Are big craft breweries dead to craft?
Following the recent announcement that Signal Hill Products acquired distribution company The Tap Room’s dispensing equipment, we ask, do the old boys of craft beer in South Africa still deserve the title of ‘craft’?
By MIKE HALLS
Yesterday I learnt that Signal Hill Products, the guys behind Devils Peak, acquired South Africa’s biggest craft beer distribution company The Tap Room’s dispensing equipment. You can read the full story on Beerhouse’s blog here.
Earlier this year we learnt that Jack Black had sold a minority share to global beer giants Heineken. You can read the full story on The Brewmistress’s blog here. Last year Heineken acquired two other South African craft breweries, Soweto Gold and Stellenbrau.
This week I recorded a podcast with Troye May aka #BeerTime and Murray Slater of Beerhouse. It will be downloadable on Monday at 12 noon here, and is named Is Craft Beer Dead? This was following three of the UK biggest craft beer brands recently selling out to big beer.
The conversation inevitably came around to South African craft breweries that had also sold out to big beer. My opinion on this remains that big beers invasion of the craft beer scene is not good for the future of craft. There are many reasons for this, but my main argument is that big beer is in this to destroy the little guy. We witness them using their extended portfolios to bully bars into tying up lines, giving the consumer the illusion of choice, all the while making it impossible for the small independent craft brewery to compete.
In concluding the podcast Troye asked a great question; “is craft beer dying in South Africa”. The unanimous answer to the was no, and the opinion was that these brands with big beer investment could still have a role to play in growing the craft beer sector.
So, why is the news that Devils Peak now own all of The Tap Room lines potentially devastating for small independent craft breweries? Well, if Devils Peak replace some of South Africa’s best and most loved craft brands with beers from their ever growing portfolio, then they are no better that the Heineken’s and AB InBev’s of this world. The customer is yet again left with the illusion of choice, yet all the beers coming from one brewery. If this happens, do Devils Peak deserve the title of craft?
This is a really hard question to ask. Mostly because Devils Peak make some of the most exciting beers in the country. They bring cool international brands into our market place and we witness JC (Devils Peak head brewer) visiting some of the best small craft breweries in South Africa and doing really exciting collabs with them.
How can this deal not have negative repercussions for Devils Peak? Well the easiest way would be for them not to change the way The Tap Room operates. I think it would be very naive of us to think this would happen. They obviously purchased The Tap Room’s equipment to get more of their products out there.
However, looking at the image above highlighting the products that are in The Tap Rooms current portfolio, I can see another way for them to make this work. If they were to replace the Heineken range (and yes, I include the Heineken owned ‘craft’ beers) with their own brands, but leave the small independent craft breweries taps alone, I think they could actually have a winning solution to this!
On the #BeerTime podcast, I mentioned the Free House system in the UK, obviously not knowing what was going to unfold with The Tap Room this week. A Free House in the UK is a pub that is not tied to any particular brewery, essentially owning its taps and being able to put on any beer it wishes.
We need to support venues like this in South Africa, and it would be great if there was a system to identify them, as in the UK. I know that Beerhouse and Banana Jam own their taps, but it would be great to compile a list with everyone.
Another way you can continue to support small independent craft breweries is to visit their tap rooms. For some of the best breweries, such as Aegir Project and Soul Barrel this is the only way to try their beers. But for others it will be the freshest place to drink their beer and also the cheapest!
Lastly support your local independent bottle stores. Encourage them to stock beers from your favourite breweries and call them out for stocking shit beer. The Biggest Little Beer Shop even has beers on tap for you to enjoy, and yes, they own their own taps!
Craft Beer is about supporting local, therefore my examples are all Cape Town based, as this is where I live, support your local establishments.