A few years ago, I attended an OLN conference on the state of the beer market. I remember commenting that volume couldn't continue to grow indefinitely, and that growth w ould only come from value, probably at the premium end of the market. That view was met by much sucking of teeth by industry bigwigs.
Fast -forward to today, and there's no doubt that premiumisation is a major trend in the drinks industry. In the areas of production, retail and consumption, it's here and it's happening. Granted, it's taken a little more time for beer producers, retailers and consumers to catch on to the idea, but the only question that you should be asking is: how can I get involved? You don't need to ask if it's worth it.
The main growth in the beer market is happening in the take-home sector, and at the premium level. But if we look at the phrase "premium bottled ales", which is generally taken to mean quality bottled ales around 5% abv, selling for £1.50 to £2, then it's immediately clear that there is another group of beers above these. These beers are often a little stronger, more expensive
and more flavourful. Say hello to super-premium bottled beers.
Within the super-premium bottled beer market, there are three distinct areas. These could be seen to represent the past,
future of SPBBs. Representing the past, the re are beers with a long heritage, having the kind of back story loved by beer enthusiasts the world over.
Obvious examples of these would be the Trappist ales of Belgium and Holland, regional specialities from eastern and northern Europe
and stronger bottled beers from the UK. These might be characterised by the phrase "heritage brands" - beers with a traceable lineage, like Worthington's White Shield or Thomas Hardy Ale. I haven't picked these two randomly: their histories are dotted with periods where they were variously out of production, poor imitations of their former selves, or simply out of favour - but they have the lineage
and today they are flourishing. Also within this category are beers from breweries with a long history, who have relatively recently started to produce exceptional bottled beers. Fuller's 1845, and their yearly Vintage Ale, are good examples of these.
So if these beers proudly have a foot in the past, what of the present? There are a group of more modern beers
that, by way of innovation or brand extension, have added a super-premium beer to their range. One of the most prevalent of these is the international hybrid King Cobra, a beer that raised a few eyebrows on its launch, but has since gone on to find both critical acclaim and popular acceptance. On paper, it's a strange beast - brewed in Poland, bottled and refermented in Belgium, and descended from a beer with the tagline Born in Bangalore, Brewed in Bedford. How can that be a serious contender for admission to the ranks of the SPBBs? But I feel that this is representative of the current state of the sector: a beer with broad appeal that has added premium or super-premium beers to its range.
Looking across the water, our American cousins on the east and west coasts have the right idea - the Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn breweries both have broad appeal, entry-level beers, then slowly work their magic up to super-premium barley wines and imperial stouts. Did Gordon Ramsay really spit out the legendary Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout? It will be interesting to see where Ramsay's own offering sits in the scheme of things.
Trying to guess where this trend will lead is tricky, but there are some interesting pointers. The iconoclastic BrewDog brewery, known for its uncompromising approach to flavour and packaging, is releasing a cask-aged stout that on price alone (£40 for
200 33cl bottles) deserves a new category: extreme super-bling bottled beer, perhaps? You could also
include Carlsberg No 1 , a beer so rare and unusual that the brewery set the price to reflect its year of creation - 2008 Danish Kroner (about £215) - but still doesn't expect to make a profit from it.
Coming from just across the Channel, Bosteel's Deus, a true heavyweight in its Champagne-style packaging, apes the French fizz in both cachet and desirability . At £15 for a 75cl bottle, it outsells each individual Champagne brand that we stock. More modestly, but no less exciting, Harviestoun Brewery is set to launch three variants of Ola Dubh - "Black Oil", its whisky cask-aged beer - later this year.
Sharp's Brewery has recently expanded its range, adding a spiced wheat beer, a Trappist-style double and a barley wine to its range of standard and premium ales. Perhaps this is the future of the super-premium sector: re-interpreting classic styles with a contemporary twist, creating a new form of craft brewing that speaks a global language with a distinctive local accent.
Are they worth it?
it won't come as any surprise
that I think
this sector of the beer market is exciting and essential, as a retailer,
someone who champions good beer in all
forms. Super-premium bottled beers will excite the palate, invigorate the market
and provide proof that quality will always shine through.