Our awards are under three weeks away and entries close this week. But there’s still time for you to send in something that’s going to win a shiny gong. Yeah, you need to have done some really good work. But you also need to write a good entry. Here’s how.
Judging the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards is always an educational experience.
Our judges are recruited from across the industry to provide a cross-section of opinions. I’m always delighted to find that when we get everyone together in a room, discussion is friendly, but robust.
One year, we had an entry that was all about a piece of experiential marketing at a beer event. It was an installation I’d visited personally, and when we came to discuss it, I waxed lyrical about how brilliant it had been, how original and immersive it was, how professionally it had been executed, describing all the little details that made it truly special.
The rest of the judges looked at me blankly, and when I finished, one of them said gently, “Yes, Pete, but none of that is on the entry form.”
I looked again, and realised all we had actually been given was a very brief written outline of what the event entailed, with little supporting imagery. I had to concede the point. The entry didn’t win its category.
It should have, because it was one of the most original and engaging pieces of marketing I’ve seen in recent years. But it was let down by a poor entry form.
Conversely, I’ve judged many pub awards schemes in the past. These usually consist of written entry forms in the early rounds, followed by scheduled visits to the shortlisted pubs. There was one particular pub that I’d seen shortlisted in every competition I’d judged. Every time, I was entranced by the stories of the location, the building, the events they put on, the beer selection, the energy and enthusiasm that leapt off the page. I was desperate to visit, so much so that when it came up one more time, I offered to do the site visit myself, at my own expense.
I went and stayed at the pub the night before my morning visit with the licensee, in one of the rooms they had to let (it really did have everything.) The service was lackadaisical to the point of rudeness. The food was awful. The beer wasn’t conditioned properly, and the whole place was shabby. When I met the licensee the following morning and they asked me if I’d come far, when I replied that I’d stayed the night before without their knowledge, the look of horror in their eyes said it all. This was a licensee far better at writing entry forms than actually running a pub.
The quality of the entry form in any awards scheme that asks you to present your case in narrative form rather than just submitting work is vital.
I’ve been in these situations myself. I know that something like an entry form keeps getting bumped down the To-Do list until the last possible minute, and then gets rushed.
But I also know that once you create some space, if there’s time to sit down and do it properly, you get genuine joy out of reflecting on your achievements and presenting your case to someone else. If the entry is one you genuinely believe in, it reminds you of why you do what you do.
If you’re proud of your work, it deserves a strongly written entry. There’s a saying in advertising that nothing kills a bad product as quickly as good marketing, because you drive people to the product in droves and they quickly discover it doesn’t meet up to expectations. That’s what happened with my multi-awards nominated pub.
But conversely, nothing kills a claim to great marketing quicker than a rushed or poorly written awards entry. So here are a few tips on avoiding a premature demise:
Read the form through first. There’s a shape to it. You shouldn’t be repeating yourself endlessly in each section.
Make time – do a really bad early draft that you can come back to and polish later. It’s always easier to edit than to start from scratch.
Use the space you’re given – if there’s one sentence in each section, they’re going to have to be pretty amazing sentences to make much of an impression.
Think of it as an argument rather than a form filling exercise. You’re not presenting information; you’re trying to convince a knowledgeable, engaged reader. Each section should support the others, building your case. By the time we’ve finished reading the form, we should be desperate to look at the work.
Avoid jargon. You may be being read by an expert in your discipline, or you may be being read by a brewer or publican who is very smart but doesn’t come across reach and OTS, spontaneous and promoted awareness or CAGR in their jobs.
When you have a draft, show it to someone outside your team, preferably someone unfamiliar with the work, and ask them if it reads in a convincing way.
It may sounds obvious, but please include examples of the work! If you’ve done TV or press advertising, it kind of helps if you send the ads in for people to look at. If you’ve done an event, think how best you can capture it and bring it alive. If there’s video, press coverage, captured tweets – anything – send them to us.
Confidentiality – you’ll have your own internal guidelines on this. If there’s anything on the form that you don’t feel comfortable answering or are unable to answer, just explain this and give us the best indication you can. No specific details or information will be shared beyond the judges without your permission.
Entries should be submitted here. The clock is ticking. Good luck!
The awards ceremony is back after a four-year hiatus, and is happening on the trade day of BrewLDN on 6th May.
As one of the original founders and Chair of Judges for the UK Beer and Cider Marketing Awards, I’m delighted to team up with the guys at BrewLDN to bring the awards back. We’re going to be holding them in the evening of the Trade Day, at Printworks in London.
Back in 2015, when James Cuthbertson, Jo Miller and I first launched these awards, we had two specific goals in mind.
Firstly, we wanted to create something that was relevant to the whole brewing and cider industries, from the biggest global brewer to the smallest start-up. When I first joined the industry, the best work came from those with the biggest budgets, but this simply isn’t true any more. In the four editions of the awards we ran between 2015 and 2018, we gave out our heavy, pint-shaped trophies for everything from international sponsorship campaigns to cool T-shirts. If a great Insta story or fifty quid spent on sponsoring a local bike ride showed as much creativity and effectiveness as a TV ad, it stood just as much chance as winning – if not more.
Second, we wanted to break the mould of industry events. We know people come to big events to network. So there’s no black tie, no bloke off the national lottery making booming announcements, no rubber chicken. We’re informal, we’re businesslike and efficient with the awards presentation, and we allow as much time for mingling and chatting as we can.
My founding partners have both stepped back from the awards now, and with their blessing, I’m delighted to enter a new partnership with BrewLDN. We quickly managed to build a reputation as one of the best nights in the industry calendar and this is the perfect fit to carry that reputation forward and build on it.
Entries are now open and we have some new categories to broaden the opportunities for small and medium-sized brewers and cider-makers to get involved. So if you sell beer or cider t any scale, or work for someone who does, there’s an award for you. Entries close mid-April, so check out the website here and write your way to glory! https://www.beermarketingawards.co.uk
Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.
When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter.
Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position.
The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.)
My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking.
So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look.
Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?
Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale.
Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate brands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. This folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other craft beer pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.
That was over forty years ago, though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.
