According to the latest figures, Kiwis consumed 20 million fewer litres of beer in 2012 than the year before, something put down to a combination of average summer weather and a general shift away from the brown stuff towards wine and spirits. But there is growth in craft beer and Lion is continuing to get in on that act with its new Crafty Beggars range, "a craft beer you can actually drink".
There's plenty of debate about the definition of craft beer, as Moa found out when it tried to provide its definition in a post labelled 'craftwashing'. Crafty Beggar's Facebook page has had a fair number of comments who see this as a cynical ploy by Lion to slap on a nice label, add some crafty cues and tap into the only area in the beer category that's growing, something Independent Liquor and DB have also been accused of in the past. But Danny Phillips, the brand director at Lion, believes the big guys are just as entitled to make craft beer as the small guys.
As he says: "Just because you're small doesn't mean you're good."
He doesn't like the word craft as it's "full of double meanings". For him, there's an issue with the definition, so if craft beer has to come from a micro-brewery, then Lion obviously doesn't fit in. But he believes craft is simply a beer that's more interesting and flavorsome than the mainstream options (he says mainstream beer is declining at around three to four percent a year, compared to general craft beer increases of around six percent per year).
"Our philosophy on beer has always been that any discussion about beer is good because at least we're getting talked about. Beer is very important for Lion, so we have a vested interest."
Phillips says the new brand is aimed at the 'popular craft' end of the spectrum and, with a Facebook and street poster campaign devised by DDB (the concept and packaging was done by Curious Design), it's trying to reach younger drinkers between the ages of 20-25 "who want their beers and their brands to be interesting, edgy and irreverent; to have a bit of fun and take the mickey out of itself" (something evidenced by the secret society schtick). As such, he says it's unlikely the campaign will involve TV or large scale outdoor.
He believes there's room in the market for a beer that's more flavoursome and unique than some of the "thirst quenching" beers it offers, but that "doesn't blow your head off with hops", a job that plenty of other breweries are already doing.
It's also trying to deal with a "price problem", because, as most rabid craft beer fans will attest, sampling some of the boutique brews is a fairly expensive hobby, so this range—Good as Gold, Wheat as and Pale & Interesting—won't break the bank.
Much like the argument about Telecom and Vodafone needing to flex their marketing muscles before UFB goes mainstream, Phillips sees this new brand as a good thing for the smaller brewers as well because it might act as something of a gateway beer to get them into specialty and boutique brews (Lion's craft stable now includes Mac's, Little Creatures, James Squire and Emerson's).
"We would like to think that if we get people into beer then we can get people to try beer in other categories," he says.
As for Emerson's, there was plenty of teeth gnashing and over-reaction when it was revealed the Dunedin brewery had sold out to Lion, with some fearing it would go the same way as Mac's. Big corporates often aim to strip out costs (or, in business speak, 'increase efficiencies'), but Phillips admits that would basically be crapping in its own nest and he says the special characteristics of the brewery that originally attracted Lion to it in the first place (its manifesto was: "We don't have any models, we just try to make good beer") are not in danger.
"We'd be absolutely nuts to change anything," he says. "It's got a bit of magic, and we need to preserve that."
He says the brand is a great addition to Lion's portfolio as it didn't have a boutique craft offering and it was a big process that took almost two years to complete. He says Emerson's will be a completely separate standalone business unit with its own managing director and Lion's major role will be providing good distribution. At this stage, there are no plans for Lion to use its significant marketing abilities to push the brand above the line and it hasn't installed an Emerson's brand manager.