Why the rise of craft has helped the whole beer sector to become more inventive, according to the managing director of Asahi UK

Francesca Washtell
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People are demanding more from their beer now, according to the MD of Asahi UK (Source: Getty)

Artisan-style beer may be growing in popularity with 1,700 breweries in the UK alone, but the total craft lager segment is still smaller than the Peroni Nastro Azzurro brand according to Gary Haigh, the managing director of Asahi UK.

For this reason, the man in charge of the Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Pilsner Urquell and Lech brands in Britain does not see craft beer as a rival per se. Instead, he believes that one of the main effects of the artisan trend is that customers are demanding more from their drinks.

The industry veteran says: “A lot of the craft segment is very interesting… but even then the total craft lager segment is smaller than the Peroni brand - which is quite an interesting factoid if you want one to throw around at dinner parties.

“It’s not necessarily about competing. Craft has caused consumers to reappraise beer and that has to be a good thing for the entire category,” he says.

Read more: Lunchtime pint? These are the City of London's best craft beer pubs

Craft beer has cultivated in consumers a desire for their drinks to have kooky names, and to be more flavoursome and, sometimes, to have some kind of a back story.

"It’s not so much ‘flavoured beers’ but a trend for different types of beer,” Haigh believes. “A lot of this has been sparked by the craft beer movement, which has caused consumers to think differently about, and take a greater interest in, the ingredients and characteristics of their beers. What type of hops are used? What gives a stout its coffee flavours? Where was my beer brewed and by whom?”

Peroni at 2016 LAFF - June 3rd
Asahi UK oversees Italian beer Peroni Nasto Azzurro's presence in Britain (Source: Getty)

Producing a drink with more novelty and backstory is the bet Haigh and his colleagues have taken with their latest offering, Peroni Ambra. It’s the first new take on the Peroni Nastro Azzurro beer since 1963, twinning the original with Chinotto (a bitter, fragrant citrus grown in a small area of Italy) and creating a crisp, aperitivo drink available at a limited number of bars and, at least for now, on sale for a limited time this summer.

Read more: Super-premium beer market takes London by storm

Of course, Haigh should know about beer. He has been in the industry around 20 years, starting out at Diageo on Guinness in 1998, where he was later the marketing manager who signed off on the brand’s now-infamous surfer-horses advert, and later moving to SABMiller. After working for the group in European export markets and Poland, he took over managing operations at Miller Brands UK.

He stayed there until last October, when SABMiller’s UK, Dutch and Italian businesses were sold to the Japanese drinks giant Asahi on completion of the giant £79bn combination between Belgian-Brazilian beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB. The purchase was the first time Asahi, which also snapped up SABMiller’s central and eastern European beers, had set up an office in the UK.

In addition to the current beers, next year Asahi UK will also take over distribution of its Japanese staple beer Asahi Super Dry (its distribution is currently overseen by Shepherd Neame).

Read more: The UK's second largest craft brewery just crowdfunded £2.5m

Of the move from SABMiller to Asahi, many in Haigh’s team (including himself) believed the shift would entail big changes. Instead, Haigh describes the handover as the “management of anti-climax”, overseeing a period in which the only substantive change was that paperwork is now sent to Tokyo, rather than London. He and his colleagues were glad to be bought by another beer company, he says, and especially one as passionate about the product as Asahi.

As well as overseeing a collection of already-popular beers, Asahi UK has another key strength: its drinks almost all fall under the umbrella of premium and super-premium categories. These segments are still experiencing growth, especially super-premium, while standard, everyday lagers are in negative growth territory.

Beyond all else, Haigh can also rest easy knowing that the reach of some of his everyday-premium lagers easily dwarfs other drinks – something smaller brewers couldn’t dream of competing with.

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