beer business

Crafty Pint and the question of ownership

The banner running on the ownership series over at the Crafty Pint.

The banner running on the ownership series over at the Crafty Pint.

Yesterday James Smith published an excellent series of Q&As with a range of beer people on the subject of ownership. It’s a fascinating read and I urge you to have a look at it, if only to get a feel for the range of perspectives around this issue.

I also found myself thinking about the questions and what would my answers be. Which then led to me deciding to have a crack at answering them.

1. Does it matter [to you] who owns a brewing company selling beers in the “craft sector” or is the quality of what’s in the bottle the only thing that matters?
No, the ownership of a brewery doesn’t matter to me. My philosophy is that what’s in the bottle trumps everything. Because there are some “supermarket” beers I really enjoy – Gage Roads’ Single Fin would be an example of that. And there are also “official” craft breweries making beer that I don’t much care for (though I’m too much of a wuss to name one here). With the ownership argument, I always think of Stone & Wood the day they bought out the big brewer that owned a share of the company. To me, the ownership argument would claim there is a difference between the day before that happened and the day after – even though the beer itself did not change at all. I get that others feel ownership is important, and that’s their right. It’s just not that important to me.

2. Should ultimate ownership of a brand be made absolutely clear on packaging, as per Lion’s repackaging of its products, including Little Creatures and White Rabbit?

Yes, because while I don’t care too much who owns a brand, there are those for whom it matters and they should be able to make an informed choice. I get why small breweries getting their beer made by the big guys would do this – to avoid any backlash. But I don’t get why, say, Woolies tries to hide their ownership of the John Boston brand. I doubt most people buying the beer would care that they’re behind it.

3. What are your thoughts on tags such as “faux craft”, “crafty” or “craft-washing” as applied to brands from multinational breweries and supermarket chains?

I hate them. But then again, I’m no fan of the phrase “craft beer” either. But I do use it because it works as a form of shorthand to explain things. I much rather prefer “good beer” and “bad beer”, though while I know what that means no one else really does. Besides, if we can’t agree on a definition of “craft”, then “faux craft” makes no sense.

4. What advantages (or disadvantages) do you see for consumers in large companies, such as Coca Cola, Asahi, Coles and Woolworths, entering the Australian craft beer market?

Distribution is the big advantage and it’s one that really favours those beer drinkers who live in regional areas. Those living in capital cities where a craft beer bottle shops can make a living don’t know how crucial those tasty beers with big distribution are for those in other areas. For those people the likes of Dan Murphy’s can be the best it gets. So the ability to get decent beers – like Mountain Goat – at places like Dan’s is vital.

The big downside is the possibility of the supermarkets ensuring their own beers  take all the key spots in the beer aisles and the fridges. And maybe taking up space that could go to other beers. Or, in the case of Woolies’ John Boston, making the packaging of their own beers bears more than a passing similarity to a rival brand. I know of people who have bought a six-pack of Boston thinking they were buying James Squire. And I think that may be the idea behind the John Boston packaging.

5. Do you see a conflict of interest in major retailers owning beer brands they sell through their stores?

Well, they do sell their own versions of other grocery items, so it’s not too different from that. But, generally speaking, those other grocery items are clearly marked as being their own brand. It’d be better if the beers were just as easily identifiable.

6. It’s common in major retail outlets at present to see cases of, for example, an Australian-brewed American Pale Ale retailing for $40 to $45 and another of the same style and ABV costing upwards of $75. What do you think of this aggressive pricing policy? Do you think it could cause consumers to question quality relative to price?

This cut pricing is usually for the supermarkets’ own brands and are aimed at drawing in new customers. While not ideal, it’s hard to see those discounts hanging around long-term. But does it make much difference to consumers? Well, that depends on what people want out of beer. I’ve always felt those buying from the cheaper end of the spectrum are more interested in beer as an alcohol-delivery device than as something that tastes good. People who know good beer know how much it can cost.

7. And, finally, do you think beer drinkers care who is responsible for what’s in their bottle or glass?

I think some do, and some don’t and both sides  of that argument are okay. For me, I like to know a bit about the story behind the beer I’m drinking. And that story tends to be easier to find when it comes to those beers that can be considered “craft”. I like Gage Roads’ Single Fin but it’s a little hard to imagine a big brewer part-owned by Woolies could have an interesting story behind that beer.

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