Apropos of nothing in particular, and definitely nothing to do with today’s news about a certain North London brewer, I thought this month I would pose the question of how important it is for breweries to stay independent as part of their reputation as authentically ‘craft’, and why exactly it is that consumers care so much when a brewery ‘sells out’ to a multinational.
After some consideration, I’ve come to the view that independence is only as important to a craft brewery as it chooses to make it important. A brewery that never brags about its independence and doesn’t use it as a tool to market and sell its product is unlikely to face a huge backlash if it decides to cash in and sell to a multinational. However, a brewery that places independence at the forefront of its identity and ethos is much more likely to need to hold onto that independence to be seen as authentic and credible.
I think what matters most in terms of authenticity is transparency. The 21st century drinker increasingly wants to know what is in their beer, who it was made by and where it comes from. As long as this information is readily available to the consumer, then they can assess the product’s authenticity for themselves and decide if it is something they want to support and drink.
The problem comes when brands attempt to hide where their beer is made, or who bankrolls their brewery. I was recently sent a couple of cans from a brewery called DE14, and nowhere on the can label or design did it mention that the beers are brewed by and at Marston’s brewery. This type of deceptive marketing, which enables a large multinational brand to masquerade as craft and mislead consumers, undermines the entire ethos of what ‘craft beer’ stands for. Transparency enables customers to come to their own conclusions about a product’s authenticity, and by extension, its ‘craft’ credentials.
On the subject of why customers become so angry and enraged when a brewery decides to sell out, I think this comes down to a combination of drinkers feeling cheated by a brand that they feel they have an emotional connection to, and fears about the future quality of the product.
We become attached to particular brands that we feel we share a commonality with, and we become invested emotionally (and sometimes financially) in their fortunes. Hence, when an outside influence comes in and potentially disrupts or changes that relationship, we feel threatened, and react negatively. We also fear that the outside influence, with its inferior knowledge and lack of emotional connection to the brand, will be more concerned with profit than quality, and as a result the beers we know and love will deteriorate.
I personally happen to think both of these reasons are pretty poor justifications for getting angry about a brewery sale. I often compare the fierce brand loyalty that exists within craft beer to supporting a football team, and what happens when a football team is taken over by new ownership? Supporters don’t turn their back on a club they have followed all their life because it changes hands, and in the vast majority of cases the club’s fortunes are likely to improve as more money is invested into improving its team and infrastructure.
So… Why the anger when it comes to craft beer?
James Beeson is the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Best Young Beer Writer 2017. You can read more of his work on his website Beeson On Beer, in The Morning Advertiser, or by following him on Twitter @jdbeeson16.