I feel a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day here. I'm sure I've been here before and I'm sure I've started this article at least three times prior to this attempt. I mean, what's the alternative - that I'm going mental? Or mentaller, if that's a word...
You're probably reading this (you being the three people who regularly frequent the site and about 40 web spiders) thinking "Huh? What are you talking about, you mental bastard?" And that's OK - I haven't really explained myself very well here. See, the article that you're reading just now (you three and the spiders) has been started - and deleted - multiple times before. In an alternate universe, that article was published. It was an angry, ranty, sweary beast, that was written by me, but might as well have been ghost-written by Scott...
"It was an angry, ranty, sweary beast, that was written by me, but might as well have been ghost-written by Scott."
In that article, the alternate me - a slightly younger, less haggard, less handsome version of yours truly - went off on one about "big beer" - the InBev's, the Carlsberg's, the Anheuser Busch..s? (Busches? Buschi?) - for buying up craft breweries, in an attempt to woo craft beer enthusiasts. That article basically rambled on for a few pages, not really getting anywhere and not really coming to any conclusions. In short, it was a mess and as such, it will never see the light of day.
Flip back to this universe for a second (don't worry - we won't wait here for long) and current events have come together in such a way that the idea behind that article suddenly seems relevant again.
If you keep up with current craft beer news (and why wouldn't you?) you'll probably be aware of the recent acquisition of Beavertown Brewery by Heineken. Details are a bit scarce on how much of a stake was bought by Heineken - the words "minority stake" appear in a lot of articles, then followed by figures like "£40million". Now, even if you're the son of a legendary rock singer, £40million isn't exactly a drop in the ocean. This is a big deal, with ridiculous figures being banded around for a company who just earlier this year were valued at around £3million.
At this point in my alternate article, I'd be ranting about the sale, talking about "selling out" and "losing your core values", blah blah blah blah. Proper wanky stuff. But I've mellowed recently and now, when I see something like this, my first thought is "Good on them. They've clearly paid their dues, worked hard to build their company up and make some really interesting, tasty beers. Why shouldn't they reap the rewards?" And when company founder, Logan Plant, makes statements saying things like "My wife and I remain in full control of the company" and "We've been very lucky - Heineken said to us, 'Here's £40 million, build this dream'", it's difficult to see what - if anything - they've done wrong. They retain control of the company and the direction it takes, plus get a big chunk of cash to build a new brewery, creating 150 new jobs in the process. And try to keep a straight face reading the follow up statement from Heineken: "Our minority investment means they can make their dream of Beaverworld a reality."
"Logan Plant explained 'My wife and I remain in full control of the company. We've been very lucky - Heineken said to us, 'Here's £40 million, build this dream'"
Before, if I'd seen news like this - like when Heineken acquired a 49% stake in Brixton Brewery, or when Heineken (again) took complete control of Lagunitas - I'd have been wailing all over town about the fall of craft beer and how "the Man" was nudging its way into our industry. Now it's more a reaction of "Meh, as long as the beer isn't affected".
But then something else happened that made me sit up and take notice. In the days since the Beavertown buy out was announced, a number of other independent craft breweries who were signed up to appear at the Beavertown Extravaganza in around 11 weeks time, started pulling out of the event. The first I heard about it, was when Scott pinged me a message on Instagram and a similar one on Twitter, showing a statement from Buxton Brewery. In their statement, Buxton spoke about how the BT/Heineken deal made them feel "...hugely distanced from them in terms of what we do and how, and why. We simply do not wish to work with such a company, when small independent breweries are faced with so many challenges, and the ongoing encroachment into the "craft sector" by big beer continues apace."
I'll be honest - my first reaction to their statement was "Well that's a bit wanky, is it not?" Yes, the craft beer industry has taken off massively in recent years and yes, it can be difficult for small, independent breweries to gain a foothold. But shouldn't you be happy that your friends and colleagues are getting a big break like this? Shouldn't you be happy that a great brand now has the potential to reach so many other people? From that statement, it sounds more like you're jealous of their achievement, rather than genuinely worried about the industry as a whole.
