*The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the writers, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Coaster.
This post has been in the making for a very long time, as corporate beer has begun trying to horn in on the craft beer scene, but what finally pushed us past the limit was an incredibly frustrating read in Malt & Spirits concerning the entry of Carlsberg-owned Hong Kong Yau into the local craft beer market. You can see throughout the piece exactly how corporate beer thinks about and approaches craft. They’re bringing the corporate approach to making “craft” beer (because if there’s one thing craft beer fans love, it’s corporate-style beers). Well, good luck! The whole reason craft beer has exploded in recent years is because people were looking for something new, something unique, something specifically for them. Something not corporate, in other words.
Here are a few choice quotes from the article, and our reaction to them:
“The great advantage of Carlsberg is its being commercial – meaning it’s responsive to what customers want.”
No. Being commercial means appealing to the broadest possible demographic, which means the product must be a jack of all trades, master of none, never venturing outside of the comfort zone of the lowest common denominator. Craft means that you’re not trying to make a beer that appeals to everyone. You’re trying to make the best possible beer you can, regardless of if it’s not a huge hit with the masses. Fans of new beers, different styles, artistry and craft in their drink will find your beer.
“With years of sales experience, it’s cultivated solid consumer reach, backed by regular market research by external research firms for a thorough understanding of the market’s taste… We find that local breweries constantly launch new products with different ingredients, but Hongkongers actually don’t need such distinctive flavours, and body should be lighter for better market reception.”
Lovely. Did you hear that, Hong Kong? You don’t actually want flavour. The place with 87 Michelin Stars, with some of the most flavourful and delicious food in the world, doesn’t want flavour. Admittedly our own “market research” methodology costs us much less than hiring research firms (in fact, it consists entirely of talking about beer with people stopping by our Beer Shack on Lamma Island), but we’ve found it’s a pretty great way of figuring out if people are enjoying the things we’re making. But we do it after we make the beer, not before. Instead of chasing trends, we’re content to make a product we love and believe in, something we enjoy ourselves, and then sharing it with people who enjoy it as well.
Instead of thinking of the market as an amorphous faceless thing that only wants one product with the broadest appeal possible, we try to make a variety of beers that will appeal to a wide range of tastes. Want something loaded with hops? Try our Hong Kong Bastard Imperial IPA. Don’t like IPAs? No problem, try our Quit Your Job! Saison. Want something different, something you might have never even thought to try until you heard we made it? Try one of our Single Batch brews. The whole reason craft breweries have so many different varieties is that we’re not trying to make one single beer with the widest market appeal, to sell to the most people. We’re trying to make beers for fans of great beer, and that means making things that won’t always appeal to absolutely everyone.
But that’s the great thing about craft beer: discovering the beers that appeal to your specific taste. The beer or beers that are exactly what you want out of a beer. You’ve found your beer, not something designed to be as inoffensive as possible (and therefore unlikely to stand out in any way) in order to be sold to as many people as possible. It’s a great feeling, and one of the things we love about making craft beer.
Why does this all matter? Because in order for craft beer to keep its integrity – to stop the degradation and erosion of a beautiful ideal by corporate breweries who are increasingly attaching their tentacles to craft breweries all around the world – it is vital that we draw a line on the battleground of commercialism versus craft. Big Business has realised that there’s a quick buck to be made off of craft beer (or something that looks like craft beer) and it’s eroding the ideal of what craft is. Craft is not market-led. Craft is about individuality, about creating, about pushing the boundaries, about making something new – not about latching on to the latest trend.
The logical conclusion of making market-led beer is bland, safe, boring, corporate. It’s the antithesis of craft. Craft is art as well as science. When an artist creates art, we are invited to experience what the artist wanted to say; with craft beer, we taste and experience what the brewer wanted to share.
Independence and creativity, making YOUR beer, is critical in defining real craft. Making a product that you believe in, that represents you as an individual, is real craft. Only when a brewer is free to make the beer that he/she dreams of do we see real craft.
It’s not possible to drink a mass-produced product, dreamt up in a board room, created en masse to pander to “average” or “majority” tastes, and have that experience of understanding what the brewer wanted to create. The brewer didn’t have a vision he wanted to express. A product was dictated to him, based on extensive “market research” and the brewer was simply the instrument. To him, it’s just a job.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Just as there is a place for fast food, there is a place for fine dining. A place for McDonald’s and Michelin Stars. Mass-produced and copied art, and one-off masterpieces. There is a place for IKEA furniture and there is a place for the carpenter making handmade furniture.
Beer is the same. We’re not knocking corporate beer for being corporate. Sometimes a corporate-style beer is what you want to drink. There is space for both mass-produced beer and craft beer.
But the problem comes when one attempts to masquerade as the other. Don’t sell us an IKEA flat pack and tell us it’s the same as the arts and craft movement. Don’t sell us a printed poster and tell us it’s a masterpiece. Don’t sell us mass-produced beer that is not an expression of the brewer’s individual style and tell us it’s craft!
And, Corporate Beer, while you’re at it, and regardless of what your market research says you can get away with selling, maybe consider not barging into the field of craft beer – a field that’s been doing quite fine on its own – and telling its brewers and its fans that they’re doing it wrong, that they don’t really want the things they think they want, that your way is the real way to go. For many of us, your way was the opposite of what we were looking for, so much so that it inspired us to start making and seeking out the beers we actually wanted to drink.