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.
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’?