The answer, according to a press release I received yesterday, is Arran Blonde. It arrived to announce the latest intentions of the island brewery – to begin keg production. Managing Director Gerald Michaluk stated in the release;
“We have very ambitions plans and the introduction of kegged Arran Blonde will expand our market when coupled with our distribution deal with the Hofbrau in Munich. Arran Blonde ale and Hofbrau lagers will be a winning combination in the new Craft Beer bars springing up around Scotland. We are offering both now in Keg as well as bottle. But staying true to our roots we will continue to offer Arran Blonde as a real ale in cask as well”.
Fair enough – I imagine Gerald and the Arran team have wanted to roll out the (kegged) barrels of Blonde for some time. It makes a whole amount of sense, given the occasional weather issues that may arise, and the lack of cellars in many pubs around the west coast and the islands (and further afield, for that matter). It’s a welcome boost for Arran, since the collapse of their planned merger with Skye, and puts the focus back onto beer following recent flurries into the production of sake and cider (not to mention the purchase of the Rosebank distillery).
There’s little doubt Gerald is one of the most driven men in Scottish brewing, as Arran (let’s be fair here) punch far above their weight in terms of the number of news stories generated. In part, this is down to these ideas of diversifying the growth of the brewery through different means, catching growing trends (such as the cider on-trade market) and reflecting others (such as the next step for Arran, launching a £4m share scheme). All of these, however, are more likely to appear in the business pages of newspapers rather than the…er…beer pages.
Is this why the press release I received began with the following words?
The Arran Brewery has launched Scotland’s best selling Craft Beer, Arran Blonde, in Keg. Up until now Arran Blonde has been only available in cask or Bottle.
Wait, what now? That’s the kind of sentence that a business columnist would scan over and add to his copy, whilst pushing the horn-rimmed glasses up the nose, and lightly tapping the cigar into an ivory ashtray. As a beer writer, it leaps off the page (causing me to splutter into my V60 poured Guatemalan, and stroke my hipster beard in bemused fashion). Arran Blonde is the best selling craft beer in Scotland? I fired off an email to Gerald, and after a hugely enjoyable back and forth, it surmised he’d arrived at this based on a report issued by the research company Nielsen, and published in the March 2013 issue of the Scottish Grocer Magazine (full link here).
According to the report, Arran Blonde was the tenth best-selling ‘ale’ in the financial year to March 2013, resulting in a hugely respectable sales figure of £503,000 – a rise of almost a quarter on sales over the previous period. The top-selling ale, in case you were wondering, is McEwan’s Export, which shifts an astonishing £8.3m annually – just about twice that of it’s nearest rival, John Smith’s Extra Smooth. Yikes. That, of course, is small beans to the gods of the silvery cans – Scotland being off-sales lager country, Tennent’s Lager sells seven times the amount of McEwan’s Export (and is the third most valuable drinks brand in Scotland, after Glens Vodka and Smirnoff).
So, all well and good for Arran Blonde, fighting against the scourge of cheap lager and even cheaper vodka. However, in terms of craft, looking at that report further it actually says the following;
But some of the most exciting developments in the top 15’s in both ales and stouts came in craft beers. Nielsen now measures Edinburgh-produced Deuchars IPA as a brand worth more than £1m a year in Scottish take-home, after it achieved 13% growth in 2012’s tough market.
And Arran Blonde, from an ambitious company that has announced plans to develop venues in Scotland, achieved very positive sales growth in Nielsen’s Scottish take-home listings, adding 24% to move above £500,000.
Innis&Gunn and Bitter and Twisted were also up, and a couple of English ales in bottle – Hobgoblin and Spitfire – saw sales increase, although Old Speckled Hen saw sales drop.
So, quite clearly, the report used as evidence that Blonde is the best-selling craft beer in the country actually states that it is Caledonian’s Deuchars IPA. Now, you can then get into all kinds of discussion on whether beers from Slateford’s finest are ‘craft beer’ or not, and therefore, whether beers from Arran’s finest are, or aren’t. I’ve written, at length, about the other C-word before, so in a nutshell, my opinion is that Deuchars is not craft beer. But, also, neither is Arran Blonde. ‘Craft beer’ means nothing over here, it’s a term, an aspiration, something to drive a wedge between beer and lager – and now beer and other beer.
Yes, the Caley is far larger than Arran in terms of size – but I’ve been there, stuck my head inside the open coppers – what they do is hugely skilled. I’ve no doubt the brewers on Arran are just as competent. But this term, this modern, loosely-defined plague of semantics, has no bearing on this issue. Whether or not you think Caley, Arran, Alechemy or Luckie beers are craft or not, the quoted report awards the tag of ‘best-selling craft beer in Scotland’ to Deuchars (it outsells Arran Blonde 2 to 1, having recently punched through the £1m barrier).
As Gerald and his team rebound from the postponed merger/expansion and fire (no doubt) into a series of announcements leading up to the share scheme in a few months, expect this claim about Blonde to re-appear. Is it misleading? Possibly. The fact that Arran Blonde is in the top ten of Scottish off-sales is hugely impressive. Bear that in mind, and the size and location of the brewery, rather than any claim revolving around craft beer. What that means, in essence, is merely that Arran Blonde is the best selling beer made by the Arran Brewery. Whether cask, bottled – or now, kegged.