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How big brewers are buying into the craft beer
trend - When 'craft beer' isn't
Is that tasty craft beer with notes of raspberry you’re drinking really “craft” beer?
Big brewers like Molson-Coors and Anheuser-Busch InBev (which owns Labatt) have seen
their market share slowly eroding at the hands of small, independent craft breweries. Not
wanting to lose their massive footprint in the beer industry, these giants have been buying
and brewing their way into the craft market. Some beer aficionados suspect these big
brewers are hoping you don’t notice.
Ben’s Beer Blog, run by Toronto writer Ben Johnson, posted a document that Johnson says
shows 2015 marketing ideas for Shock Top. Though you may have seen Shock Top placed
among microbrews at the liquor store, it’s actually made by Labatt, and therefore AB InBev.
The Belgian wheat beer comes in several varieties including a lemon shandy, a raspberry
wheat and seasonal flavours like a pumpkin wheat in autumn.
According to the document, which can be found in the blog post, Labatt knows that 75 per
cent of consumers erroneously believe Shock Top comes from a “small/unknown brewer,”
and they hope to keep it that way. Specifically, the aim outlined in the document is to grow
Shock Top’s volume by 40 per cent “while maintaining micro/craft credentials.”
“Shock Top is Labatt’s big bet in the battle against Micro Craft,” the document says. “Micro
Craft is growing rapidly, with the proliferation of brands eroding Labatt’s share.”
Johnson suggests that Labatt intends to purposely mislead consumers. Indeed, Shock Top’s
parent company is not mentioned on either its website or its packaging.
For Labatt’s part, they say the document comes from an agency and does not necessarily
reflect actual marketing plans for Shock Top.
“The blogger is looking at a marketing agency brief, which says nothing about our eventual
plans for Shock Top. This brand has become a success since it was first introduced in
Canada in 2011. We expect to deliver on more great ideas for it in the coming months,” said
a statement from Mike Bascom, Director of High End Brands.
But what is craft beer, anyway?
There is no legal definition of what “craft beer”means, but there is a shared understanding
that these brewers are small (provinces define “mircobreweries” based on hectolitres per
year, but there’s no designation for “craft”), independent (not majority-owned by another
brewer) and use traditional brewing methods. They also typically have a flair for innovative
flavours and ingredients.
Blue Moon is another example of a “craft” beer wholly owned and produced by a big brewer
— in this case, Molson-Coors. Shock Top was made as a competitor to the popular brand,
which is marketed as Rickard’s White in Canada. Rickard’s, though listed under “craft” at The
Beer Store in Ontario, is also owned by Molson-Coors.
Though launching “craft” brands is one way big brewers have broken into the market,
another method has been to purchased small brewers already popular among
consumers. Molson, for example, bought Ontario’s Creemore Springs on 2005 which in turn
bought B.C.’s Granville Island Brewing in 2009.
That partnership in turn created Toronto’s Beer Academy, a micro-brewery that puts out
small batches of beers like cherry porter, chocolate cream stout and other intriguing flavours.
It’s owned by Molson, although they don’t go out of their way to make it obvious.
Other examples of big brewer-owned brands include, Quebec’s Unibroue, which is owned by
Sapporo. and Hop City, makers of Barking Squirrel, which is owned by Moosehead. Again,
these beers are marketed like craft beers and often placed alongside independent brands at
liquor stores.
Whether any of these big brewer-owned brands — which, arguably, are trying to be more
creative than putting another pale lager on store shelves — pass the “craft” sniff test will be
to consumers to decide.