BY LAURA GELDER
Multinationals are losing sales to micro breweries as craft beer takes the world by storm, but volumes and logistics often hamper smaller brands’ efforts to make it onboard. Laura Gelder examines the market
By its very definition, craft beer is a tough product to get onboard. Small batch brewers may have expertise in hops but when it comes to distributing in large volumes they often need a helping hand. US beer giant MillerCoors has a few small breweries on its books, including Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin – which is currently flying its Season Summer Shandy on Southwest.
These kind of partnerships allow small breweries to use the beer giant’s distribution network and expertise as a route to market, while MillerCoors gets a stake in the lucrative and growing craft beer market at a time when mass market beers are looking sluggish in comparison. But it’s not always multinationals which facilitate flying craft beers. SAS partnered with Copenhagen brewery Mikkeller back in 2014 and was the first to make its very own bespoke beer – the Sky-High Wit – served in a can with special designs inspired by vintage SAS posters.
“We have brought craft beers onboard for everyone, in every class, and we’ve done this by brewing limited editions suited for both beer novices and connoisseurs, says Peter Lawrance, onboard product and services, commercial, for SAS. “We started out with a weiss beer, after a lot of flavour tastings to get the bitterness and carbonation just right, before moving on to a dark Danish-style pilsner and since then we’ve launched several ales including the flowery Cloud Hopper and the malty Plane Ale.”
The collaboration has seen ten different styles and brewing techniques, six of which come in 75cl bottles designed for premium classes, like Sweet & Sour, a fermented beer with mango made to celebrate the carrier’s new route to Hong Kong and bottled in 1888 bottles, a reference to the number eight, a symbol of good fortune in Chinese culture. The latest is Northern Trails, a 6.6% classic IPA which mixes bright crisp citrus with a light malt flavour on the nose.
“We will continuously be releasing new beers from Mikkeller,” says Lawrance. “The aim is to present a selection with different styles and origins to meet all kinds of taste profiles and requirements. Also matching the beverages with the food onboard is a challenge that is always top of mind! Less-known styles and origins are welcome as long as the quality is there.”
Following in SAS’ footsteps, Cathay Pacific approached the Hong Kong Beer Company to create a bespoke brew for quaffing at 35,000 feet. Betsy was released this summer and is created to reflect Cathay Pacific’s ‘life well travelled’ philosophy, using honey from the Hong Kong’s New Territories, longan fruit sourced from Hong Kong markets and English fuggle hops from Kent.
Betsy is a wheat beer, a choice made to reduce the bitterness that other beers have at altitude; it is unfiltered to allow the makers to add layers of texture and complexity; and has 10% more carbonation than standard beers for improved ‘mouthfeel’. “Higher CO2 levels are known to stimulate flavour receptors on the tongue,” says Simon Pesch, brew master at Hong Kong Beer Co.
Kiwi beer flies east
Even more unlikely is a partnership between a Kiwi microbrewery and Asian flag carrier Singapore Airlines. Garage Project’s Hapi Daze (Hapi means hops in Maori) – a Pacific pale ale brewed with New Zealand barley and hops – has been available in all cabin classes on SIA’s 18 weekly New Zealand departures since the start of June.
The partnership came about after the brewer, which sells 90% of its stock within New Zealand, served beers at the launch of a new flight route linking Singapore with Canberra and Wellington last year. It was the specially brewed SQ292, a pilsner brewed with Asian flavours jasmine and tamarind, which kicked off the dialogue between the two parties.
The Wellington microbrewery’s brew batches range from 50 to 2,000 litres, with as many as 35 different beers on offer each month. It’s this small output that allows for experimentation and unique flavour combinations like real milk stout, a dessert beer brewed with corn flakes, oats, chocolate wheat and milk sugar.
At capacity, Garage Project’s output is a little over a million litres – small compared to its US counterparts who produce up to 100 million litres, and this makes its Singapore Airlines contract even more impressive.
Know your limits
It shows, however, that anything is possible, “as long as you understand the parameters,” says Shane McCarthy, founder of Ireland Craft Beers. This export, distribution and marketing company is flying the flag for Irish craft beer and has exported its local tipples to the UK, France, Scandinavia and even the Middle East.
The parameters, McCarthy thinks, are economy and scale. “The market is driven by consumer trends and we’ve seen a shift to artisan suppliers, but there are other forces at play when it comes to airlines, including oil prices. If a small brewery does manage to get onto a carrier it might just be a short contract of a few months and they may have to scale up to meet demand. It’s not worth that expenditure if you lose the contract a few months in, and for this reason it’s not an easy relationship to facilitate – it requires a lot of give and take.”
McCarthy’s first onboard success story is getting White Hag Brewery’s Yule Christmas Ale onto Eurostar last year and it continues to pitch for contracts with travel companies but finds it’s usually beaten by competitors on price.
