Pint by pint, we delve into the nitty gritty of the world of craft beer to figure out if the humble drink could ever compete with wine and fizz in the events industry
Hops are hip, there’s no doubt about that. Craft beer sales in the UK have increased by 48% in the last 12 months, according to research done by microbrewery Brewhouse & Kitchen. That research also suggests that brewing has moved away from a dad-like part-time hobby to a respected profession. There are more than 2,000 breweries in the UK – an increase of 64% over the past five years. I have a friend who gave up his job – and his salary – in the City to set up his own brewery, and there’s even a part of London dedicated to the drink (the Bermondsey Beer Mile).
So yeah, the craft beer revolution is well and truly underway. But what does it mean for the events industry?
PhotoL: Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash
I’m wondering if its growing reputation means it could compete with wine in being paired with food. Or is it just a fad that will pass in a few years (kind of like the trend of narrow The Matrix–styled sunglasses that millennials are wearing these days – I’ll eat my own hat if this tragic 1999 fashion makes it to summer 2019)? I’m also exploring whether the craft beer revolution is changing the perception beer has at events (from a casual, laddish drink to a more sophisticated one that appeals as much to women), and, therefore, ultimately, if it could replace bubbly as the tipple of choice at drinks receptions.
That people love beer is a pretty undisputed statement, and 34% of the respondents of Brewhouse & Kitchen’s study (the equivalent of 13 million people), said it was their favourite alcoholic beverage. So when it’s such a beloved option, why is it not more apparent at events?
Photo: Kitchen & Brewhouse Cardiff
Sure, it’s usually available as part of drinks packages at parties, and the odd lager might be up for grabs at a reception if you ask nicely. But when was the last time you had a beer-pairing to your ten-course, fine-dining experience or, indeed, a craft beer reception? Does beer, even craft beer, still require a distinctly laid-back environment – you’re burger joints, pizza places, street food markets and, naturally, pubs?
Simon Bunn, co-founder of Brewhouse & Kitchen doesn’t think so. ‘There are already events where craft beer is paired in a fine dining environment. Beer, we know, pairs with food much better than wine, because of the breadth of flavour and carbonation.’
I also spoke to Adrian Lugg, head of marketing at Fourpure Brewers, who backs up Bunn’s claim. ‘Beer and food pairing dinners have been around for many years now,’ he says. ‘Restaurants owned by top chefs curate their beer menu with the same level of meticulous detail that they would their wine list.’
And at Lockhouse
in Paddington (a restaurant specialising in quality burgers and craft beers) food and beer pairing sessions are hugely popular.
Gavin Litton, co-founder of Pillars Brewery, offers an explanation. He argues that craft beer’s focus on high-quality flavours rather than costs makes it so popular. He also thinks there’s a consumer shift in terms of product awareness and the love for independent operators. ‘People like to support local producers rather than huge multi-national companies,’ he says.
So if we see craft beer entering the of world fine-dining more and more, could it ever compete with sparkling wine at receptions?
Simon Bunn thinks this is unlikely. ‘Changing a cultural standard, such as this, takes some time,’ he says.
Fizz has a long-standing glamorous reputation and premium connotation – much due to the hefty price tag of proper good champagne back in the day. But with cheaper alternatives such as prosecco and cava entering the consumer market, bubbly is no longer a ‘posh’ drink. So why does sparkling wine have such a seemingly unwavering foothold as a reception drink?
Photo: Heist Bank Beer Festival
Maybe it’s down to the fact that sparkling wine has a larger appeal to women, and beer still doesn’t. Brewhouse & Kitchen’s research found that although 23% of women asked were more experimental with their beers now compared to 10 years ago, the decidedly male image of your average beer drinker is a tough one to shake. In fact, the research showed that men are still three times more likely to identify beer as their favourite alcoholic drink. So why choose a drink at a reception that would alienate half of the guests?
Pillars Brewery’s Gavin Litton doesn’t believe craft beer to be a typical ‘man’s drink’. In fact, he claims that the huge choice craft beer offers make it appeal to everyone. ‘Men might consume slightly more craft beer than women, but I think this is driven from how it has historically been targeted at men through advertising, along with cultural misconceptions,’ he says. ‘I would argue that the number of women that enjoy craft beer will increase – yes, partly due to gender barriers being broken down – but ultimately because it provides a huge amount of choice so everyone can find a beer they love.’
Photo: Elevate for Unsplash
So is it down to tradition, then? Millennials is the group most likely to enjoy craft beer. They have grown up in a more ‘egalitarian’ alcoholic environment – a time when no alcoholic drink was ‘too good’ or ‘too shabby’. Brewhouse & Kitchen’s study concludes that millennials are almost three times more likely to be adventurous with their beer drinking than those aged over 55. So perhaps the craft beer revolution will grow and develop in the events industry alongside today’s youth?
Fourpure’s Adrian Lugg seems to think we’re making headway with craft beer being a viable alternative to fizzy receptions. He thinks sparkling wine, like traditional lagers, can be a little one-dimensional. Craft beer, on the other hand, offers such a ray of styles and flavours, that it can be more versatile, and therefore be more of a crowd-pleaser, at events.
He also thinks craft beer fits the premium mould. ‘We sponsor a lot of galleries and exhibitions where they serve craft beer at their reception,’ he tells me. ‘And people are happy to see great beer available.’
And although he still thinks there’s some way to go, he believes the innovators of this industry can make it happen.
Photo: Yutacar for Unsplash
The findings in the Brewhouse & Kitchen study offer a similar explanation. It argues the popularity in craft beer is a movement led by consumer demands rather than corporate influence. But as with every trend in the event industry, it often starts at a consumer level.
So perhaps it’s not about craft beer replacing wine, fizz and cocktails at receptions, but rather it being offered alongside these beverages, as an equal. Tom Risby, general manager at Lockhouse, says: ‘There’s never a one-size fits all in terms of what your customer wants at a drinks reception. We have offered beer-specific receptions to showcase our range, but you always need to provide other options too.’
Photo: Heist Bank Beer Festival
At least one thing all the experts I spoke to agree on is that craft beer is not a fad. It’s an industry that’s here to stay and the question is not about its stronghold, but rather about how it will evolve. Gavin Litton says: ‘As long as people continue to drink beer, there will be craft breweries pioneering new and exciting products across the industry.’
So although craft beer is not in a position of replacing fizz as the tipple of choice for receptions just yet, it is at least a strong contender and a drink that shouldn’t be overlooked nor undermined when planning an event. So come join the revolution comrade, pint by pint.