brought to the table is that of considering how to engage those markets, or social groups, or age ranges that are currently turning their back on beer. We live in an age where more and more people are moving away from the old-fasion stereotypes of gender roles and class status.

I'm very pleased to be involved with the Innovation Summit, and I hope to provide a robust but balanced view from my part of the market. For me there is an ever increasing trend for younger people to never even starting to look at beer. Alcho-pops, spirits, wine and many other drinks are making off with our market share. A fresh look is always a good idea, even if it is just giving beer marketing bullshit that that is less gendered and enables a broader acceptance of variety.


StringersBeer said...

Innovation is what's done instead of improvement. Isn't it?

py said...

My favourite beer innovation is when you find a clever way of making the same beer for half the cost and then passing that saving on to me. Now that would be worth giving awards out for.

Unknown said...

Innovation = radical "improvement"?

Define improvement. Is taking beer, filtering and gassing it up, putting it in a hermetically sealed container and serving it hyper-chilled improvement, innovation or travesty? Depends on your perspective I guess.

py, the best way to make beer more economically is to make more of it so that there are various process efficiencies and bulk purchasing of raw material benefits. To be able to gain those benefits it is essential to reach a larger market, which normally just means those cost benefits are transferred to a larger marketing budget and costs associated with a longer and more complex route to market. On top of that, when a brewery grows and so gains these cost advantages, there is the loss of progressive beer duty. It's all a bit of a bummer.

An Anonymous Boozer said...

I hope you and the other 'state of the nation' panelists use this as an opportunity to let the 'let there be beer' campaigners know how utterly useless their campaign is. The guy from CAMRA should in particular be embarrassed to be involved in that fiasco.

Unknown said...

Mr Anon Boozer,

It is highly likely that I might mention Let There Be Beer. However, I might not be thoroughly conversant with all its errors as I've largely ignored it as just another big brand advertising initiative.

Cooking Lager said...

If innovation is a form of competitive advantage, why attend a summit? You don't want to share your ideas. You can't expect other rational attendees to share their ideas. Seems bizarre.

StringersBeer said...

@cookie, I don't believe it's actual innovations they'll be pontificating about so much as the concept. It's in the attendees best interests that this becomes known as a thing, so that their employers send them on more junkets like this, they get to report to the board on the fun time they had and the 'new perspectives' they were afforded, etc. NPD gets bigger budgets, and so forth. Of course, what the industry could do is make sure that pubs are nice and clean and fresh and welcoming to younger drinkers and women. I'm not sure there's a snappy term for that.

Cooking Lager said...

@Stringer A term? How about "forward generation requirement delivery engineering" ?

Unknown said...

A snappy term for a pub that's appealing to women and young people? A wine bar.

Unknown said...


As for why to attend the summit? Well, for a laugh really. Networking, you know, stuff like that. Maybe for a mention in the PMA. I'm not sure I'd pay to attend mind.

Will I tell them all my secrets? Probably not, although it only takes three or four beers to loosen my mouth. Sometimes less.

StringersBeer said...

You enjoy yourself Dave. I'm going to concentrate on future-proofing my imagineering of the beer/pub nexus.