So the packaging definitely needed a refresh, there’s no doubt about that. Having accepted that, there are two basic stages to the process:
Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?
Principles and strategy of rebrand
There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.
Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design in a crowd. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as ‘Anchor Steam Beer’ and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.
Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten.
Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons.
The first is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the recent Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.”
Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.
The second reason is that I think Anchor has drawn the wrong conclusion from the correct analysis, that conclusion being: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to look like one yourself.
Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.
It’s the same for other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, who all remain contemporary and yet true to their roots at the same time.
Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.
Execution of rebrand
When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does?
Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution.
To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:
Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:
Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:
It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.
On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:
Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the key elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making them stand out more:
When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:
Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.
Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.
The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:
The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else.
In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.
Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference to Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:
“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”
The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself:
“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”
And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.”
This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name, which is by no means certain). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:
It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice.
The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:
I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:
Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:
Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:
As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable.
I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.
Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.
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With around 2500 breweries in the UK, many of whom sell core ranges, seasonals, limited editions and collabs, it’s never been harder to stand out from the pack. That’s why the look of beer has become the most creative and diverse of any packaged product. And that’s why my wife and I did a book about it while (white) shielding.
Before I was a writer, I worked in advertising – and enjoyed it for a time. I was fascinated by the idea of brands: originally a simple mark of ownership, they evolved into carriers of additional meaning. At first, they were symbols of trust, of consistency and quality. Every tin you buy with a Heinz logo on it, every Cadbury’s chocolate bar, is going to taste the same as the last one. If we like that taste, we remain loyal to most things that carry that logo. Then, brands took on a more abstract sense. If lots of people who are like you all think that a certain brand is cool, then by extension, in their eyes, you’re cool if you wear it. Over the last thirty years we’ve all learned to use this abstract quality of brands, whether we do so consciously or not. We use brands and logos to build an idea of ourselves that we want to project to the world.
After Bass became the UK’s first registered trade mark, beer brands developed certain stylistic conventions that remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century. The oval, or “racetrack” shape, use of a simple symbol, various cues of quality. It all started to look a bit… samey.
In the 21st century, craft beer tore up the rulebook of how successful beer branding was supposedly done. It set itself directly in opposition to conventional design to prove that it wasn’t part of the mainstream.
This led to an extraordinary explosion of creativity. Among people who insisted they were influenced by the beer and not the marketing, like mainstream drinkers were, some enormously powerful brands were built.
Not all of it works as successful commercial branding, but most of it is gorgeous to look at, and some of it works as art in its own right.
And this branding revolution has affected the whole beer market, inspiring even established mainstream brands to rediscover the craft and art of design. This was pretty welcome for some older cask ale brands that had previously started to look dated and out of touch, and could now look contemporary in ways they never would have dared before craft moved the goal posts.
Sometimes, creative use of type, combining heritage typefaces with a few modern tricks, can make a brand look cool while still remaining true to its roots: a hard thing to pull off when it’s much easier to look like you’re desperately dad-dancing in a market you no longer understand.
Alternatively, a distinctive style of illustration can establish a common look across a wide range of beers at the same time as marking them out as different from everyone else.
Even the biggest brands realised there was more to the broader idea of craft than being small and independent, and rediscovered an idea of craft in their design that was firmly based in their heritage and longevity.
My wife Liz, who spent years working in the design industry, worked as picture researcher on this book. She had countless conversations with designers, artists and people working for breweries, and eventually gathered artwork from over 220 different breweries. When it came to making a book that looked as beautiful as a tome on design should, we didn’t have room for all of it. (We feature about 145 breweries in the book in total.) That’s why Liz will be launching a new blog – BeerByDesign.co.uk -tomorrow, and has also set up @BeerByDesignUK on Twitter and Instagram. This book is only the start of a conversation about design in which we aim to show some work in more depth, give behind the scenes peeks at how things develop, and interview designers and brewers about their work.
There’s still a lot of shit design out there, and there are conversations to be had about what should or shouldn’t go on a beer label, how it’s regulated, and whether or not it works. But for now, we’re keeping Beer By Design to the good stuff, things we like to look at, and things we believe help sell beer. If there is a job to do on the poor stuff, then maybe by showing the good stuff, we can inspire others to raise their game.
So please, if you’re a brewer, artist or designer who thinks your work should be featured, or if you’re a big fan of someone you believe should be here, go to BeerByDesign.co.uk and let us know!
You can of course buy the book from Amazon, but I’d prefer if you bought it from the CAMRA bookshop, for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s great that CAMRA were prepared to publish a book like this. It’s a real sign that the organisation is taking a more modern, inclusive approach to beer than it has in the past, so it would be nice to show them how right they were to do it. And secondly, I get a significantly higher royalty on copies sold through CAMRA than through anywhere else.
Finally, we’re holding the official launch party via Zoom tomorrow night, Thursday 26th, at 7pm, and you’re invited. If you’d like to see me and some of the featured brands and designers talking about the book, and have a chat, sign up here. It will almost certainly end with one of these.
There’s a longer, more in-depth preview of the book over on my Patreon. You can sign up from just £1 a month. But sign up at the £25 level, and you’ll get a free, signed copy of the book as a thank you. same goes for any future book I publish while you’re still signed up at that level.
Fuller’s is selling its beer portfolio to Asahi. The commercial logic of this is undeniable. The issue is, many of us place sentimentality above commercial logic.
As someone who (a) loves beer and (b) also aspires to being seen as a level-headed commentator with a degree of insight into the market, whenever something like this happens I have two reactions: the emotional and the analytical. Sometimes they match up with each other. Other times they don’t.
So let’s get the emotional reaction out of the way first: when I saw Asahi trending on my Twitter timeline on Friday morning, and then clicked on it to see what it was about, I was absolutely gutted. People asked me for my reaction on Twitter. The editor of Imbibe phoned me to see if I had a comment on it. An email thread of beer writers asking if anyone knew before the announcement or had any hot take on it spiralled through my inbox. And I had no words at all. I felt a bit stupid. The thing was, I didn’t understand it.
