The Open Gate Brewery stole the Craft Beer Rising show at the Old Truman Brewery last week. Their designer-craft beer shacks were everywhere, staffed by an army of slick bartenders pouring easy-drinking beer with studied nonchalance. A masterclass of understated branding from Diageo.
BrewDog appeared to have been blindsided by this steamroller approach. They neither claimed the king-of-craft crown nor strengthened their anti-establishment roots and, as a result, seemed strangely out of place at an event that they should own.
This left the door open for several American brands to stand out: AB Inbev's Goose Island, Heineken's Lagunitas and Brooklyn, who partner with Carlsberg, all had a strong presence.
Closer to home, it got a bit more confusing. There were some great beers on offer, but the new British breweries all seemed to be selling the same range of beers in similar packaging. To be fair, there are three or four distinct design styles for modern craft beer, but within each, there are a wide array of look-alikes, so remembering which brand was which became hard after three different New England IPAs.
Of the more traditional breweries, some arrived as themselves, others dressed specially for the occasion, with a colourful new range of modern craft beers, and a few turned up in disguise, but none seemed to have worked out why their heritage would make their beer taste better.
That is the question for branding - the dark art that was, for many years, the (faux) enemy of British craft beer. As Marty Neumeier points out, “A brand is not a logo. A brand is not an identity. A brand is not a product… A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product”. And that gut feeling is created when a brand is able to communicate who it is and why it matters to its target audience.
For example, Open Gate are "the experimental brewery (within the world renowned Guinness brewery) for beer drinkers who want to (safely) discover new styles of beer". BrewDog (ironically for a bunch of anarchists) are on "a mission to democratise good beer for everyone who is tired of the old world order".
Neither of these are niche propositions, but they are authentic, differentiated and relevant and they underpin everything that each brewer does.
The British craft brewers, traditional and modern, who can articulate their own brands with the same level of clarity will be the ones who join Diageo and BrewDog in leading the next phase of the craft beer revolution.