By April Waterston

As drinkers are drawn towards the unique qualities of craft beer, do mass market lager brands still have a place onboard? April Waterston investigates

My father, a self-professed craft beer and real ale connoisseur, would never be caught drinking a pint of big-brand lager. He’s loved the craft revolution but I certainly haven’t inherited his tastes – I’d choose a trusty Heineken or Peroni over an intricately described craft brew any day.

But with more and more drinkers opting for craft, it seems I might soon be part of a small club of lager drinkers, and in some markets craft beer is almost keeping the beer industry afloat.

In the U.S., craft brewer volume growth was up 4% in 2018 despite the total beer market being down by 1% year on year. In 2017, European beer production reached an eight-year high of nearly 39.7 billion litres with over 9,500 brewers – around 75% of which were microbrewers

Reflecting these trends, perhaps airlines will soon be following in the footsteps of BrewDog and take craft beer onboard to a whole new level. Creating the ‘world’s first craft beer airline’, BrewDog chartered an aircraft under the guise of BrewDog Airlines featuring a limited-edition BrewDog beer specifically brewed to taste good at high altitudes.

out but personally I struggle to recall any song and dance about craft beers onboard. Were the options just not there? Or was I too close-minded to seek them out? I set out to find out if the competition between mass market brands and craft choices is as strong in the air as it is on the ground.

Crafty conclusions

Research conducted by the UK-based Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) showed that not only are people looking for craft options but 45% of customers are willing to pay more for a genuine craft brew over a cheaper lager.

Multi-national supplier Asahi conducted research to understand why certain brands are considered to be worth more. “Consumers are happy to pay a premium so long as the ‘worth-more’ credentials of a brand are clear: great tasting beer, combined with authentic heritage and genuine provenance,” explains Tim Clay, managing director, Asahi UK.

“Craft has brought the importance of quality to mainstream attention, therefore it is ever more important for macro brewers to demonstrate their authenticity and quality – rather than latching onto craft as a buzzword.”

Rocco Pilo, managing director of Group SOI, thinks this is something airlines are yet to cotton on to. “Airlines have not yet recognised the importance of serving customers a larger variety of quality beers,” he says. “They’re not interested in storytelling, explaining where and how the beer is produced to their passengers.”

As a leading food and beverage supplier to the travel sector, Group SOI is trying to make the most of craft demand. “We are offering airlines the chance to taste our products within menu presentations and opportunities to run free trials with our line of craft beers,” says Pilo. The group offers a saffron spiced golden ale, IPA, APA and a special Triple APA made with ginger, red pepper and fennel seeds.

Differing trends

Airlines are taking time to respond to the craft message it seems but Christian Klimpke, global account manager airlines, global duty free, at Heineken, believes the total inflight beer category has strong potential to grow as passenger numbers grow, and with IATA forecasting air passengers numbers almost doubling to 7.8 billion over the next two decades, there’s certainly potential for offering a wider choice onboard.

As one of the world’s most international brewers, Heineken, best known for its big brand name, offers airlines a broad choice. “The principal inflight brands are our global flagship brand Heineken, local heroes like Tiger in Asia, our craft brand Lagunitas and zero alcohol Heineken 0.0, which is available on KLM, Ryanair and easyJet,” explains Klimpke.

“Heineken’s craft beer brand Lagunitas is listed onboard Singapore Airlines and all major North American airlines including United, Delta and SouthWest. It is also available to all our airline partners and we are confident of having it listed on European airlines in the near future.”

However, despite offering craft beer across a number of airlines, Klimpke thinks that lager will always be the passengers’ top choice. “Although the inflight opportunity for craft beers is growing, we believe the future of inflight beer sales will always be led by global brands like Heineken.

“This is because the majority of airline passengers are still drawn to the trusted taste of Heineken. Its mass popularity is also driven by high profile sponsorship of events such as F1, UEFA Champions League, the Rugby World Cup and the partnership with the James Bond films.”

This is a sentiment echoed by MillerCoors. “Whilst travelling, we believe guests prefer familiar brands that they can trust,” says Chris Gick, vp national accounts. “Once you get beyond the buzz of new segments, we find established brands still matter.

“The craft segment is becoming so fragmented that it is becoming difficult for craft brands to maintain enough scale to stay relevant at the regional or national level. Most guests have a ‘goto’ brand or a set of ‘go-to’ brands. Guests may try new segments, but usually, they come back to their established brand. Our goal is to keep our established brands relevant to our loyalists and recruit the next generation of loyalists too.”

At Virgin Atlantic a spokesman said the airline has actually been trying to increase its selection of lager offerings. “Up until the beginning of the year we only offered Heineken and Tiger which were both very popular,” she said. “This year we have added Stella Artois, Camden Hells and Becks Blue to our offerings in all cabins. Heineken and Tiger are still favourites, but that might be because our customers are used to our selection from previous trips so look for those.”

This isn’t to say that smaller brands don’t stand a chance. She adds: “When our cabin crew engage with customers and tell them about our new Camden Hells onboard, passengers do then decide to try it. However without these conversations, our customers normally choose one of the bigger brands.”

Added benefits

Aside from satisfying customer demand, offering big-brand beers inflight can come with a range of benefits to airlines. Where smaller breweries lack big budgets for advertising and sponsorship deals, bigger multi nationals can step in and offer extra incentives to buyers. “We partner with airlines to maximise passenger satisfaction by leveraging our sponsorships to create compelling inflight and lounge experiences, designed to surprise and delight consumers with fun competitions and promotions,” explains Klimpke. “Cabin crew engagement with these sponsorships is also an important driver of onboard sales.

“These sponsorship platforms allow us to be a genuine part of our consumers conversation and provide a continued opportunity to extend the Heineken message, bringing added value to our airline partners”.


Whilst it seems lager will always have a place onboard, big brands shouldn’t get too comfortable. Consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of quality, and more willing to pay more for a more premium product.

Tim Clay of Asahi says: “Whilstrespected brands from around the world need to stay true to their origins and the heritage their consumers love, they should also look to craft developments as a speedometer showing the pace at which the category is moving. A brand can stay true and stay relevant so long as it continues to progress authentically.”