Q&A: Mike Benner of SIBA - Cesium Group

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Q&A: Mike Benner of SIBA

This week, Cesium Group – in association with the drinks business – sat down with Mike Benner, managing director of SIBA, the UK’s Society of Independent Brewers.

SIBA’s vision is to “deliver the future of British beer and become the voice of British brewing” – see what Mike has in store to try to achieve that below.

mike-benner-SIBA-MD2-567x640Paul: So Mike, please can you give me an overview of SIBA as an organisation and the objectives?

Mike: SIBA is a society of independent brewers. We were formed back in 1980s with the intention of addressing some of the issues that smaller breweries were facing at the time as they attempted to compete in a fairly consolidated market.

Since then, changes to the market, such as preferential excise duties for smaller brewers, have improved the competitive landscape but there are still ongoing issues with access to market.

With this in mind, SIBA launched a new strategic plan around 18 months ago that it is now working to and our vision within that is to deliver the future of British beer and become the voice of British brewing.

Paul: I think there’s no doubt that the work of SIBA has paved the way for the formation of many new breweries over recent years. What do you feel are some of the key drivers behind the renaissance in beer and the amount of breweries that have been set up?

Mike: I think what we’ve seen over the last few years — and it’s clearly become a trend – is that the majority of growth has been due to the innovation of small companies.

I think that craft breweries and world beers have been the real success stories in beer over the last few years. It’s actually led to a huge consumer growth in real ales and that’s now spread into other formats as well. So great beers are now available in cans, kegs, and bottles, as well as on tap.

I think technological advances in brewing have helped innovation but, particularly since 2008, the growth in craft brewing has been mainly driven by the fact that people are increasingly searching for feel-good local products that mean something to them, with genuine provenance and a story behind them.

I also think that when people tighten their belts during recessionary times one of the fallouts of that is that it takes a long time to recover and I think this kind of event leads to a concentration on quality over quantity, so the occasion becomes important and people may consume less but they’ll drink high quality. This is an area where independent breweries have delivered in spades and so I think they’ve been key drivers.

Paul: I love that idea of feel-good products made by real people. Indeed, the point you made on local relevance to people emotionally leads us to the question of whether we are seeing something new or a reinvention of what family and regional brewers have been doing for centuries. What’s your view on that?

Mike: It depends how you look at it. Given the competition from other drinks and the changing drinking habits where more beer is being drunk at home, I kind of see the whole craft revolution as something new.

However, the fact that we weren’t calling beers, craft beers, until a few years ago doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. What has happened is the arts and crafts of brewing has opened itself beyond the kind of restraints and norms of traditional beer styles to reach out right into that global hop market and to learn things from different brewers around the world; which has created an incredible diversity of styles and flavors. And that to me is kind of a new approach. But in saying that nobody could project that what brewers in this country were doing 50 years ago, that regional level brewing, wasn’t craft-brewing because I think it was. It’s probably more of an evolution, than a new invention, so to speak.

Paul: Building on that question, a lot of regional brewers have really deep emotional connection with a particular area and by default they offered really good beers and brands that resonate with their consumer base. Do you feel that the local connection is influencing consumers?

Mike: I think that when you’ve got 1,500 brewers, that the local can start to look like a bit of a cul-de-sac unless you understand what consumers mean by local and in fact that’s something that SIBA is working on now and we plan to release our insights on this in March.

What does local mean? I think a lot of consumers would still regard trying a beer from a local brewery in Cornwall while in a pub in Berkshire as drinking a local product – albeit not one that’s from around the corner. My point being, that with so many brewers, what does local start to mean? I think they have to be careful not to label it so specifically. I think today’s consumers differentiate more between what they regard as perhaps mass-produced or global products and smaller ‘local’ products. This isn’t unique to beer either – I think increasingly consumers are more informed and opinionated about what they enjoy in food and drink.