“March 5, 2014 was the day the craft beer scene changed in the UK, the clear watermark where it crossed over from cult to mainstream.” A future historian might write this, as he sits aboard an orbiting space station, waiting for his connecting flight to Titan and sipping wheat beer made on Mars (coloured red, obviously). He’s just returned from the Federal States of Albion, the successor to the United Kingdom, in his passionate quest to unravel the craft beer scene as it unfolded in the opening years of the 21st century.
So what was so special about March 5, 2014? It’s something that crept up on me, though I’d heard whispers and felt ripples, it didn’t occur to me until the day itself. It was the day Wetherspoon’s started stocking cans of imported US craft beer. Now hold on, don’t roll your eyes and flick over to the rugby, bear with me a moment.
Initially, Nate Southwood and Justin Mason were sounding the craft sirens with their review pieces on the beers. In total, three canned beers from Sixpoint Brewery, based in Brooklyn, New York, are being stocked in Wetherspoons. Nate and Justin had both received cans from Wetherspoons’ PR people and it seemed like an excellent coup on Wetherspoons’ part. For a few hours, though, it felt like a crafterati thing – our inner circle whooping with joy at getting what we wanted, cheap cans of US beer.
It’s a big deal for the followers of craft beer. Without wishing to stir up bad blood, it’s essentially an extension of the cask vs keg debate, with real ale stalwarts regarding those little metal tubes as kegs in miniature and craft beer supporters regarding those little metal tubes as, well, as kegs in miniature.
Nate proclaims all the advantages of cans in his piece: “Cans are the best way to package your beer, aside from cask and keg as unlike bottles, no light or oxygen can get into the beer to contaminate it.”
The attempt to introduce canned beer into the craft side of beer is nothing new – BrewDog and Camden Town have both introduced canned ranges; however, there was one particular Tweet from March 5th which made me stop and rethink the whole thing.
Instantly the crushing reality of the situation hit me. The damn cans weren’t just in a few upmarket Wetherspoons in the trendy parts of London, they were in Caernarfon, on the windy coast of north west Wales. It meant this was big, nationwide, in hundreds of Wetherspoons pubs across the UK.
“So these are contract brewed at Adnam’s in the UK, right?” I asked Nate, querying his article.
“No dude, you misread the piece. Wetherspoons are importing it,” Nate replied.
So thousands of units must have been shipped in from the US to stock the hundreds of Wetherspoons fridges across the country. Later I read on the BeerCast that it’s a big deal for Sixpoint and Wetherspoons, with both sides investing heavily into the project. Wetherspoons are bringing in regular shipping containers of the stuff, complete with branded glassware and PR exercises, while Sixpoint have a whole team dedicated to brewing and canning the beers marked for Wetherspoons.
If you read Matt Curtis’ passionate piece on the price of craft beer (The Price of Craft), specifically relating to US imports, you can see an Excel spreadsheet which demonstrates the cost of these units to the consumer. And how much are Wetherspoons selling them for? £2.89 each, or two for £5 (or £2.49 each in Scotland). That’s an on-trade price matching or beating many off-trade prices, let alone other on-trade outlets that usually sell US imports for around £4 as a minimum.
This is made possible because Wetherspoons hold an uncommon position in the UK. Their massive chain of outlets means they can demand a low price for stock as they can shift it to a large consumer base in rapid time. I haven’t seen the figures, I’m sure they’re out there, but I’m confident that selling your beer through Spoons isn’t a big earner but it does promote the brand.
It will certainly make a name for Sixpoint. Matt Curtis expresses what I imagine is a fairly common view in craft beer circles, “one thing I do know is that I want to drink imported American craft beer and I want to drink it regularly but I still won’t pay £6.49 for a can.”
The notion that this may be the point where craft beer goes mainstream is not to say that this time next year, Avtar’s Corner Shop will be selling cans of Stone Ruination IPA next to the bog roll and cat food. However, the supermarkets are already cottoning on to craft, and with Wetherspoons raising the stakes, how long before Asda are using their American connections to bring over boatloads of Ska and Odell?
What might the situation be like this time next year? I’ve considered a few broad possibilities:
A) Absolutely nothing. The cans fail to take off in Wetherspoons and they can (excuse the pun) the whole project.
B) It’s a partial success. Wetherspoons stock more. Other pub groups, desperate to emulate the success of Wetherspoons, also stock more. In turn, supermarkets stock more. Craft beer goes fully mainstream. The flipside is the smaller distributors now struggle to compete, some go under, and ultimately there’s less choice available for diehard fans of craft beer.
C) It’s a runaway success. Wetherspoons stock more. Other pub groups, desperate to emulate the success of Wetherspoons, also stock more. In turn, supermarkets stock more. Craft beer goes fully mainstream. The smaller distributors focus on even rarer, harder to obtain (shall we say less mainstream) beers, resulting in even more choice than ever before.
It may not be apparent in a year or even five years time. It might all come down to that future historian to make sense of it all, sipping his Martian Red Wheat IPA and casting his distant eye on us as he waits for his shuttle to Titan.