Of course big businesses are going to "encroach" into other sectors, in an attempt to snuff out competition, or to save them the time and energy of researching and developing similar products. It's been going on for years - Microsoft have built their whole business model out of similar tactics. With regards to the craft sector though, from the outside looking in, many of the deals seemed fair. You have many of the original founders remaining in charge of their company, albeit on a corporate pay-cheque. The beer doesn't change, neither does the direction of the company. The main change comes from having a huge input of cash, meaning that previously untouchable markets become available and production can be ramped up to meet new targets.
"My first reaction was 'Well that's a bit wanky, is it not?'"
There's always that element of "selling out" that goes with a big sale, which is understandable, if somewhat strange. I don't think there is a person among us who, given the right set of circumstances and the opportunity, wouldn't want to set themselves up for life with a massive cash injection. I mean yeah, there are nutcases that go back to work in Asda after winning the lottery. But for the rest of us, the idea of being able to live out all of your dreams is something that would be difficult to resist.
But then other information started coming out that made me pause for thought. And this is where the water started to muddy a bit for me. Cloudwater Brew Co, another brewery who had signed up for the BT Extravaganza, released a statement saying that they were also pulling out of the festival. And honestly, their statement was a bit more eye opening that the Buxton one.
I'll admit to having the blinkers on sometimes when it comes to beer. Sometimes, beer is just beer. It's something I like to drink and I'll buy whatever I like the taste of, without really getting into the politics or the ethics of it. Most of the beer I buy is from craft brewers who I like to think probably aren't out clubbing seals to death, or kidnapping children. And as for the big boys - I mean, yeah, they're muscling into the craft sector, but that's all about how much more cash they can add to their Scrooge McDuck-style vaults, isn't it? How bad can it really be?
The answer - at least as far as Heineken is concerned - is "pretty bad". And the Cloudwater statement definitely goes a long way to explain a lot of the shit that's been going on. Shit, which I have to admit to being completely oblivious to. Where to start...?
"Most of the beer I buy is from craft brewers who I like to think probably aren't out clubbing seals to death, or kidnapping children."
Well, there's the £23million (around €32million) fine handed out to Heineken by the Greek Courts for market manipulation and unfair exclusivity agreements. Or the breaching of human rights and alleged collusion with rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or the exploitation of labour loopholes in South Africa, to allow them to continue using low paid, overworked staff, with little or no worker protection. There are also allegations of them allowing widespread sexual abuse of employees, collusion with dictators, tax evasion and human rights failures, and suggestions of operations working within genocidal regimes. At this point in time, if I'd read that they were actually clubbing seals and kidnapping children, I probably wouldn't have been that surprised.
And this brings us back to the Beavertown/Heineken deal. Looking at all the facts about Heineken and their working practices, it's difficult to work out what possible motive there could be behind the decision to make this deal. Logan Plant, the founder of BT, is the son of Robert Plant. Yes, that Robert Plant. A quick Google search advises that Mr Plant Snr's Net Worth is somewhere in the region of £130million. Now, I don't think it's a massive stretch of the imagination to suggest that Mr Plant Jnr probably had a pretty decent upbringing and cash isn't something that he really had to worry about. I also don't think it's another stretch of the imagination to suggest that he probably could have continued to run Beavertown as he was doing, making good beer and decent cash, without giving in and selling a chunk of his business to Heineken and thus pissing off a load of other people. So if the cash wasn't his motive, then what was it? What possible motive could he have for selling up a chunk of his business to a company who have less scruples than Robert Maxwell?
"What possible motive could he have for selling up a chunk of his business to a company who have less scruples than Robert Maxwell?"
