I was in my local coffee spot buying beans when a friend stopped to say gidday.

“What’s new in craft beer?” he asked.

When I paused for just a moment, he replied for me: “Nothing, right?”

One thing craft beer has always done is change things. Its early ethos was outright rebellion. But when every table has been overturned, every window broken, every chair smashed over the head of a bad guy … what happens next?

In some ways, craft beer has painted itself into a corner. The one post-pandemic bridge has been non-alcoholic beer and the huge growth it has produced.

So, I figured that if there was one person who might be able to help me figure out what is going to happen next would be someone who has worked for big beer but is now an independent non-alc maker.

Grant Caunter has seen the rise and rise — and now the deflation — of craft beer for 30 years and he’s hopeful the current retraction in the market is not end-times, but rather a chance for someone to come in with a new vision and determine what Craft 3.0 look like.

Caunter has worked at all levels of beer, including Heineken’s international craft arm before starting his own business, State of Play.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, he’s seen the industry from both sides now.

craft beer version 3.0
Grant Caunter

Grant argues the previous two craft shifts — in the early 90s and the early 2010s — what he calls versions 1.0 and 2.0 were created on back dramatic economic dives: a stock market crash in the late 80s and the 2008 global financial crisis.

“If you look at these shifts in craft, they are at critical times when the whole industry stops trying to defend loyalty and moves to recruiting new customers. You get innovation, great new products, the game changes, and everyone resets — those who do nothing lose out.”

As examples of the earlier waves, the late-80s and early-90s produced enduring, and game-changing, brands such as Emerson’s, Tuatara and Sunshine, and it was the same in America: with Rogue (1988), Lagunitas (1993), Stone (1996) as examples.

If Craft 1.0 was about flavour and an emerging microbrewery scene in stark contrast to the big breweries, Craft 2.0 was more about brand, daring beers and attitude. Post-GFC the flourishing Wellington scene in the early 2010s defined Craft 2.0 — think Garage Project, Parrotdog and Panhead among others.

Post-pandemic and the economic hurricane that swept through in its wake, the question is: what’s the opportunity now and who will drive it?

The levers

Caunter, who started in beer with DB in the 1990s, based in Christchurch, neatly sums up big beer as men sitting around boardroom tables, looking at spreadsheets and deciding which lever to pull — volume, price or marketing — to make more money.

They will have a handful of brands (or SKUS — stock keeping units) that drive huge volume and keep the wheels turning, some strategic SKUS that might become big, and a whole lot of “incubator” brands.  

But big breweries are not good at innovation — it’s why they used to buy craft brands, to get off-the-shelf innovation.  What they are good at is taking a proven idea and selling it to as many people as possible.

Small breweries are good at innovation, but they don’t have the resources to take their beer to the masses because they don’t have huge marketing budgets and distribution networks. 

Historically whatever craft does well, is eventually appropriated by big breweries, who deliver it to a mass market at a lower price.

Back when craft was synonymous with IPA, big breweries watched and waited and suddenly Mac’s, Monteith’s and Boundary Road all had IPAs in six-packs at cheaper prices.

Craft went hard on cans. Big breweries slowly ditched bottles for cans.

Craft had colourful, bright labels, big breweries were solid and safe. Look at them now.

The last big revolution in craft was hazy. But a hazy won’t cut it anymore. Everyone has a hazy.  

And what’s more, the globally-owned breweries are making tasty, budget-priced hazies that cost $16 a six-pack versus $23 from craft.

“We’ve got to a point where it won’t work any longer — everyone is trying to play the same game and there’s only so many taps, only so many yellow [on special] tickets — and there will only be two or three winners and they will be the ones owned by people outside New Zealand,” Caunter says.

“The independents are now having to reinvent, innovate and rethink their beer business model.”


The hardest area for craft as a category to compete is around price and volume in supermarkets.

Price is based on what it costs to put beer in a can. A giant brewery can do it for around 50c, Caunter says. A small brewery can do it for around $2.

A possible way small breweries could compete on price would be to have a giant buying co-operative. But who would organise and drive that? Potentially the Brewers Guild, says Caunter.

“There has to be innovation in way we purchase. ‘What’s worth fighting for?’ is a conversation we all need to have. How do we view each other in terms of collaboration rather than competition.”

Small breweries are equally hand-cuffed when it comes to chasing volume. Moa’s a great example of one which tried and failed.

That’s because scaling up is not linear, but quantum, and small breweries risk getting caught in “no-man’s land”. Caunter says there are natural steps at around 200,000 litres per annum, 500,000 litres per annum, 2 million litres and then 6 million litres.

For a craft brand, the jump from 2 million litres to 6 million litres is often too far.

“If you do it, it will require some kind of miracle, unicorn distribution leg-up.”

