THE craft beer sector is poised for a further decade of growth, a leading Scottish independent brewer has claimed, as major players make moves to gain a foothold in the market.
Scott Williams, who co-founded Fraoch Heather Ale producer Williams Bros with brother Bruce in 1992, said the market remained a long way off from maturity.
His comments come after a year that saw craft continue to increase its share of the total beer market and further microbreweries launch on both sides of the Border, helped by a progressive excise duty regime for smaller producers. There are now in excess of 50 active microbreweries in Scotland, contributing to a small but rapidly growing segment of the total beer market.
Figures provided by Greene King, owner of Dunbar-based Belhaven, suggested the market grew in value by 53% in the UK last year, with sales generated by bars, hotels, shops and supermarkets rising from £250 million to around £350m.
Mr Williams compared Scotland's progress on craft beer with its status in the US, home to the world's biggest microbrewing industry, and insisted there was growth to come as the tastes of the Scottish beer drinking public continued to evolve.
He said: "It's basically mirroring what's happening in the States. People have turned away from not necessarily bland beers, but beers that are delivering what they were designed to do in the first place, which is refresh and not [be] overwhelming.
"People are much more interested in flavour delivery, ABV (alcohol by volume) delivery or bitterness. They're just more interested in the subject matter now, and that is growing by word of mouth and palate change, which is inevitable.
"The big guys are saying we need to understand this a bit better and keep tabs on it."
The appeal of craft beer to mainstream brewers is underscored by a new joint venture between Williams Bros and Tennent Caledonian. Headed by Mr Williams, it will see the development of a microbrewery, bar and visitor centre in the Drygate area of Glasgow's east end.
Tennent's and Williams each hold equal stakes of more than 40% in the venture, with the remainder held in trust for staff. The project, which marks the first significant move by a major brewery into microbrewing in Scotland, will also have a "DIY" element, with visitors encouraged to learn more about the process.
Asked why Williams had chosen to enter a partnership with Tennent's, he cited the attractiveness of having access to a visitor centre that he said would provide a shop window for what Williams does.
He explained: "It's going to be based around and scaling up brewing and it is going to be an inclusive thing, which is what I find interesting. It's an opportunity that wouldn't exist but for their interest and financial backing."
Tennent's is not the only mainstream brewer with designs on the craft market. A range of five craft beers will soon be officially launched by Belhaven, after the brewer trialled several recipes in small batches at its Dunbar brewhouse. Owner Greene King is making similar moves, having built a microbrewery at its home in Bury St Edmonds specifically for the purpose.
Chris Houlton, Greene King's managing director of brewing and brands, said the range, which includes a Scottish Oat Stout and, from Spring, a Speyside Oak Aged Blonde ale, came as research signalled that consumers wanted more choice on ale and would welcome new products from Belhaven.
He said: "Consumers are talking about it more and more, and therefore customers are talking about it more and more. It is a topic of conversation whether it's in the on or off-trade, whether it's a free trade outlet or in a major multiple, where people are trying to understand craft, what makes it different to what's available at the moment.
"It's also a growing market, albeit quite a small one at the moment. Sales have gone up something like 80% in the on-trade over the last year or so."
With the market in growth, new entrants steadily joining the sector and the big players starting to flex their muscle, takeovers and consolidation could be likely.
Mr Houlton ruled out Greene King participating in any acquisitions in the sector, noting that it had brewers with hundreds of years' experience in its ranks desperate to test further ideas.
He said: "When you give people the opportunity to really be creative around the beers they are doing it is amazing the choices that are going to come out of the business.
"[The ideas] are partly consumer-led because we are talking to consumers about the types of beers they'd like to be drinking in the future. But also the brewers are absolutely like dogs with two tails because they can really use some of the creativity they've got to deliver some really outstanding beers. "Craft is partly about that: it's a little about the packaging, but it's far more about taste and authenticity. Up in Scotland we produce all our beer from locally sourced materials - it's all Scottish barley and it is really great we are able to do that."
Although Greene King distanced itself from actively playing a part in acquisitions, the view in the trade is that deals will eventually be done.
Fergus Clark, owner of Perth's Inveralmond Brewery, which last week unveiled a new distribution deal in Russia, said: "I suppose that is always possible. It has happened in the past. Even in the recent past [Molson] Coors took over Sharp's Brewery down in the South West [of England] and a little bit closer to home, Caledonian took over Harviestoun at one point.
"There has been some recent history of that kind of activity going on, and I don't necessarily see that completely disappearing. I think an attractive business proposition for a larger brewery, if it was right for them, I don't see why they wouldn't consider it."
Mr Williams expressed a similar view, but said it might not happen for a while yet. He noted: "Inevitably it will happen because it has happened in America. But I think the market will have to grow by another 50% before it gets to that point, in Scotland any way."
Though the big players may come to have a bigger presence in craft beer, it does not immediately follow that it is bad news for the micros.
Mr Williams welcomed the variety that players such as Belhaven were bringing to the market, but feels that smaller players can still have an advantage. He said they could respond to changes in drinkers' tastes and more readily introduce limited or one-off brews compared with the major brewers, keeping them in tune with the experimental characteristic of the craft beer drinker.
Mr Williams also argued there was no sign of the small brewing scene running out of steam. He explained: "When companies go bust it will reach saturation point, or if ever progressive beer duty gets arrested or changed. That would be the death knell of a lot of things because a lot of it is lifestyle - rather than running a cafe people are running a small brewery.
"Part of the whole project of Drygate is we are going to have this little 250-litre pilot plant where we'll be encouraging people to come in with their recipes, making beer on it. If it's good, we'll buy some for the shop. We want people to get involved and hope they will continue the proliferation, because the more people are doing it the more people will find it interesting."
He added: "We've got another 10 years of growth before we start to worry about anything [growth ending]. Even there it is still growing."