We could sit and speculate forever on the motives, without coming close to the real reason. The only people who truly know the truth, are Logan Plant, his wife and possibly some of the people who work at Beavertown. I can't imagine that he aligns himself with any of their abhorrent working practices and as discussed in the previous paragraph, the money doesn't sound like it could be a big factor. So is it just a case of doing a deal with the Devil, to give your business the capital it needs to grow? His official statement on the Beavertown website doesn't give much away - it's basically just some sound bites and corporate speak.
Logan previously went on record to talk about Beavertown and his love for "his babies" (i.e. his beer). He's answered Q&A sessions where he comes across as both passionate and knowledgeable about craft beer. But he's a man who still decided to cash in and sell up to the brewery equivalent of Mr Burns.
And for what? Sure, there's the chance to expand the business, but will there be anyone left who actually wants to drink Beavertown's beer once the dust settles and the expansion is complete? The online backlash has started already, with the usual social media warriors suggesting boycotts of BT (although there seems to be just as many people suggesting that they won't boycott the brewery). There are even suggestions that this year's Extravaganza may be cancelled, as so many brewers have pulled out of the event. The craft beer industry prides itself on being tight knit and for sticking together and there are a lot of people who will see this as a slight against all things craft and never buy from BT again. But equally, there are a lot of people who will see think "I don't care about all the extra stuff posted online, I just like the beer" and continue as if nothing has changed. And I suppose the question is, has the acquisition actually changed anything really? And will this hurt Beavertown's business in the long run? Probably not. And having £40million in your sky-rocket will probably go a long way to help soothe the pain.
"And I suppose the question is, has the acquisition actually changed anything really and will this hurt Beavertown's business in the long run? Probably not."
Forgetting Heineken for a minute, I wondered "Are the other big players also as corrupt as HK? " I was hoping that maybe Heineken's shenanigans were a one off, but a quick look on Google quickly melted that thought away. InBev - owner of more beers than you realise (seriously, click this link and weep) - have been caught up in bribery and price fixing scandals - not to mention the whole Budweiser vs Budweiser thing. SABMiller, who were swallowed up by ABInbev in 2016, were accused of tax evasion in India and Africa and caught up in a corruption row in China, before their merger with Inbev. Even Carlsberg can't seem to avoid scandal, with one of their African executives getting caught up in a financial scam in 2015. And that was only the links I saw on the first page of my search results.
So where does that leave us as beer drinkers then? Is it just a case of swearing off drinking any beer produced by the big guns? Well, if only it was that easy. You see - and we're sort of coming full circle here - as I mentioned earlier in the article, big beer own a surprising (or maybe it isn't surprising) number of beer brands. Some of these are owned only in name and are still brewed and produced by their parent company. Some of it is gut rot - your usual suspects, the Buds, the MGD, etc, etc. But some of it is actually quite decent. Do you stop drinking the beer you love, because you don't agree with the parent company's business plan? Fine. OK, do that then.
"Do you stop drinking the beer you love, because you don't agree with the parent company's business plan? "
But then, if you stop buying beer from a company like Heineken - or, as with Beavertown, anyone involved with their business - because you don't agree with their working practices, where do you stop? Does anyone from Buxton or Cloudwater own an iPhone? Before buying one, did the Foxconn scandal cross their minds? Do they use any of the multitude of products made by Johnson & Johnson, even knowing that they covered up the fact that their talcum powder could cause cancer? Or do they use any of the banks which have been involved in all sorts of scandals over the years (read: all of them)?
I'm not condoning any of the heinous things that any of these companies have done or been involved in. But where do you draw the line here? If you stop using products produced by companies involved in corruption or criminal activity, before long you're probably going to be living in a twig hut in the forest, eating mud. And actually, God made all of those things you're using now and He's been up to all sorts of shenanigans for millennia...
"If you stop using products produced by companies involved in corruption or criminal activity, before long you're probably going to be living in a twig hut in the forest, eating mud. And actually, God made all of those things you're using now and He's been up to all sorts of shenanigans for millennia..."
