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Shock Top is a very good thing for the craft beer industry

Call me nerdy, but I think the most fascinating aspect of the craft beer movement is how the macro breweries are going to adjust to the erosion of their market share over the next few years.
Shock Top
Are beers like Shock Top (from parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev) deserving of the label "craft beer"?

Call me nerdy, but I think the most fascinating aspect of the craft beer movement is how the macro breweries are going to adjust to the erosion of their market share over the next few years. At the start of 2015, BC craft beer makes up about 22 per cent of the market share, and that’s growing here and across the rest of Canada.

We’ve of course caught a few glimpses of their tactics already: Molson purchased Granville Island in 2010. In 2011, Anheuser-Busch purchased Chicago craft brewery Goose Island. This makes sense: Own the competition. Will this continue? Few of us know, though it doesn’t stop us from speculating wildly. It wouldn’t be surprising.

The other tactic is for Big Guys to just make craft beer. This is where you see Shock Top, a Belgian-style wheat ale created by Anheuser-Busch in 2006 as a direct competitor to Blue Moon, owned by MillerCoors and the first foray of a macro brewery into craft-style beers.

Again, this makes sense – at least on the surface. Steal the market share back with product that is basically the same as what all these craft beer nerds have fallen in love with, then market the living hell out of it. Great idea. Right?
Well…not really.

For one, Shock Top isn’t really craft beer. “Craft” is a wily term, for sure, since definitions vary from person to person (or organization to organization) and hinge on points both tangible (amount produced each year; ownership structure) and intangible (philosophy of brewers; relationship to community).

But the general consensus among craft drinkers is that, no, Shock Top is not craft beer.

This is due, mainly, because the brewery is owned by a massive corporate conglomerate. Also, the beer’s not very good, and the marketing reeks of market research and a painfully unhip sales team trying too hard. What’s up with that Mohawk? Most educated craft beer drinkers understand this.

Indeed, the marketing for Shock Top in Canada, led by Anheuser-Busch subsidiary Labatt, is aimed at beer drinkers not yet acquainted with craft beer. According to a memo leaked by Toronto-based beer writer Ben Johnson, Labatt’s marketing campaign hinges on “Consumer Insight” that reads, “I like to reward myself by trying different, flavourful beers, but I’m intimidated by most craft beers because they’re too pretentious and complicated.”

The campaign will cost Labatt $2.7 million in 2015 (a sum Johnson rightly points out is far surpasses the amount most craft breweries “will spend on marketing in a lifetime”) in an attempt to convince Canadian beer drinkers that Labatt’s Shock Top is a small, independently-owned craft brewery. It says so explicitly in the memo.

What it says implicitly is that Labatt wants Shock Top to be the new drink of choice for Canadian beer drinkers. They’re betting on brand loyalty. What Labatt doesn’t seem to understand is that the rapid growth in Canadian craft beer is: A) as much about taste and intoxication as it is a rebellion against corporate influence and mass production of lousy beer. It’s a movement that very consciously supports the local and artisanal aspects, and/or the quality of the product. And, B) not at all about brand loyalty. This is important to understand.

Craft beer drinkers rely on exploration and experimentation. It’s sort of the whole point, and what’s driven the industry’s success so far. Beer brand loyalty with beer exists only to a degree, the same way it exists with wine. Serious wine drinkers don’t really have a brand they love. They’re loyal to style, if anything.

So if Labatt’s campaign is successful – and there’s no reason to think that it won’t be at least moderately successful – they’ll be educating a whole swath of beer drinkers about the value of craft beer. According to Chris Bjerrisgaard, marketing director of Vancouver Craft Beer Week and marketing manager for Parallel 49, (and a man who, I’m aware, I quote fairly often in this here column, but have a difficult time avoiding because he’s basically a walking quote factory), this could be of enormous benefit to the craft beer industry.

“Your one tactic as an industry is to create a conversion engine into making more people craft beer fans? That’s the worse decision of all time,” he says. “Shock Top, believe it or not, is a good thing for the industry. It’s hard to see the forest through the trees on that one, but it’s a good thing for us because you’re creating conversion engines to get people off your piss (lager), and into the good stuff.”

His point being that the “good stuff” is just a few months of palate adjustment away from Shock Top. Today, the 78 per cent of beer-drinkers that make up Labatt’s consumer base might find craft beer intimidating. But offer them a taste of what craft beer can taste like?  Why wouldn’t they make different decisions with this new education?

Because, remember, this is all happening while the craft industry is getting astonishing amounts of great press – from the media, through word of mouth, through Instagram, you name it. Craft beer, at least as a concept, is ubiquitous. Once they’ve been converted, why would anyone stick around? Because of brand loyalty? For a sense of well-being that Shock Top may once have provided?

Pffffff. So I guess we’ll see how that goes.