I don’t want to sound too melodramatic: it wasn’t like a bereavement or anything. It was more like, imagine you have two mates. One of them is a bit lairy and is often asked to keep it down in the pub. The other one is quiet and thoughtful and one of the sweetest people you know. And one day, someone says, “Hey, there was a ruckus in the pub last night. The police were called and your mate was arrested.”
“I’m not surprised. He probably had it coming,” you reply. “You know what he’s like.”
“No, not him,” the person says. “Your other mate! The quiet, nice one.”
The offence is the same. But it feels worse because of who did it. Fuller’s don’t owe me anything, nor do they have any obligation to anyone else. But I had an idea in my head of the kind of company they are – entirely of my own creation – and just like it was for many people when Beavertown did their deal with Heineken, that idea now seems tarnished. Like I said, it’s an emotional reaction. It’s pointless trying to pick it apart, analyse it or argue with it – it’s just how I feel.
Now, given a day or two’s thinking time, here’s the rational reaction: one, it was probably as inevitable as it was surprising. And two, it’ll probably be OK.
Why was it inevitable? Because it’s part of the pattern. A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel for a Q&A session at a Greene King management awayday. There was me, and a bunch of serial entrepreneurs, City analysts and financial people. I was asked to speak first. I was doing the Cask Report at the time, and I spoke about how cask ale was looking good, and how that meant Greene King were in a good place if they stuck with it. And everyone else on the panel said, “Why are you talking about beer? It’s irrelevant. It’s the pubs that matter. This is a property company, a retail company. That’s where all the money is. The brewery is just a distraction.”
If you’re only looking at the money side of things, this is inarguable. In the early nineties, when the Beer Orders mandated that breweries could no longer own thousands of pubs, every one of the ‘Big Six’ brewery conglomerates that had dominated British brewing since the sixties eventually decided to sell off the beer and hang on to the pubs (which is why we’re in the extraordinary position of not one of the top ten beer brands in the UK – one of the world’s greatest brewing countries – being owned by a British company.)
Beer is in long-term decline, and brewing is a low-margin business. Pubs are property, and property is worth a lot of money. Pubs also sell a lot more than beer – as a sector, they now make more money from food than drink. If you had to choose to give up one or the other, only the most sentimental of brewing companies would choose to stick with the beer.
Of course, Fuller’s were not forced to choose between one or the other. They’re well below the limit for the maximum number of pubs a brewer can own. And yet they decided to dispose of the brewing business anyway.
From what I can understand from off-the-record chats, very few people in the business had any inkling of this happening. Not only were they not told, they were always under the impression that the board at Fuller’s were indeed very sentimentally attached to the brewing business. Ever since Young’s sold its brewing operations and shut its brewery in Wandsworth in 2006, there has been speculation that Fuller’s would – or even must – do the same. But the received wisdom among the upper echelons of the business was that the families of Fullers and Turners who still occupy board positions wouldn’t want to face the ignominy of turning up at their boxes at Twickenham, Lords, Glyndebourne or wherever and having to introduce themselves as ‘shopkeepers’ rather than brewers. I guess they’ve swallowed their (London) Pride on that score.
I’m writing this blog post in a newly opened Fuller’s pub. Like every Fuller’s pub that’s been opened or refurbished in the last few years, it’s magnificent. We hear a great deal about pub closures, and while Fuller’s have long received praise for their brewing prowess and approach, they’ve not received enough credit for the care, attention and confidence they show in the pub sector. £250m, minus costs and yachts, houses or whatever else the beneficiaries might buy, remains a significant chunk of money to invest in pubs. Those pubs will all still stock Fuller’s beers, as Asahi will be their main beer supplier.
From Asahi’s point of view, this sale sees them building up a very respectable portfolio of western beer brands now. I have to admit that as a drinker, the prospect of Fuller’s, Dark Star, Meantime and Pilsner Urquell, plus Cornish Orchards cider, all on the same team, is an enticing one. Martyn Cornell also raises the sharp observation that this is a foreign lager brewer making a massive vote of confidence in British cask ale. Fuller’s flagship beer, London Pride, has been suffering sustained decline, squeezed between the big multinationals’ marketing power and the rise of craft beer. London Pride and the rest of the Fuller’s portfolio now belong to a company with much deeper pockets.
And the point many of us miss is that these big companies have a global outlook. You have a well-respected traditional British beer called LONDON PRIDE that now has access to huge distribution in big, beer-hungry, and often massively Anglophile markets in Central Europe and Asia. People often ask me why the hell Carlsberg bought a toxic brand (within the UK beer bubble) called London Fields. Same reason.
Many who, like me, remain sad about the deal despite this commercial logic, try to put their fears into rational terms by suggesting that a multinational lager brewer might screw up their beloved beers. I genuinely don’t think this will happen. Asahi has absolutely no experience in cask ale. They wouldn’t risk blowing their £250m investment by trying to change what they don’t understand. They’ll leave Fuller’s and Dark Star well alone to do what they know how to do best, merely providing them with more production capacity and wider distribution, and a shitload more health and safety notices around the workplace. That’s what they did with Meantime. And after a couple of false starts, they’ve actually handled Pilsner Urquell pretty well.
I’m almost talking myself into cheering this sale rather than mourning it. But I can’t quite get there. It’s not just the keyboard warriors who want to keep craft beer pure even as they sit in comfortable corporate jobs drawing salaries from big multinationals who are sad about this sale. Brooklyn Brewmaster Garret Oliver told me that, “Fuller’s, more than any other brewery, is responsible for my becoming a brewer.” Last year I interviewed John Hall, founder of Goose Island, when he came to Fuller’s to brew a collaborative beer to celebrate that company’s 30th anniversary. On business trips to Europe, he used to detour via London simply so he could drink London Pride at the Star Tavern, a Fuller’s pub in Belgravia. When he finally changed out of his business suit and into brewer’s overalls, he brewed Honker’s ale to try to emulate his favourite beer. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale began life as an attempt to imitate Fuller’s ESB. ESB itself is now a category, a bona fide beer style brewed all over the world and judged in international competitions, when it was once simply the name of a tasty, strong beer in the Fuller’s portfolio.