Is Logan Plant really the bad guy here, or is he just trying to provide for his family and business? By partnering with Heineken, does that actually mean he agrees with all the shit that's gone on before, or is it purely business? Do Buxton, Cloudwater et al have a point here, or have they all thrown the toys out of the pram because it isn't their brewery that's getting a multi-million pound deal?
I don't know - I really don't. I wish I had the answers, but I'm only one man. An extremely buff and handsome man, but a man all the same. It's easy to swear off big beer forever, but try buying ale from a supermarket and you'll see just how difficult it is to avoid. Yeah I know, we're craft beer drinkers - we don't buy all our stuff from supermarkets. True - but sometimes you just want a cold beer and you don't have the liberty of waiting a week for it to arrive from an online beer store (such as Beer Hawk...). Do you just swear an oath of temperance until your delivery arrives (a week late...)? Or do you give in, buy some cheap beer and kick back in the sunshine? And even if you do, will that stop the masses all around the world buying from the big breweries?
And while looking online earlier, I noticed some backlash against the backlash to the BT/Heineken deal. On the Cloudwater Twitter statement, in a classic example that you can't please everyone, there were people railing against the brewery for standing up for their values. Hey, don't get me wrong - if you've paid good money for a ticket to an event, with the sole purpose of drinking beer from a particular brewery and that brewery don't show up without a good reason, you have every right to be angry. But when the brewery goes to great lengths to explain their reasoning, in an articulate and enlightening way, maybe step back and think about it from their point of view. And if the same brewery looks to take a hit on profits, just so they can give you some of that tasty beer you desire for free, to make up for any hassle their decision has made, you know that they haven't made that decision lightly.
And somehow, against all the odds, we get to the closing paragraphs of this article. I sort of feel like I haven't actually gotten anywhere; I haven't really come to any concrete conclusion in this whole sorry saga. I will say this though, which is going to sound weird as the guy is a millionaire rock star's son - but I feel sorry for Logan Plant. Yes, he owns an award winning brewery. And yes, he's £40million quid richer than me. And yes, Robert fucking Plant is his dad. But I genuinely feel that he has made this deal for what he thinks are all the right reasons and it's completely blown up in his face. They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but I think in this case, that could be wrong. I know what (some) craft beer drinkers are like. They're dicks. They're entitled, hipster, neck-beard wanks (I understand the complete irony of this sentence, coming from me, who has railed badly on some beers on this site). And with social media these days, any negativity directed towards Beavertown could eventually be fatal. And that's bad, because it isn't just Logan Plant, millionaire playboy, who works there. And despite the bad press here, they still make great beer.
I'm trying to look at this from all the angles and understand all the decisions that have been by everyone involved, which is impossible. I don't want to become part of the rampaging horde - on either side - but to come to an educated, nuanced conclusion and at this moment in time, I'm struggling to.
Let's try to tie this all up then, before I start wandering off on all sorts of tangents.
- Beavertown Brewery make good beer. We can all agree on that.
- Heineken Brewery make (mostly) pisswater and also really odd and sometimes possibly illegal business decisions.
- Beavertown Brewery partnering with Heineken Brewery is a strange move, but doesn't really change the beer produced by BT (hopefully).
- Cloudwater Brew Co., Buxton Brewery, et al, are perfectly within their rights to pull out of the BT Extravaganza, if they feel that Heinekens business practices do not align with their own.
- But Heinekens business practices aren't exactly Beavertowns, just because they've partnered together.
- So by pulling out of the Extravaganza, these brewers seem to have just alienated their fans and soured their relationship with Beavertown, which until now always seemed to be friendly or at least amiable.
I think that about covers all the angles - and doesn't help me draw a line under this at all. All those points really show, is that this is a really sad, unfortunate situation and is going to leave a lot of people - brewers and fans alike - really unhappy.
So let's try to end on a high note then. It's really sunny just now and beer is really good.
Yep, that's the best I can come up with just now. Sigh.
Please note: all opinions are my own. I am in no way affilliated with any of the companies or businesses mentioned in this article. I will work for free beer. I am also available for private parties and events, as long as you pay me in free beer.