It would be easy to assume that the greatest threat posed to Australian craft beer comes from the corporations pumping out bland tasteless pale beers that still dominate well over 90% of the beer market. But drinkers will know the difference between these beers and craft beer as soon as they take their first sip.
And while supermarket craft beers like Steamrail and Sail & Anchor and craft-washed brands like Yenda and Whatever Yak, may fool some with their crafty-looking packaging and lack of disclosure about who they really are, those who also drink full-flavoured craft beer will not be fooled for long by these mediocre beers.
But when it comes to US craft beers like Ballast Point or Oskar Blues, when they are fresh, drinkers will find that the beers are every bit as good as the Australian craft beers out there, if not better.
This is why I pose the question are Ballast Point, and other big American craft brewers looking to expand beyond a saturated US market into Australia, in fact the greatest threat to Australian craft beer?
Certainly the recent influx of Ballast Point tinnies across the country has captured the attention of craft beer drinkers and filled social media feeds. Stocked exclusively at Dan Murphys, they are available just about everywhere and the variety of hoppy pale ales are fresh and really tasty, so I totally get why Aussie craft beer drinkers are stoked.
But craft beer drinkers who otherwise might be drinking Australian craft beer are drinking American craft beer because it’s available at a better price and in most cases it is better quality too. More so than the other threats, Ballast Point is direct competition with local brewers for the Australian craft beer drinker and could impact upon the industry’s growth.
Ballast Point’s beers are of a quality rarely seen in Australia and certainly not at the price point they are being sold at. I was always amazed at the Ballast Point Big Eye IPA being sold for so little and now the Sculpin too can be fetched for less than $30 a six-pack. There are some great value beers available in Australia sure but you won’t be able to find 7%abv+ monster hoppy beers like this at this price and widely available year-round.
There are some great Australian big IPAs out there (see IPAs from the likes of Pirate Life, Kaiju and Feral) but they are mostly in batches at greater cost, mostly sold in singles, and aren’t consistently available. As the Australian market matures, Australian craft brewers will certainly start making bigger IPAs more regularly accessible, but currently it is so much easier and lower risk for American craft brewers already brewing big IPAs like Sculpin at a large volume in a more mature market to bring these beers to the Australian market.
Smart Australian brewers have long recognised the threat that big American craft brewers represent and have taken steps to decommoditise their beers, differentiating their product and also building brand loyalty to separate themselves from competition. Australian brewers have the advantage of being able to build relationships and putting a face to the beer they brew by participating in events like Good Beer Week and establishing taprooms so that drinkers can see it all up close and take the beers away fresh.
Looking at the positives, the competition that US craft beer presents can boost the standard of beer in Australia and accelerate its maturity. To be fair, where would Australian craft beer be without American craft beer? Most of the beers are heavily based on beers and styles from the US. Copying something from American has often passed as innovation in Australian but that won’t cut the mustard any longer.
With Ballast Point and other US craft beers coming to Australia, there’s tasty fresh craft beer available everywhere at a reasonable price. Buying local and independent will hold some sway with drinkers, but the Australian craft brewers who will thrive most against this competition won’t be those who offer inferior imitations, but those who present a genuinely differentiated beer experience, be that through more creative beers, community engagement, superior freshness, or a great brewery venue.