Amongst craft, Parrotdog Birdseye (and previously Panhead Supercharger) is an example of a craft brand that is close to being an “everyday” supermarket brand, or “power SKU”.

craft beer version 3.0

“Panhead Supercharger was a power SKU that paid all the bills. If you knew it was on tap and it was an extra dollar or two, you knew it was worth it. That builds habit, and it builds repeat purchases and referrals, and it grows and grows and grows. It was a hero product.

“But craft consumers also have a habit of always changing their beer choice so to grow a power SKU is long-term proposition for craft breweries.”


The options left for independent success include great ideas, excellent story-telling, amazing venues, regional loyalty, or simply staying small and out of the supermarkets.

“The Craft 2.0 consumer is now 45-plus. So how do we recruit 25-years-olds? It’s what happened with the Inspired Unemployed creating Better Beer in Australia. A very easy-drinking beer got to 200,000 hectolitres (20 million litres) in a year based on attitude and personality – they brought new people to the category.

“We’re seeing this kind of entrepreneurial approach in other drinks categories such as oat milks, flavoured waters, AF drinks, coffee drinks. Lots of entrepreneurs are investing in FMCG beverages but not in beer. Where are the beer-trepreneurs? Either they haven’t figured out the idea yet or they‘ve looked at it and said: how do we make money from this?

“Is there a New Zealand version of Better Beer waiting to happen? Who’s going to come to the market purposefully, with layers of integrity and attitude?”

Would a celeb-beer work I ask?

“If it was Richie McCaw or Dan Carter, it would work.”

He notes that one of his rivals in the non-alc space is recruiting new customers with an innovative product: Garage Project Tiny.

Caunter says the fact Tiny featured on a Sky broadcast of a Super Rugby match would have introduced it to a bunch of new people.

“And for many of those people Tiny would have been their first Garage Project beer. From a recruitment point of view, I would say it was enormous. It was on the TV, it was famous, it was new.

craft beer version 3.0

“It probably recruited young people into brand.”

Without a celeb backing or a universe-jump from TikTok to real beer, the next best thing is getting your story out there.

“But craft has less cash to tell people their story compared with Heineken. For there to be change, people need to become aware. It’s not by osmosis that people see all the cool shit. You have to be relentless — I have to tell the State of Play brand story, the product story, all the time.

“If you’re affordable and accessible you can get quick wins, the problem for the small guys is they struggle to be affordable and are spending all their money on distribution so there’s no money to tell the story.”

And even then, he adds: “How compelling is your reason for people to give a shit? And why is your product better, different or special? And for a mainstream audience, is it relatively affordable and relatively findable?”


Caunter sees local or regional models working, citing Sunshine in Gisborne as a brand that has nailed their area.  

Destination venues such as Craftwork in Oamaru, suburban strong-holds and brewpubs can also flourish.

“It’s now better to be smaller and local and control more variables, to have a model where you can decide how many hands your beer goes through.”

A niche could also be single-focus, such as State of Play being only non-alcoholic and having just three SKUs.

Being small has one major edge over big brewing: a direct connection to your customers. Whether it’s individual buyers or bars, whether it’s through social media or in-person, small breweries can offer unrivalled customer service.

Buyers who have good interactions with small breweries, who feel seen and heard, who feel like the business is talking directly to them, are likely to remain loyal and supportive.


The other area ripe for reinvention is the venue or the experience.

“A reinvention in the experience of drinking is up to the craft guys – where we drink, how we drink. Top-end craft bars will have their place but that credit card spend is not where it used to be.

“So what’s the new type of venue that can reshape of what hospitality means?

“The regular bar habit was once the cornerstone of hospitality, but that has disappeared and planned events have become the main reason you go to an on-premise venue. But those events cost more to put on, so it reinforces how much more it costs to go out.”

The good news is that big beer, while stealing the best ideas from craft, is also moving strongly towards “functional” beer, low carb, low calorie, lighter alcohol, with Speight’s Summit Ultra now the biggest brand in the country.

“The personality and functionality of new beer has got so dull. It’s all low-carb, low-flavour, and it’s all about less. I don’t think people have tolerance for that.

“Who’s going to jump first and kick-start Craft 3.0 with the energy Garage Project had when they launched?

“Who’s got the deep enough pockets to be cooler, more relevant, more famous  … to get the cachet of some of the ready-to-drinks that have hit the market, where it’s cool to have a Pal’s.

“Can the existing 2.0 brands reinvent themselves and have this split personality of looking after those who grew up with them (who are 45-60) as well as kick-starting the beer revolution and getting new people into the category, and specifically drinking your beer?

“There are degrees of reinvention, but do nothing is not a strategy.

“Covid, the GFC, the stockmarket crash – regardless of the event, the economics get refreshed. Everyone will be looking at their books differently.

“This is a moment to get out of the rinse-and-repeat; one of the moments where you go ‘well …?’