Fuller’s was the brewery that inspired the breweries that inspired the modern craft beer boom. Arguably no other brewery in the world is as responsible for shaping craft beer. These individual stories of inspiration – and there are many more – cannot be measured on a balance sheet. But they create value nonetheless.
Asahi are not evil and they’re not going to screw up these beers. Fuller’s are not sellouts who deserve to be shunned by beer ideologues. And yet we’ve still lost something. We’ve lost some of beer’s romance and heritage. We’ve lost a sense of stability and continuity. We’ve lost a bit of magic. Yes, I’m being sentimental. But even the most hard-nosed businessman should be wary of scorning or dismissing such sentimentality. Because it’s the basis of loyalty – no, devotion – a fierce passion for some beers and breweries that few if any other products can summon among their core customers.
My warning to Asahi would be to respect this irrational devotion and sentimentality and to honour the beers and the brewery that created it. I suspect they will do a fairly decent job of that, because the business they just bought depends on them doing so. But it still won’t quite be the same.
A new press release about the rejuvenation of Britain’s most famous ever beer brand causes more problems than it solves.
I don’t go out of my way to drip withering scorn on Anheuser Busch-InBev, but they always seem to be able to trigger me when they announce the launch of a new beer. A few years ago I did a conference presentation on how (and how not) to do innovation, and when I illustrated this with numerous examples of rubbish launches, it started to look like a vendetta against the world’s biggest brewery. It wasn’t meant to be. They just gave me more instances of all that was wrong with marketing hype, more consistently, than any other brewer.
And so we come to last week’s announcement that Bass Ale is returning to the UK, and a launch which is pretty much a perfect case study in corporate bullshit being sprayed over something the corporation in question neither knows nor cares about.
A bit of background: Bass found fame in the early 19th century as the quintessential IPA (when IPAs tended just to be called ‘pale ales’.) Brewed in Burton on Trent, it superseded Allsopp’s, the town’s original big hitter in India, and went on to become the first ever global beer brand. Its distinctive red triangle was famous all across the British Empire and beyond, and became the UK’s first ever registered trademark, narrowly missing out to German brand Krupp’s in being the world’s first, in any product category. Bass was so admired that less talented, less scrupulous brewers would simply copy the label and pass off their own beers as Bass, necessitating the move.
By the mid-twentieth century the allure of IPA had faded, but Bass was still one of the biggest and most famous beer brands in the UK when a period of rapid consolidation began among breweries. The second wave of this consolidation in the late 1990s saw Inbev acquire Bass – by then a massive conglomerate still based in Burton on Trent – only to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. They ended up having to sell most of Bass (the company) to what is now Molson Coors, but confusingly held on to Bass (the beer) and proceeded to largely ignore it in the UK for the next twenty years. When approached and asked if they didn’t want it, AB-InBev replied they would sell UK licensing rights (inaccurately reported as being for an outright sale of the brand) for £15 million – essentially a massive middle finger extended to anyone who thought the world’s most legendary beer deserved better than the neglect they were showing it.
So now, instead of selling or ignoring it, AB-InBev is apparently relaunching it. I should be happy about this. I don’t think I am. With reference to this article, here’s why.
1.The headline: AB-InBev announce they are ‘bringing back’ Bass ale to the UK on-trade.
No it isn’t, because Bass Ale never left the UK on-trade, despite appearances. It’s been brewed under licence by Marston’s for years. It’s simply been given no support by its owners. Where you occasionally found it, it wasn’t bad – if it had been treated right. So the headline is factually inaccurate, and merely draws attention to the fact that if it ever felt like Bass had disappeared from the UK, this was entirely AB-InBev’s fault.
2. The picture: ‘Imported Pale Ale’.
The same visual used at the top of this blog has accompanied every story about this launch in the UK drinks trade press, so it is obviously the image that was sent out by AB-InBev themselves with the release (or at least, I’m assuming it is – for some reason, they no longer send me their press releases directly. Can’t think why.) The reason they won’t sell Bass to anyone else is that even though they may not care about it in the UK, it makes a lot of money for them as an exported beer to markets such as the US and Japan. The image accompanying the story about relaunching Bass in the UK clearly shows a bottle of Bass saying that it is ‘imported’. So either:
(a) They’re planning on brewing UK Bass abroad, for some unfathomable reason, or
(b) They’re going to dishonestly sell beer brewed in Britain as a beer imported to the UK, for reasons, again, that I cannot possibly fathom, or
(c) They couldn’t even be bothered to find an image of what UK Bass will look like to accompany the announcement of its relaunch. If it’s launching in December as stated, the new label – if there is a different one – will have been signed off months ago. But they couldn’t even be arsed to find a reference to it.
3. AB-InBev is launching Bass is to ‘reinvigorate’ and ‘reignite’ the UK’s premium ale category.
The sheer, Trumpish arrogance of it. The UK’s premium ale category is doing just fine, thanks. The astonishing growth of craft beer means that nearly one in four pints in the UK on-trade is now cask ale or craft beer in other formats. Even when you take craft out, ‘premium’ ale is doing way better than ‘standard’. BBPA data shows ‘premium ale’ is more or less steady in volume terms in the on-trade. But here comes AB-InBev to the rescue of a category they haven’t cared about since they arrived in this country. The category doesn’t need ‘reigniting’! Its already on fire. Which is of course the real reason they’re now relaunching Bass after all this time, to exploit a healthy category rather than altruistically reigniting a struggling one.
The press release also reminds us that AB-InBev owns Stella Artois and Budweiser. Without disclosing the actual figures, the Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report shows that in the on-trade, Stella Artois is in single digit decline, Budweiser is in double-digit decline, and so is Stella 4%. Maybe ‘re-ignite’ your core brands first, eh guys?
4. ‘The beer will be made at AB-InBev’s brewery in Samlesbury, Lancashire.’
Because in a market where provenance, tradition and heritage are some of the key drivers, who gives toss where an iconic beer is brewed, am I right? Bass pale ale made Burton-on-Trent the most famous ale brewing town in the world. Across the planet today, pale ale brewers still ‘Burtonise’ their water to give it the unique mineral profile that made Bass so famous. Bass is being brewed right now under license in Burton, by Marston’s. But yeah, let’s relaunch this premium, iconic brand that’s indelibly associated with the world’s most beer town by making it in a factory in another county. While we’re at it, let’s make Cornish pasties in Croatia, Roquefort cheese in Slough, and vintage champagne in Barnsley. Because it doesn’t matter.
