Some people are still tipping it as the "next big thing", but it's not news that growth in premium bottled ale is pretty much the only thing stopping the ale market from shrinking.
The 50cl premium bottled ale market grew volume and value by 5 per cent in the year to July 14 2007, to £135 million and nearly 300,000 barrels, according to Nielsen.
Microbreweries are mushrooming and often find it easier to get bottles into off-licences and even onto supermarket shelves than into brewery-tied pubs - and as the variety increases, so does interest from consumers.
The sector may not be seeing the ≠massive growth it enjoyed a few years ago - it grew 11 per cent in the year to November 2004 - but across the board, brewers and retailers are convinced it has room to expand.
And even this year's blighted summer hasn't dampened everyone's spirits. "We've experienced pretty good sales this summer compared to what we might have expected, particularly because the weather has been so awful," says Refresh UK chief executive Rupert Thompson.
Retailers and beer buyers are pleased with premium bottled ale sales, and say they are driving growth in the category. Morrisons trading manager Mark Cox says: "Bottled ale sales continue to be strong. However the bulk of the growth is from new and emerging brands and suppliers, as consumers continue to expand their repertoire.
"The challenge for the industry is to continue to attract new customers to the category through innovation primarily on beer styles."
"The market is generally supported by the supermarket groups, because they make reasonable margins while giving consumers value and choice and supporting local suppliers, which is a good political position they can be in," says Nielsen consultant Graham Page.
And there are plenty of new consumers out there to be won, according to Greene King's take-home director Neil Jardine.
"Currently as a category PBAs have penetration of just below 20 per cent. That still leaves us 80 per cent of the population that haven't tried PBAs, so there is still a huge opportunity," he says.
"The category is still growing, and the reason it is growing is that more and more people come into it every year. But only about 30 per cent of consumers in a supermarket go down the beer aisle. Our challenge is getting it into more and more people's hands, and that is a challenge retailers share."
With slower growth, the market is becoming tougher and more competitive. Fuller's national account controller Bill Simmons says: "I think the unprecedented growth we originally had is no longer there, and I think it has become far more competitive. But I think the brands that have the consumer identity, the brands that people associate with, drink in pubs and take off the shelf at the moment, will all get stronger."
The top 20 ale brands command a ≠massive 61 per cent of the sector, according to Marstons marketing information manager Sheila Carroll. Among those opinion is divided - some, such as Refresh UK's Thompson, believe that having plenty of choice boosts PBAs' premium image. "You don't want to go into a library where there is only half a dozen books," he explains. Others are concerned that their position is being squeezed by the explosion of new products in the market.
Like the market in general, own-label premium bottled ales are getting more upmarket and diverse. Increasing numbers of supermarkets are teaming up with brewers to develop high-end own-brand offerings that shout about the brewery's heritage as well as carrying the shop's brand - and most of them have premium price-tags.
Own-label makes up around 2.4 per cent of the market in 50cl bottled ales, according to Nielsen, and grew sales 8 per cent in the year to July 14 2007.
Greene King take-home director Neil Jardine says: "Some of the offerings that have been around historically have been hitting more of the value end, and currently I think some of the retailers are taking very much the opposite approach and going to the super-premium end of it to create a point of difference."
With PBAs commanding premium prices, stores don't need to create own-labels to boost margins - instead they are doing it to increase choice in an already diverse market, which gives the ales an even more premium image.
That said, some of the leading premium bottled ale brands - 20 of which command 61 per cent of the market, according to Sheila Carroll of Marstons - feel squeezed by the increasing diversity in the market.
Wells & Young's marketing director Chris Lewis says: "From our point of view, we are a leading brewer of speciality beer, and own-label brands just can't compete with the beer crafted by our master brewers. To date, own-label brands haven't had a significant impact on category sales."
None of the brands feel own-label is a threat - but many, even if they are not interested in brewing own-labels themselves, realise it could be an opportunity.
Sudarghara Dusanj of Cains says: "The fact that supermarkets are investing in own-label PBAs is good. It shows the category is strong and encourages consumer trial."
Who makes own-label premium bottled ales?
Booths Daleside Porter, IPA, Bitter and Anniversary Ale - Daleside Brewery, Harrogate
Co-op Truly Irresistible Gold Miner Ale, Bumble Bee Honey Ale, Organic Fairtrade Ale - Freeminer Brewery
Morrisons The Best - Freeminer Brewery
Sainsbury's So Organic Ale - Refresh UK
Tesco Finest Golden Sheep Ale - Black Sheep Brewery
Some brewers are worried their shelf space is under threat as cider continues to expand, while others fear the sector becoming commoditised as prices come under pressure.
Thompson says: "My great worry is that people come in and think I can sell
more if I sell it cheaper. What they ≠completely miss is that for a while they will do well, but they then actually destroy what is part of the consumer experience - range and choice. Eventually they will commoditise another sector of the beer market, and that would be a massive shame."
Brewers, retailers and beer buyers talk to OLN about the challenges and opportunities for the sector
Ian Targett, buying manager for ale & cider, Tesco: "PBA sales are thriving. They continue to drive the otherwise relatively flat ale market - the fact that we are giving focus to multipacks and canned premium ales has helped to facilitate this. There is more evidence of cross-shopping, and we are doing more cross-promoting."
Colin Cordy, managing director, St Peter's Brewery: "I think that pricing is an issue, with too many deep-cut price offers in the major supermarkets on PBAs. This could lead to a reduction in the number of SKUs stocked, as many of the smaller breweries who sell bottles are struggling to meet the prices demanded by supermarkets."
Gareth Jones, Beer Essentials, Horsham: "People are coming in looking for unusual things, stuff you don't see in the supermarkets or the multiples, and they are quite happy to pay over £2. I think if the quality is there then they don't have a problem with it at all."
Rupert Thompson, chief executive, Refresh UK: "PBAs are now an important business in their own right, but they are also very important in terms of improving the overall image of beer - far more than their actual volume would suggest. I think there is lots more growth opportunity, providing retailers and brewers manage the sector with care and continue to offer innovation and sensible promotional offers."
Lee Williams, brands marketing manager, Thwaites: "Like it or not, beer still has an image problem, which is being addressed through new packaging and presentation in glass - but this is a long-term issue. The opportunity today, as we see it, is to appeal to the lapsed male beer drinker, by presenting our PBAs such as Thwaites Double Century in the best packaging possible, be that clear or brown glass."
Alan Dunn, Open All Hours, Keswick: "We've given a dedicated area of the shop to Cumbrian ales - they are moving for us because they are often what people want to take home with them. There are 19 microbreweries in Cumbria, and there have been nine new bottled beers just from Cumbria this year."
Steve Curzon, marketing director, Adnams: "Consumers are going to pay more and more attention to the carbon footprint of the product they want to consume. The issue is in its infancy, is being picked up, and without doubt is going to become more and more widespread. We've grasped the nettle and redesigned all our bottles for Adnams, which is now packaged in the lightest weight bottle in its class on the fixture."
Steve McAllister, UK take-home director, InBev UK: "People want to know more about the taste, history and heritage of brands so it is also useful to feature information and tasting notes to help shoppers make their choice. This will stimulate interest in the sector and encourage more people to purchase brands they don't know that well."
Chris Lewis, marketing director, Wells & Young's: "PBAs will continue to be driven by the ales that people can't necessarily get in pubs. The off-trade gives consumers far more choice and we are working with customers to offer our consumers a much wider range of ale in response to this."