Head to head: how do indie brewers compete with the multinationals?

The Guardian Technology 10 months ago

I fell in love with brewing because it’s a business that shares. Craft breweries try to build good relationships not just with their customers but also with the brewers they deal with. They swap ideas and recipes and when things get difficult they band together and share resources.

When I started my beer company five years ago, global beer sales were slowing and microbreweries were increasing their sales by about 10%. I discovered that there was a strong interest in provenance, the quality of the beer and a business with a story behind it. Beer lovers were looking for something a bit different.

At that time there were 1,250 breweries in the UK – now there are over 2000. The best advice I was given was that whatever size brewery you’re thinking about building, double it, and, if you can afford it, treble it. Small business owners should always think big. The problem is, in the beer industry, the big multinationals have started to think small.

Global companies, such as AB InBev, Asahi, Carlsberg and Molson, are buying up craft breweries and putting them on their own distribution channels. This is proving a major challenge for independents as it potentially brings down the price of the beer we’re producing and, ultimately, makes it harder for us to do business.

At a Guardian Business Made Simple event in Reading, I spoke about the hurdles entrepreneurs can face. It’s never been more important for independent brewers to collaborate with and support each other. Smaller independents are being outgunned, but many are trying to fight back.

To compete, to survive even, we need to tell our stories. Smaller brewers need to use social media to talk about everything – from the ingredients they use to the story behind their business. And they shouldn’t be afraid to speak their mind. People want to listen. For example, my team and I published a blog this year outlining the reasons behind our decision to lower the production volume of our cask beer. We got a lot of good feedback.

A YouGov survey commissioned by the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba) this year shows that the majority of beer drinkers want to know if what they’re drinking was made by an independent craft brewer or by a big multinational. The Siba seal of approval on pump clips, beer bottles and cans is one potential way that real craft breweries can give customers the choice to support smaller breweries.

Multinationals have every incentive to emulate smaller craft brewers in their labelling and marketing, so we independents need to make sure we shout loudly enough so people can identify us as the real thing. We still have something a big multinational may find it harder to build – real communities that know us, support us and love what we do.

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