5. ‘Bass was the world’s first pale ale.’/’Bass is a pale ale pioneer’.
Oh fuck off. I’m sorry (I’m trying to rein in the bad language and anger on this blog and sounds more professional) but fuck the fuck off. Even the most cursory reading of the history of pale ale/IPA shows this simply isn’t true. Bass was not even Burton-on-Trent’s first pale ale, let alone the world’s. Readily available records of ‘pale ale’ go back at least 160 years before Bass was even founded. Allsopp’s were sending pale ale from Burton to India for almost a decade before Bass got in on the act. There are only two possibilities here: either AB-InBev haven’t even been bothered to read about the history of the brand they’re relaunching, or they are knowingly lying. The problem in this press release – as in any other by this company – is their clear display that all this stuff is just marketing copy to them, to be used in the moment as they see fit, whether it’s accurate or not.
6. ‘We can’t wait to reintroduce shoppers to this historic brand.’
Bear in mind that this is a story specifically about reintroducing Bass to pubs. They could have said ‘pub-goers’, ‘people’, drinkers’, even that lazy catch-all ‘consumers’ – given that beer is actually consumed – but they choose to describe punters at the bar in a pub as ‘shoppers’ instead. To my mind, this suggests that’s all AB-InBev see people as – entities that shop. All that matters is that you buy the beer and hand over your money. But even my assumption is true, it’s still a weird thing to say out loud. No one else describes pub-goers as ‘shoppers’ – it just sounds wrong. It makes it sound like you don’t understand what a pub is. A halfway competent PR might have said, “You know what? This may be typical of the eerily robotic language we use internally, but maybe we should change it to something that sounds more normal and human if we’re speaking publicly.”
I don’t mind that Bass ale is 5.1% ABV. That sounds good, in line with what the style should be. What I do mind is that this is the only detail they see fit to mention about the beer itself. We get stuff about its illustrious history (which AB-InBev had nothing to do with.) We get stuff about its success as an export beer. But true to form for the world’s largest brewery which in fact cares nothing whatsoever about beer, there are no details at all about what ‘shoppers’ can expect if they drink Bass pale ale as opposed to just buying it. Is it brewed to a traditional Bass recipe? Given the focus is on bottles, will it be bottle-conditioned or not? What hops are in it? Will it differ at all from the existing cask version? Is it brewed with traditional British barley or has it been re-worked? FOR GOD’S SAKE WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE? These are the things that people who are truly interested in the premium ale category care about. They seem not to have occurred to the company that thinks it is going to ‘reinvigorate’ that category.
I hope the relaunched Bass ale is a phenomenal beer. I truly do. I’ve probably written more about this brand than any other beer. In the history of food and drink, it is comparable to champagne or cognac in its significance. If it tastes great, I will buy it (can’t imagine there’ll be samples in the post) and I will publicly say that it tastes great. But when the most interesting thing they can say in the press release is that a beer with the same name (I doubt it’s actually the same beer) went down with the Titanic, I only get a sinking feeling.
*Update, 19th November*
I asked AB-InBev on Twitter about the ‘imported’ claim in point 2, above, and they had the courtesy to reply.
It turns out that the bottle featured here is the right bottle, and that AB-InBev do in fact plan on selling Bass dishonestly in the UK as an ‘imported beer’. Their exact response was ‘The name is a nod to its international popularity and to differentiate it from other Bass ales in the UK.’
As I pointed out in response, it’s great that they want to talk to British drinkers about the success of a British-brewed beer overseas. But the correct word to use here would be ‘exported’ – the precise opposite of the word they intend to use on the bottle. The fact that they are also selling the beer in the US-format 355ml bottle instead of the standard UK measures of 330ml or 500ml also leads me to conclude that this is a deliberate and knowing attempt to mislead British drinkers into thinking Bass Ale is an imported beer. That’s why I have now reported this to the Trading Standards Authority.
You may well have seen recent news stories on how craft beer is over, that it’s entered a period of decline. There’s just one problem: this is completely untrue.
Remember the olden days, when these guys were reporting annual volume growth of 55%? How times have changed since, er, 22nd March this year.
“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”
I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty. Was it a trick question? That ‘why do you think this is?’ implied the person asking the question was obviously expecting me to say yes. This was confirmed by a follow up question that asked me to comment on possible reasons why craft beer is “not as popular as it once was.”
The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running. I’d found that seven million British people – equivalent to 14% of the total adult population, or one in four people who drink any alcohol at all – claim to drink craft beer on a regular basis when they’re out in pubs, bars or restaurants. And yet here was a food and drink website believing that craft beer was in decline.
Read these articles, and none of them actually say that craft beer has gone into decline. But a cursory skim of the headline and opening lines of copy, without going into the detail of the claims, could reasonably lead to the impression that craft beer is in decline.
The basis for all these stories is a press release from a market research company called GlobalData, which runs with the title ‘Craft beer fatigue is sending beer and cider consumers in APAC in search of new options.’ Again, that seems pretty definite. The first line of the press release reads, “Alcoholic beverage consumers tend to be novelty seeking, but constant bombardment with craft launches and unusual flavors has led consumers to feel that they are overloaded with choice.” But once again, while a cursory reading of the headline and first few lines of copy would cause any reasonable person to assume craft beer is now in decline, the body of the press release – which is published to promote a new report that costs $1450 to access – doesn’t actually contain any data that supports the idea that craft beer is in decline.
So what does it actually say?
Well, there are certainly some interesting points, even if none of them are exactly news to anyone involved in craft beer.
