Heineken’s resident brewing expert reveals a seismic change in the beer industry

Heineken brew master
Heineken Global Brew Master Willem van Waesberghe Heineken

Heineken’s Global Brew Master thinks that the beer industry is changing for the better.

“We’re starting to talk about beer,” Willem van Waesberghe told Business Insider, on the question of the beer industry’s biggest changes over the last 20 years. “Brewers are very happy that we’re finally talking about beer again.”

Van Waesberghe says that this growing interest in learning more about beer, as well as a preference for variety and transparency, has been one of the most gratifying changes to occur in the more than 15 years he has worked at Heineken. The shift, he says, can be partially attributed to craft beer’s popularity.

“We like the craft world in that way,” says van Waesberghe.

Heineken Bottles Film Independent Spirit Awards

The rise of craft is one of the most important influences on the beer industry in 2016.

Often, major brewers find themselves in opposition to craft beer. Craft brewers like BrewDog see mega-corporation like Budweiser and Guinness parent company Diageo as unimaginative and passionless, to use BrewDog’s language. 

“We support craft, and craft breweries should be independent, not bastardized by megacorporations who will compromise the quality of the beer to cut corners, cut people, and make a profit,” Sarah Warman, BrewDog’s head of marketing, told Business Insider.

The emphasis on staying small in craft is one that Heineken — which is family-owned and emphasises the authenticity of its three-ingredient beer recipe — finds to be misleading.

“What I don’t like about the craft world is it’s a commercial concept blocking out by size,” says van Waesberghe. “A brewmaster in Heineken has the same craftmanship as a brewmaster [at a craft brewer].”

While bigger breweries and craft brewers may butt heads, it’s impossible to downplay how much craft brewers are shaping major beer companies.

Budweiser and Heineken have discussed taking marketing tips from craft brewers, with an increased emphasis on stunts, social media, and authenticity.

Recognising craft as competition has also resulted in a number of acquisitions of craft brewers by major companies. In December 2015 alone, Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired craft brewers Arizona’s Four Peaks Brewing Company, the UK’s Camden Town Brewery and Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery — a series of purchases that rubbed many craft brewers the wrong way.

Lagunitas Brewing Company

“Acquisitions go against the very nature of craft beer — by commoditizing it, big companies are pulling the wool over customers’ eyes,” Warman said.

Heineken is trying to avoid such criticism by balancing growth with a dedication to craft.

“In my mind only one Brewer stood out as truly global, family-owned and still brewers first; Heineken,” Lagunitas founder Tony Magee wrote in a blog post after Heineken acquired a 50% stake in the California-based craft brewer. “In them we met a global brewer who uses no adjuncts in their flagship beer; malt only. We met a brewer that is still controlled by its founder’s great-granddaughter. We met a brewer whose CEO/Chairman understood the details of the brewing process.”

Heineken’s most recent marketing campaign similarly puts the beer’s authenticity front-and-center. The ad shows van Waesberghe discussing the simplicity of Heineken’s recipe with actor Benicio Del Toro — and, ultimately telling the star “no f—ing way” when he suggests adding some new, trendy ingredients to the brew.

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