Is It OK Not To Be OK With Brewery Takeovers in 2016?

A few years ago if a big brewery took over a small one, it was a disaster — (almost) everyone agreed. But now, is the consensus in the process of swinging the other way?

In yesterday’s News, Nuggets & Longreads round-up we mentioned in passing that New Zealand brewery Panhead had been taken over by Lion and that people generally seemed fine with this. This prompted Luke Robertson, who is based in Australia and blogs at Ale of A Time, to drop us an email. Quoted with his permission, here’s a chunk of what he said:

To me it feels like people don’t want to be lumped in with the stereotypical angry beer nerds. So as a result everyone comes out in 100% full support without a hint of any concern. I mentioned to a good friend yesterday that I think everyone is trying to outdo each other in that aspect. With blindly positive cheering and clapping. The more positive, the better; regardless of what you actually feel.

Deep down I think there is a lot of concern. Panhead are beloved and the founder is a great guy who has built a great and unique brand with the beers to back it up. While Lion have handled their acquisitions amazingly well in both Aus and NZ, I think if people were pressed on the issue they wouldn’t be as in support as they are in public… I may be way off base but the lack of dissenting opinion, or anything that isn’t ‘Yay isn’t this awesome?! GO BEER!’ is beginning to all seem a bit fake.

Second guessing whether what people say is sincere, unless you know them personally and well, is a mug’s game, but we have certainly noticed the same shift in the (ahem) ‘discourse’ and felt uneasy about it.

The Small is Beautiful party line goes something like this: big breweries taking over little ones is never good news; those breweries lose their character and the beers get more boring; and overall consumer choice is reduced as those beers become more ubiquitous. (We have some sympathy with this view.) And the most extreme critics — the angriest of the beer nerds — argue that it’s all part of a global conspiracy to crush or at least control the threat of craft beer. (Which can sound a bit hysterical but that doesn’t mean there’s not something in it.)

Let’s wait and see if the beer changes before we complain, goes one of the well-established, more neutral lines of argument. This is might be good news, goes another, because takeovers can increase the availability of a beloved brand, and might also improve quality and consistency. (On which more in a later post.) And these kinds of deals get craft beer into more outlets and so spread the word, advance the cause.

What we’ve been hearing in the last year or so, though, as the pace of acquisitions has stepped up, is something else: an expectation that drinkers won’t just accept takeovers, or cautiously welcome them, but will be delighted by them.

At the same time, anyone who does have concerns is dismissed as immature, or as a god-damned tree-hugging hippy who should go and live in Soviet Russia if they hate capitalism so much. (Sorry, straw-manning there. But only a bit.) Dissent is hysteria — we got in on the act with this two paras up, for goodness’ sake — and dissenters are loons.

Maybe this is just a natural turn for the conversation to take — the result of fatigue after a decade or two of evangelising, whooping, branded T-shirt-wearing hop-tattoo craft beer tribal triumphalism. And perhaps there’s some old-fashioned hipsterish contrarianism in it, too.

"Likes Mainstream because liking mainstream is non-mainstream" hipster meme.

At any rate, if we were in charge of PR for a multi-national brewing firm we’d be delighted. The outstanding question is, would we also be taking credit? Would we be looking at a bill for lobbying and ‘influencing’ — a sponsorship deal here, a blogger outreach event there — and thinking, ‘Well, that was money well-spent’?

QUICK ONE: The Young Americans

Beer bottles on shelves.
Shelves at Hops + Crafts pictured in October 2015.

A few weeks back we spoke to Chris Harper who runs Hops + Crafts, a specialist beer shop in Exeter.

Chris is an American, from Georgia, and among other things (most of which will turn up in our column in Devon Life magazine next month) he said this, shaking his head in astonishment:

I called up Northern Monk [Brew Co] to talk about buying some beer and the guy who answered the phone… He was from Georgia! From the same town! We went. To rival. High schools.

It struck us as weird back in 2013 that we could interview two Californian brewers 20 minutes apart across the Somerset Levels, and this is more of the same. (Brew Britannia, Chapter Sixteen, ‘The Outer Limits’.)

We tend to roll our eyes at people who complain about the Americanisation of UK culture for various reason, not least being that you only have to watch Brits awkwardly eating US-style barbecue at communal tables, elbows pressed to their sides, with cutlery, as we did in Bristol the weekend before last, to realise it’s not going to take.

But it does seem that a slightly higher proportion of people involved in craft beer in the UK (definition 2) are from the US than might be expected to have arisen by chance.

Maybe we ought to speak to some more people and write something longer on this.

That’s Not A Story Pt 2: Doom vs. Triumph

Stories about beer, especially in the mainstream press, often seem to follow one of two templates: collapse and defeat, or resurgence and triumph. But the truth is often somewhere in between.

We were going to say ‘Boringly, the truth is often somewhere in between’ but then we thought, hold on — it’s not as boring as the default positions of Oh Woe! or Yay, Awesome! trotted out time after time, seemingly on auto-pilot.

In the article we’ve just written about mild for All About Beer we touch upon this tendency because mild has been the subject of many overly-optimistic MILD IS BACK! articles over the years. They’re expressions of wishful thinking, or propaganda, or a bit of both. Our argument is essentially that mild is in the process of becoming, like Gose or Berliner Weisse, a local curiosity — not extinct, just rare, a base for experimentation, and of more interest to we nerds than to drinkers in the real world.

Continue reading “That’s Not A Story Pt 2: Doom vs. Triumph”

Session #111: A Beer Mid-Life Crisis?

Does our relationship with beer, and obsessing over beer, and writing about beer, go through ups and downs? Oh yes. Is it different now to in 2005? Definitely.

This month Session host Oliver Gray asks:

Do you find it hard to muster the same zeal for beer as you did a few years ago? Are you suffering through a beer-life crisis like I am? If so, how do you deal with it?

When we first started to take an interest in beer, we were like those wide-eyed kids walking through the doors into Willie Wonka’s factory for the first time: ‘Come with me/ And you’ll see/ A world of pure imagination…’

That Michael Jackson coffee table book that was our guide told us about beers, breweries, entire types of beer, that we’d never heard of and that needed hunting down. If we wanted to taste, say, a particular American IPA, we needed intel, a full day off, and probably at least two forms of public transport. Every weekend brought us a new experience, and every holiday abroad was an opportunity to learn something new.

Continue reading “Session #111: A Beer Mid-Life Crisis?”

QUICK ONE: Reinheitsgebot as Flashpoint

We expected the 500th anniversary of the German beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, to generate lots of coverage but we hadn’t expected it to be so testy.

It turns out that this has become another flashpoint in the battle between two vague, fuzzy-edged groups within the world of beer.

The Reinheitsgebot stifles innovation!’ say the cavaliers; ‘“Innovation” my arse!’cry the roundheads.

And the Campaign for Real Ale’s Revitalisation project (consultation closes on Saturday, by the way) seems to have caused a flare up in another stretch of the previously fairly calm demilitarised border area.

POSTER: Captain America: Civil War

As we say, the edges are fuzzy, but it seems to be more or less the same groups bickering over clarity vs. haze, cask vs. keg, strong vs. session, boring vs. balanced, weird additives vs. malt, hipsters vs. squares, craft vs. ‘craft’, Simcoe vs. Fuggles, and so on.

The division feels weird to us — on both sides, more about attitudes, feelings, personalities, grudges and prejudices than anything concrete. It’s tribal, even almost religious.

Meanwhile, in the real world (as we Tweeted yesterday) Cascade hops and dark lager are still regarded as exotic, and we couldn’t buy a hazy beer in Penzance if we wanted to.