The craft beer industry has taken off in Australia over recent years, with many new breweries entering the marketplace and keeping keen beer drinkers in a constant state of awe. From a fledgling industry with a cult following, craft beer has become, as Marx might put it, the opiate of the masses. Many a microbrewery can be seen overflowing with a pulsing mass of bodies, each and every weekend, as the cool crowds flock to sample a boutique beverage. With popularity soaring, brewers are seeking ways to streamline production and increase their capacity to sate the crowds. But, is craft beer really ‘craft’ if it’s being mass produced?
What is craft beer defined as?
Australia’s Craft Beer Industry Association categorises craft brewers into several different groups, based on their national or regional status, and yearly turnover. In a landmark move, the industry body voted recently to change their name to the Independent Brewers Association in a bid to remove large brewers from their member base. Breweries who are more than 20% owned by large breweries will not be granted membership to the organisation. Their current constitution defines a ‘craft brewer’ as an Australian-based brewer who produces 40 million litres or less, per annum.
The Australian Real Craft Brewers Association (ARCBA) defines a craft brewer as that which is independent, traditional and 100% Australian owned (and without ownership by large brewers or brands). Likewise, the United States has their own industry body with a similar definition. The US Brewers Association states:
“An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.”
The key term here is ‘small’, and this has been the subject of some debate. Recently, the American association loosened their definition of ‘small’ to brewers producing up to 6 million barrels per year (from the previous standard of 2 million barrels. A barrel is considered to contain 117 litres, which means that 702 million litres of beer produced per year would classify a brewer as a ‘craft’ brewer). Clearly, the difference in American and Australian market sizes is vast. The United States has a population nearly 14 times that of little old Oz, and even our biggest breweries fall under the ‘small’ brewer standard, according to the US. Suffice it to say that at the heart of things, craft brewers are broadly defined as being independent (of larger alcohol brands) and ‘traditional’, regardless of size or ownership technicalities.
Why automate the craft beer industry?
As some of our craft breweries hope to diversify, expand and increase their operations, they risk becoming less ‘craft’ and more corporate. As Mark Emmett, managing director of packaging manufacturer HMPS told Food & Beverage Magazine:
“The fact remains craft beer is a labour of love and automation means more distance between the brewer and his beer.”
So, when the definition of craft beer hinges heavily on the idea of ‘traditional’ brewing, why would the craft operators consider automating? In short, to remain competitive and to allow their businesses to grow. Like many other industries today, automation represents an opportunity to cut production costs and ramp up the level of production. In an industry which is still relatively small in Australia, competing with bigger brands can be a difficult undertaking.
Despite the growing appetite for craft beer, many of the larger brewers and brands have their own craft-esque offerings. Coca-Cola, Coles and Woolworths own much of the market, and compete on perhaps an unfair scale. With deceptively whimsical packaging and labelling, many of their brands would suggest independence to buyers who are none the wiser.
Wooing the beer-drinking public to purchase often more expensive and less readily-available true craft beers is no small challenge. Automation in both the brewing process and in bottling and packaging, may remove some of the romance from craft beer brewing, but might just offer the answer to production woes faced by small operators. While the ‘traditional’ processes of brewing may get a makeover, it might just keep many of our small breweries in business.