We were privileged to host Cloudwater at the shop this week as part of the brewery’s Indie Retailer Roadshow, stopping in at fabulous beer retailers across the UK as part of a nationwide tour. As well as serving great beers, we also served up impassioned debate with a panel discussion on Why Independence Matters, inviting Gipsy Hill co-founder and passionate indie campaigner Sam McMeekin to participate as well. While it's going to get a whole lot tougher for independent beer businesses, be they breweries like Cloudwater and Gipsy Hill or retailers such as ourselves, it's a challenge we're ready for, a fight we won't back down from and a cause that we'll continue to shout about from the rooftops.
In the nearly five years since we opened our doors, we’ve seen some of our favourite, best selling breweries give in to Big Beer: Camden sold to AB inBev in 2015, Brixton and Beavertown both sold a share to Heineken in 2017 and 2018, and Fourpure sold to Lion/Kirin in 2018, followed by Magic Rock earlier this year.
When Camden sold back in 2015, we had a “suck it and see” approach - we were still a very young business and Camden was one of our best-selling breweries, and the first of the breweries we stocked to sell out on our watch. We decided we would wait until either a) the quality of the beer dropped, b) staff got a raw deal or c) the beer became available at supermarkets for half the price.
As the weeks went on though, we started rethinking this approach. We started to notice visits from both ABI and Heineken teams (failing terribly to stay undercover) looking at how we do things, taking notes and taking this intel back to their corporate lairs. Their aim was to copy what indies like us do well in order to capture our market share - and ultimately put us out of business.
Big Beer has been extraordinarily effective in infiltrating the craft scene. ABI bought UK retailer Beerhawk in 2016 and just last week, made two more important moves, purchasing BeerBods, a popular online retailer, as well as the warehouse lease of failed wholesaler the Bottle Shop, as well as appointing its former CEO as head of sales, in an effort to boost its Beerhawk trade arm. These are huge in-roads into both UK beer retail and wholesale, and tilts the playing field even further. Of course, now that ABI also owns Ratebeer, it has access to even better data to understand how to target customers too.
What does independence mean to us as a retailer?
At HB&B, our business is built on independence and supporting independent producers. As an independent, we have the luxury of choosing the people and businesses we want to work with (and those we don’t). The more independent breweries we can work with, the more exciting the beer world is, both for us and our customers. Working with these breweries means we have constant variety on our shelves, and the continual excitement of trying new beers and styles. Indie brewers have the freedom to do something because it's fun and new, rather than the top priority being to deliver value to shareholders.
Importantly, independent breweries provide a sense of community. Many of us got into this industry for similar reasons - because we love the beer scene and the warm sense of community it offers, where we can mingle with the people who make the beers we love and the people who love drinking them.
Local independent breweries are especially important to the success of independent bottle shops. These breweries are a hugely important part of what makes the beer community - and the wider community - great. Drinkers enjoy being able to support local by choosing their beers at the bar or to take home from their local bottle shop (four out of five of our best-selling beers over the past 12 months are from SE London breweries) and their beers often offer a great gateway into the wonderful world of craft beer. We don’t want to risk losing these local breweries that have become the hub of their communities because they can't keep up. The infiltration of Big Beer into the craft scene means that smaller breweries will find it harder to compete and may fall by the wayside.
Why is Big Beer bad?
Big Beer makes concerted efforts to obtain advantage through wielding its enormous power: infiltrating distribution and retail to skew these channels in favour of their brands, tying up taps and shelf space for ‘faux’ craft and shutting out independently brewed beer; utilising huge marketing budgets and legal teams to lobby for legislation in its favour and to woo media and influencers to try to change public opinion; using enormous economies of scale to drive down the price of craft beer, creating an unfair playing field and making it even harder for small independent brewers to compete.
Big Beer likes to operate in stealth mode - hijacking the goodwill accumulated by independent brewers and retailers and passing off beers as faux-craft or being deliberately ambiguous about ownership to the average drinker (Beerhawk, for example, certainly doesn’t promote its ABI connection on its website).
Another deception is the illusion of choice. You might walk into a Heineken-owned pub and think you have an array of choice from many independent craft breweries on a tap list, but in fact you're likely to be buying from the same huge beer corporation - one which, as Sam explained, is actively shutting out independent breweries by preventing its pubs from making too much profit from non-Heineken lines.
And it’s doing all this on the shoulders of those who created the scene. Paul from Cloudwater compares Big Beer to Kenny G (and at our event made us listen to some too, the scoundrel). Kenny G made a fortune from hijacking the jazz scene with his ersatz jazz - using the hard graft of the creators who built the scene to feather his own nest without paying his dues. Big Beer is Kenny G.
We want to see the profits from all of the hard graft done by the UK’s craft breweries staying in the community, helping local businesses to thrive. We don’t want to see the funds disappear offshore to huge multinational conglomerates that do not have the health of the local beer scene at heart, whose key objective is to create ever larger dividends for their shareholders and to shut out competitors at any cost.
It’s clear that independent beer businesses need to get more strategic and work together to have a chance of survival. We need to support the independent eco-system where we can, giving our support to our fellow independent businesses.
For us as a retailer, this choice is a bit more straightforward - we can choose not to stock businesses owned by Big Beer and thus avoid putting money directly into Big Beer’s pockets. For breweries, it’s a bit harder - they have difficult choices to make, particularly with distribution. As Gipsy Hill’s Sam McMeekin pointed out, lack of alternatives and market penetration (as well as the appeal of end-to-end cold-chain distro) means that sometimes there may be no choice but to work with a distributor owned by Big Beer if a brewery wants to survive and thrive. A longer term goal would be to establish distribution through a cooperative independent means - something we hope can become a reality in the not-too-distant future.
“As long as the beer doesn’t change, I don’t care”
We heard this a lot on social media after Beavertown sold to Heineken in 2018. It’s easy, in our little craft bubble, to forget that not everyone shares our staunch view on independence.
SIBA UK research found that just 2% of people believe craft beer can be made by a multinational global brewer. But Brewers Association research in the US shows that in fact flavour, freshness and aroma are the most important drivers for choosing a beer - provenance doesn’t really come into it. So it seems while there is an expectation that craft beer will be independent, when it comes down to it, for many it’s just not that important a priority. How do we make people care about who’s making their beer?
We believe greater awareness is the first step - helping drinkers realise what’s at risk if we lose our independents and, importantly, reinforcing all the good things that the independent beer scene contributes.
I (Jen) remember when I first came to the UK in 2000 - the beer scene was nothing like what it is today. With the reins of the industry held by just a handful of companies, choice at the taps was limited, and by god was it dreary. After a few years’ break from the UK (enjoying the healthy craft beer scene in New Zealand), I returned in 2012 to find a vibrant, exciting land of beer choices - driven entirely by these new start-up breweries who were able to forge their own paths, take risk and provide drinkers with fun and excitement, community and choice.
We don’t want to go back to those grim old days where all the power resides in the hands of a few. Variety is the spice of life, and never more so than in the beer world. Independents have made the scene we love what it is, and they need to be able to continue to keep doing so. That’s why we need your support.