It was Dave Bonnington, former Australian Craft Beer Industry Association Chairman and founder of Melbourne’s Mountain Goat brewery, who declared they wouldn’t get kicked in the head if their head wasn’t above the precipice. After 17 years owning a small brewery in an industry dominated by big brewers, Bonnington has probably been kicked in the head a few times - metaphorically speaking of course. His comments come on the back of recent negative media attention for craft beer.
It was a high profile GQ column from superstar chef, David Chang that prompted such a response, a scathing dissection of why he hates fancy beer and those who enjoy it. While Australian print media has recently featured a number of articles that highlight the often excessive cost of craft beer, a rumour claiming that the decidedly un-crafted Victoria Bitter entered and won a craft beer competition gained ground before being exposed as a parody. More than one journalist took the bait.
You can see why it feels like people are lining up to give the industry a kick. Bonnington, however, seems happy to take it because the attention is on the back of a big surge in popularity for smaller craft beer producers such as his own. A recent Ibis World study into the Australian beer industry puts growth in the “craft” segment for 2009-2014 at 10.1% while traditional lagers, such as VB and Crown Lager, reported falls in market share this year.
The emergence and subsequent blossoming of this market is not unique to this part of the world. The impressive growth of Australian craft beer over this five-year period is mirrored and even dwarfed by trends in the USA, with the Wall Street Journal reporting a 20% increase in sales for the industry in 2013. To put that in real terms, craft brewers now ship more beer than the famous Budweiser brand.
The figures out of the States are even more dramatic when the Brewers Association definition of what constitutes a “craft” brewery is taken into consideration. Their official definition excludes brewers with more than a 25% ownership by a non-craft brewery. In Australia, however, there is no current definition, so overall figures include popular brands such as Little Creatures, James Squire (Both Lion Nathan), and Fat Yak (Fosters/SABMiller).
Nevertheless, among the messiness of ownership parameters, definitions, and negative media, drinkers don’t seem to be phased by what is or isn’t a “craft” beer. This is witnessed in recent takeovers of loved craft brands such as Goose Island in the US, or Little Creatures in Australia, who has recently opened a new East Coast brewery in Geelong and is already expanding the facility to accommodate their growing White Rabbit brand. In the case of Goose Island, their annual Bourbon County Brand Stout release is still one of the most anticipated of the year.
At the end of the day business is business and the most important part of the beer business is what’s in your glass. Whether you agree or disagree, it is undeniable that small brewers can be excited by what is going into the public’s glasses.