The main point – the one that seems to be offered in direct support of the headline claims – is that “words such as craft and artisanal are just an excuse to charge extra.” In the Asia-Pacific region – and in North America – 46% of survey respondents agreed with this statement. What none of the UK-based publications who reported the story will tell you is that in Europe, this figure falls to 38% – the lowest of any region in the world. Now, those are, as report author Thomas Vierhile told me in an email, “significant percentages”. But they are still minorities. And as anyone who has been involved in a craft beer discussion on social media or been below the line of a beer story in any national newspaper can attest, it’s hardly new – people have been grumbling about this for years. I first wrote about it for the Morning Advertiser three years ago. At the time, I said that it was a threat to the growth to craft beer, and I still believe it is. But it’s quite a leap to get from there to the claim that people are already walking away from craft beer because of it. This wasn’t true then, and I doubt it’s true now. The research data released by GlobalData’s does not show it to be true, but their press release claims it is.
The press release and summary for the report make two further solid claims. The report states that consumers are becoming more interested in experiences that simple products, citing that 57% of consumers (in Asia Pacific) prefer new experiences to new products. I totally agree, and have done since I worked in advertising twenty years ago, when we said this regularly to our clients. Craft brewers understand this perfectly which is why, instead of building their brands with flashy TV ads (which they couldn’t afford anyway) the most successful craft brewers over the last ten years have built their popularity with experiences and events such as meet the brewer evenings and tap takeovers, limited edition and rare bottle launches, and the growing number and range of beer festivals and other events. The experience economy is a driver of craft beer’s growth – not a threat to it.
Finally, the GlobalData report states that healthier lifestyles and a growing interest in lower alcohol alternatives is a major threat to craft beer. In the Asia Pacific region – it’s not clear why this is the geographic emphasis for a report that did its research globally, unless it could be that this is where the highest figures are – 51% of consumers say health claims influence their choice of alcoholic drinks (hang on – I thought alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed to make any health claims?) and 53% say they plan on cutting down on booze for health reasons. These figures fall to 38% and 37% if you look at the global data, but never mind that. I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a significant trend. That’s why, unless craft brewers start to develop lower strength session beers, explore concepts such as table beer and start to make some decent tasting low/no alcohol beers, they could be heading for a fall. Oh no, hang on – my mistake – these have been some of the most dynamic trends driving craft beer’s development for several years now. Never mind.
So: a level of cynicism about the appropriation of the term ‘craft beer’ to charge higher prices, growing interest in experiences over products, and growing interest in healthier drinks – all of which the craft beer industry has known about and acted upon for years – are being added together by GlobalData to create the claim that drinkers feel ‘overloaded with choice’ and that this has led to a ‘devaluation of the “craft” concept’ which is now ‘sending beer and cider consumers… in search of new options’. This, in turn, has led drinks trade press journalists to state definitively that we are suffering craft beer fatigue, and this in turn has led at least one consumer food and drink publication to ask why craft beer is in decline before eventually running with the headline ‘Is Craft Beer Dying?‘
I hope my answers to the questions I was posed by Munchies helped get that title turned into a question rather than a statement. But still, this is how fake news happens. In researching this piece, Google took me to articles going back several years claiming that the craft boom is over, when hindsight shows it wasn’t. GlobalData was behind a similar flurry of these back in August last year, but they’re not the only culprits. I chose the picture of BrewDog, above, because on the same day Munchies asked if craft beer was dying, the Scottish craft beer pioneer posted results showing 55% volume growth in 2017. Some commentators pointed out that this is lower than in previous years. As if 55% growth in a year is somehow a bit shit.
“We are not necessarily saying that craft beer has gone into decline,” admitted GlobalData’s Thomas Vierhile when I challenged the company over their claims. “But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”
I think that’s absolutely fair enough.
He continued, “As popular as craft beer is, it does not appear to be moving the global beer consumption needle and it may not be the savior for the beer industry that some may perceive it to be,” citing the fact that while other categories of alcoholic drinks are growing, the total global beer market is shrinking. This means that either the growth craft beer is experiencing by recruiting new drinkers to beer is not enough to compensate for existing beer drinkers drinking less/switching to other drinks, or that craft is cannibalising mainstream beer, taking volume from the big boys within a declining market.
That’s certainly food for thought, and craft brewers should certainly take note of the report’s genuine findings stated above, if for some reason they weren’t already aware of them. But GlobalData’s press release – which I’m sure Thomas Vierhile didn’t write – categorically states that consumers are suffering craft beer fatigue and are going looking for something else instead. The data presented simply does not show this at all, says nothing about a ‘bombardment of new launches or unusual flavours’, and presents no evidence that consumers are walking away from the category. But these claims have been picked up and repeated, without question.
So why would a company that produces market research reports that cost $1450 a pop want to spread false claims about craft beer? Well I dunno, but who in the beer industry can afford to spend $1450 on a 57-page market report? And what would companies like that feel about craft beer? What would they want to happen to it? I’m just spitballing here, merely speculating to create specious claims. But that does seem to be par for the course these days.
Exploring the tricky territory of free stuff and paid-for recommendations.
Last week, I was asked if I’d like to become an Amazon influencer. “The idea is pretty simple,” said the e-mail from the guy at Upfluence.com, “You’ll have your own page on Amazon.com where you can recommend your favorite products and earn money on qualifying purchases made through your page.”
This guy, Doug, approached me because he’d seen my Twitter profile and thought it made me a perfect candidate. I’m guessing he was looking simply at the number of followers I have rather than anything I actually tweet, because if he’d read my tweets he’d have realised pretty quickly that I live in the UK and therefore don’t have any dealings with the American Amazon.com. But that’s not the main reason I’ve ignored Doug’s emails.
Is its just me or is this a really odd concept? Is anyone reading this and thinking, “Ooh, I occasionally read Pete’s writing about beer or cider, I wonder what deodorant he’d recommend or what brand of toner refill cartridge he uses?”
I just find the whole idea of identifying as an ‘influencer’ really odd. I hope I am influential: I’ve spoken to several people who left their jobs and started working in beer or even opened their own breweries after reading something I’ve written. But it’s like being labelled a ‘consumer’ or ‘shopper’ – it’s something we do, not something we are.
I’m aware that some people make their money doing this, creating vlogs or Instagram feeds where they talk about the latest make up products they’ve been sent for free. It strikes me as a rather sad way of living, and I’m astonished that it works: if you know someone is recommending products purely because they are being paid to do so by the people selling them, why would you believe anything they say?
