Craft beer makers hope to tap new markets with free samples

British craft beer makers are reviving the tradition of brewery tap rooms as an antidote to the national trend of pub closures and the dominance of big brewers.

About a third of small breweries now run a tap bar which let drinkers sample their wares, according to a new report by the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba) which also highlights a burgeoning micropub scene as brewers take over empty shops on their local high street.

“A high percentage of our members now have tap rooms and they are becoming as important to local communities as pubs are,” says Mike Benner, chief executive of Siba. “They have always existed but are making a comeback because today consumers are very much into the idea of independence and local beer.”

The craft revolution has reinvigorated a beer market that had been in long-term decline with 500m pints of indie brews sunk last year, equivalent to 6.5% of total UK beer sales. Craft beer sales increased 1.7% in 2017 which was more than double the 0.7% growth reported by the wider beer market, Siba says.

Like many craft brewers, Leeds-based North Brewing Company opens its tap room on Fridays and Saturdays only, and uses it for community events as well as tastings. “The tap room has an open, friendly atmosphere, with dogs and children actively encouraged,” says John Gyngell, managing director of North Brewing, which is best known for its Transmission India pale ale.

“The tap room provides a real connection between the customers and where their beer comes from,” says Gyngell. “It also makes sense financially as we are able to sell the beer at retail rather than trade margins. This has been invaluable in supporting our expansion during our first two years of trading.”

Siba’s research reveals a dynamic industry where sacred cows are being slaughtered as urban hipsters reshape a beer scene that was once the preserve of middle-aged anoraks.

Cask production, for example, is in sharp decline as the popularity of American hoppy-style beers and IPAs sees brewers switch to kegs. The poll also found craft beer producers now bottle or can a fifth of their output to target the move towards drinking at home rather than in the local pub. They are also investing in websites and offering the click and collect services that are commonplace on the high street.

“Cask beer is seen as the pinnacle of brewing by most peopler but there is a shift towards other formats,” says Benner. “It is struggling because it’s a pub based product. It’s still hugely popular, because in a traditional British pub it will never go out of fashion, but the way people spend their time is evolving.”

The survey of Siba’s more than 800 members showed other evidence of changing tastes, with nearly one in 10 respondents regularly making a gluten free beer. “Not so long ago cask ale represented well over 80% of production,” says Benner. “It is now 69%. More brewers are also introducing low-strength and gluten-free beers and there has also been a shift towards lager styles.”

Last year saw the number of breweries exceed 2,000 for the first time since the 1930s as new companies sprang up all over the country. At the same time 18 pubs close every week, according to the Campaign for Real Ale, which blames the high tax burden faced by publicans.

The dynamism of the craft beer market has put successful brands on the radar of the mega brewers, with Budweiser maker Anheuser-Busch InBev’s takeover of Camden Town Brewery and Carlsberg’s takeover of the London Fields brewery among the notable deals.

But for many craft beer aficionados, small is beautiful with Siba defining a craft brewer as one that is not owned by a global company and produces less than 200,000 hectolitres a year – the equivalent of about 35.2m pints.