He’s not put off though: “We try to give the best Ireland has to offer: a taste of Ireland worldwide,” he says. McCarthy believes airlines offer a significant marketing opportunity for small brands, which may even be worth operating at a lower margin. He also sees First and Business lounges as a natural prequel to the onboard market.
Test your metal
Traditionally, real ales and craft beers were bottled and cans were the preserve of mass market lagers. This too has changed and now many craft brewers choose to package in cans, making the product a lot easier to get onboard.
Fourpure Brewing Co. was the first London brewery to can its entire core range, using a 12,000 can-per-hour machine for both 330ml and 500ml variations (the former being the preferred size onboard) and high-volume production output. This, says Fourpure, offers many benefits to both the business and the consumer.
Co-founder, Dan Lowe, says: “Aluminium cans look after the beers more effectively than their glass equivalents, offering superior protection from light and oxygen, key factors contributing to ageing and deterioration. Beer maintains a higher quality taste for longer in a can as opposed to a bottle. There are also clear environmental benefits with aluminium cans being infinitely recyclable in as little as 60 days from fill. Their weight is 5% of that of a glass bottle, helping to reduce the carbon footprint caused through transportation.”
The United States Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax & Trade Bureau issued 7,190 brewery permits in 2016 – an all-time high. The Brewers Association reported the market is valued at $105.9 billion, with craft beer representing $22.3 billion or a share of 12.2%. Delta certainly thinks it’s a trend worth noting and serves a whole range of regional craft beers on its flights, including Brooklyn Brewery, Samuel Adams and SweetWater Brewery.
In the UK, the number of craft breweries has risen dramatically since the last Labour government halved beer duty for companies that make less than 5,000 hectolitres a year (3,055 barrels or 880,000 imperial pints) and the country now boasts the highest number of breweries per capita in the world, approximately one for every 42,000 people.
Asia’s craft beer culture is currently led by Japan, where small batch brewers have been free to produce since the mid-1990s. Many other countries, including South Korea and Thailand, have laws which prohibit microbreweries but find ways to get around them. Thai beer makers Stone Head brew in neighbouring Cambodia instead. Beertopia is the region’s largest event dedicated to craft beer and this November the sixth annual show will include some 500-plus beers.
In Latin America, sales of craft beer are growing at a rate of 20-40% a year, according to Daniel Trivelli, president of Copa Cervezas de America, one of the region’s biggest craft beer competitions. Brazil is at the upper end of this scale and is brewing using indigenous tropical fruits and ageing beers in barrels previously used to store cachaca, the sugar-cane spirit in its national cocktail, the caipirinha.
Africa’s beer market is expected to grow faster than that of any other region in the world over the next five years, but it is multi-nationals which dominate the scene here. South Africa leads the charge for craft but other notable names in the region include Mauritius-based Flying Dodo Brewery and Ghana’s Island Microbrewery, which focuses on traditional African recipes using the hardy local crop sorghum, a crop that also happens to be gluten-free.
Craft beer encompasses just as wide a range of beers as the mass market does, covering lagers, bitters, IPAs (Indian Pale Ale) and dark beers like porters or stouts. However, it’s the IPAs which appear to currently dominate the scene and this looks set to continue.
What’s your flavour?
“IPAs are still trendy, but are expanding out in all directions,” says James Yeomans, founder of Hop Stuff Brewery in London. “It’s not only about big hoppy monsters, but the creativity in deviating from the now established US West Coast style. Session IPAs (lower alcohol content beers designed for social drinking sessions) are the meeting of old world beer and craft – balancing big flavour with ‘drinkability’. The potential for session IPAs is that they exist in that bracket of beer people enjoy 70% of the time.”
Irish Craft Beer’s McCarthy predicts New England IPA is the next big thing in this category. A cloudy and unfiltered beer which, according to BrewDog which has recently launched its own NEIPA, is known for two things: “a characteristic haze and hop-led flavours.” BrewDog describes the style as a gateway IPA perfect for craft virgins: “subtle, balanced and fruity, they major in stone fruit and berry elements, as opposed to the tongue-lashing citrus bitterness and the sap-like resins of their West Coast IPA cousins,” says the brewer.
Indian Pale Lagers (IPL) are another ‘bridge beer’ that is gaining traction and could be the balance between the crisp, refreshing drinkability of lagers and the hoppy taste of IPAs which risk averse airlines are looking for.
McCarthy says: “IPLs are something which many brewers wouldn’t offer in the past but they are trending now.” But for travel companies who do want to offer something very different there are plenty more varieties and styles gaining in popularity. Yeomans mentions three to watch: saisons (fruity, spicy and highly-carbonated pale ales at around 3% ABV), dark IPAs and Vienna lagers (copper to reddish brown coloured beers characterised by a slight sweetness and malt aroma and flavour with a toasted and/or slightly roasted malt character). And for those with an acquired taste, McCarthy picks out sour beers and barrel-aged beers, particularly those aged in whiskey barrels.