It reminds me of another disturbing trend in the beer world.
Each week, I get sent beer and cider for free by brewers or cider makers who are keen to hear what I think about it. I’m always grateful to receive it. If someone asks me for personal, private feedback, I always endeavour to give it, but sometimes fail if I’m too busy. I now review beers for Original Gravity magazine, and if I really like a beer, I’ll write it up for that. But I don’t do beer reviews on this blog: it’s not the aspect of beer writing that interests me personally, and there are a great many other people doing it perfectly well.
Increasingly, I’m getting e-mails from brewers – or more often, from junior PR execs working on their behalf – offering me free beer in exchange for a review. Sometimes, they offer free beer in exchange for a positive review. Each time I get an email like this, I write back thanking them, and explaining my approach as outlined above – I can’t promise a good review, or any review at all, but it might get one if it’s really good, so if that sounds OK, here’s my address. And every single time, I never hear from them again – no response to my email, and no beer in the mail.
I don’t do this job to try to get free beer, and I think there’s something dodgy about people for whom that’s a main motivation. But there’s also something dodgy about brewers or PRs who see this as a transactional relationship. I guess the reason they never write back is that they’d have to admit in writing that they’re only interested in sending beer out to people who promise to write something nice about it, and that really doesn’t look great on paper. If you know you’re only getting a positive review because that was the condition on which the beer was sent, how can you take any satisfaction from reading it? And how can anyone trust the person writing it?
Some of us draw the line in different places. I know some writers who refuse any free beer and will only review stuff they’ve paid for themselves. I respect that, even if I don’t go that far. I get a lot of free beer, and I only review a small fraction of it, so I know that the fact that I didn’t pay for it has not influenced my decision to review it. The few reviews I do write are always a mix of beer I’ve been sent and beer I’ve bought and paid for in a pub or bottle shop.
Next week, I’m off on a press trip to Catalonia. This is being fully paid for by the Catalan tourist board. I expect that at least some of us on the trip will receive some fairly sharp criticism on social media when we start tweeting about it, for accepting such hospitality. Again, I know writers who never accept such trips and respect them for it. I’m going because I’ve been keen to check out the explosion in Spanish craft beer for several years now and think there will be some genuinely interesting stories, but haven’t been able to afford to do it under my own steam. Will my reporting of the trip be influenced by the fact that I’m being given hospitality? I don’t believe so (beyond the fact that I’m actually there, of course.) But any story I write about it will carry a disclaimer explaining that it’s been paid for by someone else, so the reader can make up their own mind.
Communicators in any discipline who have a decent-sized following are in a privileged position. People put their trust in what we write. Especially when we write about our own personal experiences, there’s an unwritten contract with the reader that we will be open and honest. If I were to start recommending things purely because I was being paid or rewarded for making those recommendations, my integrity would be trashed. The trust of my readers would, quite rightly, evaporate.
We live at a time when big data is replacing creativity. The Upfluence guy only cared about the number of followers I have on Twitter, not the content or nature of my tweets, nor why those people have chosen to follow my account. The brewery’s PR firm isn’t really interested in what I think of the beer; they just want to submit a report boasting of how many pieces of coverage they achieved.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think true influence is harder earned, and much more precious than that.
Yesterday, it was announced that Dark Star Brewing had been bought by Fuller’s. In a much longer reader than I’d anticipated, here are some thoughts on how we might process such an event if it’s our favourite brewery being acquired…
You say ending, they say new beginning. Who’s right?
In every business, companies get bought and sold all the time. Brewing is, when all is said and done, a business first and foremost, in that if you don’t make more money by selling stuff than you spend on making it, you cannot survive.
But to many, craft brewing often feels like something more than just a business. It’s also a movement. Our favourite breweries often represent a set of principles and attitudes, a lifestyle, perhaps even a moral point of view, as well as making beers we enjoy drinking. This might entail a commitment to experimentation over convention, independence over conformity, living large rather than being cautious, or some other kind of anti-establishment or anti-corporate stance. Many craft beer fans are stuck in corporate jobs themselves, unable or unwilling to take their own risky leap into the unknown, and so they live vicariously through their favourite brewers, buying their beers to support principled decisions and actions they identify with and aspire to.
When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.
These are not always rational or fair reactions, and they’re certainly not always justified, but given the high degree of emotional involvement around craft brewing, they’re entirely understandable.
Craft brewers have a long history of collaboration with each other, but rarely, if ever, do two craft breweries of comparable size decide to merge to further their mutual interest. Invariably, it’s a case of a larger, older, more conservative and established business buying a smaller, younger, more adventurous one. And that’s always going to set the alarm bells ringing. Instinctively, that alarm is rationalised through a fear that the beers will change: the accountants and marketing people will get involved. They’ll cut costs so the beer won’t be as good. They’ll dumb it down to appeal to a mass market. They’ll close the brewery down and brew it in a big factory instead, and it will never taste the same. Then you move on to the company itself: people will lose their jobs, and I care about these people (even if I’ve never met them.) But it’s the emotional bond, the identification with the brewery, that underlies such concerns.
But such takeovers are going to become increasingly common over the next few years. Craft beer as an overall segment looks set to grow indefinitely, even if the rate of that growth will slow down as the scene matures. But the number of outlets available in which to sell craft beer are arguably fixed – the number of pubs is declining. Supermarkets are steady. Specialist bottle shops are growing, as are alternative outlets such and festivals and special events. But these account for a tiny proportion of the total route to market. We’ve had such an incredible growth in the number of breweries in the UK – more than trebling since the millennium – that we have a massively increasing number of breweries chasing a limited number of fonts on the bar and spaces on the shelf. The most exciting – and, it has to be said, the most fashionable – breweries have no trouble securing their route to market. But many struggle to get space. Even when they get a place on the bar, the fickle consumer says, ‘Yes, I’ve had that one, what else have you got?’ and there’s always another one waiting to take their place.
