November 25, 2013 by Luke Robertson
Earlier this year Asahi Premium Beverages, formerly known as Independent Distillers, bought the Cricketers Arms Lager brand and it became the basis for an attempt to enter the growing craft beer market. Now they are solidifying their plans with two new beers: an IPA and a mid-strength Lager called Mid-On.
The new offerings are aimed at young drinkers who, according to general manager of marketing Kate Dowd, "are buying into [craft beer] as a first step so they're not buying into mainstream or even Australian domestic beers, they are going straight into international and premium.
"What we are seeing is a consumer led decision about what is really craft beer and that's going to be the greatest challenge that people like my team have to kind of reset our thinking on."
And like the strong push in New Zealand with their Boundary Road brand and the recent contracts to import BrewDog and Samuel Adams, it's clear that Asahi have strong intent in Australia.
"We have very bullish market objectives with the Cricketers Arms brand and I would suggest to you that acquisition price and investment will be in the millions before we start to see a return on that, but one of the great things about working for a company like Asahi is that we don't sell assets, we acquire, invest and develop," Asahi Premium Beverages CEO Greg Ellery said.
"Our challenge is to say how big do you take Cricketers before it loses its sexiness, quirkiness, and the fact is we won't take it over that level. But also in the meantime we have to use what we think is Australia's best inventive brewer [Dermot O'Donnell former head brewer at CUB] to actually make sure we continue to have specific products that are very focused on the craft experience and what it means to drink a beer that is trying to use different ingredients."
And they hope to use their facilities to their advantage over their smaller competitors.
"[With] really genuine and passionate craft brewers, like Dermot, if they can get access to modern plants like this they can start bringing their ideas to life, but in the true craft beer sense you've got quite small facilities and you just can't do much," Ellery said.
Somewhat contradictory to that, they will be installing a pilot brewery at their Laverton plant and hope to use that to focus on more unique offerings that sit next to their "sessionable" range.
"You don't want to see the situation where you get a lot of craft products into the on-premise and then people try it and go, 'I love it but I can only drink one' because the poor bugger who’s gone and done all the work behind the scenes, at his farm or wherever, goes, 'I didn't get an order this month and I've gone and spent 200 grand on a kettle."
“So that's the tough part, you've got to get a good mixture of sessionable products within your range and your portfolio as well; so, if anything, buy a six-pack of Cricketers Arms Lager and you might try a special harvest of chocolate stout," Ellery said.
As for the three launch beers, it’s the new Lager that’s the pick of the three – not too sweet with a little hop character. Mid-On is as you might expect a commercial mid-strength lager to be, while the IPA is designed to be “sessionable and approachable”, with biscuit, caramel and orange citrus aromas and a dry finish.
However, fans of canned beer may be disappointed that we won't see the beers in cans, given their facility is more than capable of turning out high volumes of them, and does so for at least one other craft beer brand.
"I like reading the blurb about the fact that cans seem to be a trendy craft option. I'm mathematically trained so I'd like to see the data. We might do it as an experiment but, again with Cricketers Arms Lager, our mainstream beer, we wouldn’t be changing the vessel," he said.
Also being produced out of their Laverton plant is the cider brand Somersby, for which Asahi is taking cues from the UK market, where there is already a strong cider presence. That said, there are those who might disagree with Ellery's assertion that: "We think there's a lot of crappy beers in the UK and, for all of us who have been lucky enough, or unlucky enough to be there, we've had the chance to experience that."
While Somersby is growing well for them, it is also eating into some of their other brands.
"It hurts us a bit because there's a lot of Vodka Cruiser drinkers out there who are migrating to cider. So we sort of get belted around a bit on it, but our commitment to quality cider and probably expanding our cider portfolio pretty soon is high," he said.
Like much of the industry at the moment, time will tell if their beers will gain a solid foothold in the market.
It's clear they are pushing hard but it's also clear they are still trying to grasp just what the market is about. This will be one of the brands that will come up, like Boundary Road in NZ, in debates about what craft is. I'm not sure if they have an answer for that themselves but if they want some insight I'm sure any beer lover can recommend some of the outstanding modern British beers as research.
However, succeed or fail, it's guaranteed this won't be the last we hear of their ambitions in the craft space.
When asked about future acquisitions within the industry Ellery simply said: "There's a lot in the pipeline."