Acivil war is brewing in the normally convivial craft beer fraternity, as anxiety grows about the threat posed by multinational companies’ insatiable thirst for every last drop of the market.
Heineken and Molson Coors are both “associate members” of the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba), a situation that rankles with some of its members.
In a recent ballot on the issue, they voted 101 to 60 to end the situation, but the motion did not carry because change requires a majority of all 861 members to vote in favour, and most did not turn up to do so.
Even if the big boys of brewing are shown the door, however, misgivings will persist. Heineken and Molson along with Budweiser’s owner, AB InBev (ABI), and Carlsberg have teamed up with Siba to provide funding for the “There’s a Beer for That” campaign, an industry-wide promotional initiative.
“They should be nowhere near anything that we do as they are the complete antithesis of everything we stand for,” said Tom McNeill of Heavy Industry Brewing in Denbighshire, north Wales.
Craft beer aficionados have good reason to mistrust major brewers beyond a distaste for bland beer. Heineken is persona non grata among some pub owners after its deal to buy thousands of pubs via a takeover of Punch Taverns, a deal many fear will lead to less choice at the bar.
The Dutch company was also fined for market abuse in Greece, where it was found guilty of trying to exclude smaller competitors from the market.
Carlsberg recently muscled in on the UK craft beer scene with a deal for London Fields Brewery, and Molson has also shown an appetite for smaller rivals in the US. It’s a trend that makes indie brewers break out in a cold, barley-scented sweat.
Nor is Siba alone in hosting unlikely bedfellows. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), the collective that thumps the tub for cask ale, accepted sponsorship for its Great British Beer Festival from the delivery company Beer Hawk.
The conflict was not apparent until it became clear that Beer Hawk is owned by ABI, a company that invites perhaps more suspicion than any other among beer lovers.BI agreed a $100bn (£76bn) deal to take over its only real rival SABMiller last year but has not rested on its laurels. The company’s thirst to dominate the global beer market is nothing short of relentless, evidenced by its determination to swallow up much of what moves in the beer world.
In the UK, it is most famous for taking over Camden Town Brewery, a deal some brewers fear will ultimately diminish the brand’s quality and innovation. Camden was just the latest domino to fall in a chain of craft breweries ABI has snapped up for its High End portfolio, but its horizons stretch far further.
RateBeer is a smartphone app that lets pub-goers rate brews as they drink them, sharing reviews and bookmarking tipples they might forget in the fug of the morning after. ABI bought a minority stake earlier this year and, while there is nothing to suggest it will be able to tamper with ratings, many users are unhappy.
Their concerns are particularly acute given that ABI accounts for half of the 20 worst-rated beers on RateBeer.
It has also tightened its grip on the international supply of key ingredients. Buying SABMiller saw ABI annex vast swaths of South African hop fields that produce sought-after varieties. These will be now be diverted exclusively to “craft” brands within the ABI estate, affecting rivals’ ability to make interesting new brews.
ABI has also opened a bar in Balham under its Goose Island brand, with more UK outlets expected to follow. That puts it in direct competition not only with pubs, but also with up-and-coming British breweries which rely on income from their tap-house bars to keep going.
Concerns about ABI’s grip on larger scale distribution in the US even attracted the attention of the Department of Justice, which forced the company to stop practices limiting the ability of smaller rivals to distribute their wares.
Practices like these make it easy to understand why craft brewers might see their larger rivals as an existential threat. Some now feel that those who are supposed to represent their interests are increasingly complicit in the big brewers’ efforts to choke off or co-opt the so-called craft beer revolution.
Siba and Camra might well look at the history of revolutions and remember that it doesn’t always end well for their leaders.