Some brewers just can’t make a living. Others are getting by, but want to grow so they can make themselves and their families more financially comfortable, or hire more people so they can work fewer than eighty hours a week. Growth takes investment, and investment requires more growth to pay it off – if you can secure it in the first place in an uncertain financial climate when you’re one of several hundred breweries seeking it. For some, the answer is crowdfunding, but how many breweries are you going to invest in? Sometimes, selling simply makes most sense. And like I said, it happens in every single industry.
So when your favourite brewery goes, is it a catastrophe or is it salvation? Ultimately, only time will tell. I hate making predictions because they’re often wrong. But there are some questions you can ask that might provide clues – if you can discern the true answers beneath the spin, that is…
Did the brewery want to sell or not?
If it’s a hostile takeover, you can be sure there will be blood. But such takeovers usually only take place if both companies are already listed on the stock exchange. If a brewery is privately owned, no one can force them to sell. Someone can make them an offer they can’t refuse (commonly known as ‘a Camden’) but there are two actors in any sale, and too often we just look at is as the big guy snapping up the small guy.
What’s in it for the seller?
Obviously, for the individuals running the brewery, there’s personal wealth. If you’re doing a well-paid job to support yourself and a family, I’d think very carefully about accusing someone of ‘selling out’ on this score. Those people likely put their houses and all their savings on the line to build this thing, and worked longer hours, for less money, than you ever have.
But that’s rarely the only reason for selling – there can be benefits for the brewery too. That beer you love is getting access to a bigger sales force with a wider distribution. The biggest limit on a brewery’s growth is its fermentation capacity. New fermentation vessels are expensive. When Molson Coors bought Sharp’s, many predicted the Cornish brewery would be closed by its new owners. Instead, those new owners delivered lots of shiny new fermenters. OK, so bottled Doom Bar is now brewed in Burton, where there’s greater bottling capacity, but six years after the acquisition, Sharp’s cask ale is still brewing in Cornwall (like it or not.)
On the other hand, is there any dissent in the ranks? When Elysian was bought by A-B Inbev, while the official line was delight around ‘joining forces’, the head brewer quickly walked. Watching how long the key people stick around beyond any mandatory period is usually a good indicator of whether or not the sale was just for the money.
What’s in its for the buyer?
It does seem as though the strategies of the big guys are changing. Historically in the UK, most pubs were owned by breweries. When a brewery was taken over, invariably it was so the acquirer could get their hands on the pubs, and the brewery itself would invariably be closed down (take a bow, Greene King.) It’s also common practice traditionally in any market to buy an annoying competitor just to get rid of them, running down a business you couldn’t beat in the marketplace.
If a non-craft brewery buys a craft brewery that doesn’t own a big pub estate, they want it for the beers themselves and/or for the brand. They want it because they can’t brew and sell those beers within their existing brand portfolio. Now, they don’t lack the brewing expertise to do that – they probably have far better equipment and access to higher quality raw ingredients, and it’s easy (and much cheaper) for them to poach a brewer from a small craft brewery rather than buy the whole thing. What they’re paying for is credibility, an established audience, goodwill, and to a lesser extent, recipes (which they could replicate pretty closely if they had to.)
But the main reason bigger breweries buy smaller ones is that their systems and scale prevent them from acting in the same way as smaller, nimbler, craft brands. Processes designed to sell big commodity brands can’t keep pace with the craft market. So when they do buy these breweries, they tend to run them as separate entities that don’t conform to the same practices as the big brands. A-B Inbev’s many craft acquisitions sit in a separate craft division with its own CEO. Carlsberg is running London Fields as a separate company. Heineken knows it hasn’t a clue about cask ale, so when it acquired Scottish brewery Caledonian, they went big on improving health and safety but apart from that they left the brewhouse alone. These companies aren’t being altruistic about this – they know that if they tried to run it directly, they’d fuck up the thing they just paid a lot of money for.
If the purchased brewery’s brands start getting brewed in the big brewery, using big brewery logistics, there may be some cause for concern (or they may actually be improved on more modern kit.) But if the beer is still being made in the original brewery, by the same people under different management, there’s a chance that even your understandable suspicion that the recipe may be dumbed down is unfounded. I hate the rebranding of Goose Island IPA as ‘Goose’, but Bourbon County Stout, and the range of wood-aged beers produced by Goose Island, remain at least as outstanding as they ever were.
The real threat of these acquisitions is to the broader world of craft, and is a little more insidious and harder to detect. The brewer wants your favourite craft brand because they don’t have anything similar themselves. They don’t want to fuck it up. The brewhouse is probably safe. But then it gets into the hands of an aggressive sales force. The brand might be discounted to push it into wider distribution, which is great for a skint drinker but can take the sheen off the brand’s standing. Or, if it’s a very popular brand, it might be used as a bargaining chip: “Yeah, we’ll sell you the super-cool, sexy craft beer brand we just acquired, but only if you permanently take these other craft beer brands off the bar, and stock our shitty lager as well.” Your favourite beer is still safe, but the brand is tarnished by the new company it keeps, and by the fact that it’s no longer allowed to mix with its old mates. This may sound like paranoia, but it’s common practice. When I worked on Stella Artois, I saw first-hand how both aggressive discounting and aggressive package deals were used to massively inflate the growth of what had been a niche, cult brand with a good deal of credibility. A few years later, it became what we know it to be today.
What past form does the buyer have?
So is your favourite craft beer brand going to go down this route or not? Well, there’s big and big. I’m always confused by the outcry when Duvel Moortgat buys a craft brewery, because Duvel Moortgat makes some of the best beers in the world. One Dark Star fan lamented yesterday on social media that his favourite brewery is now part of just another corporate behemoth. Fuller’s may be many things, but it’s a minnow in the world of corporate beer. Fuller’s has also demonstrated a commitment to the world and ethos of craft beer matched by few of its peers. Yes, Fuller’s also closed the Gales brewery and quietly retired some of its brands after buying that, but the circumstances were different than they are with Dark Star.
Ultimately, each case has to be judged individually.
As craft brewery acquisitions gather pace, there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that the demise in the quality and integrity of a once-loved brand is by no means guaranteed. But if your true objection to acquisitions is that they run against the ethos of whatever you define ‘craft beer’ to be, that big corporates should have no place on the indie scene, then prepare for further disappointment: ultimately, everyone is for sale.