Craft beer’s beef with Big Beer is no secret.
The rivalry between a major craft brewer and the largest spirits maker in the world show just how deep the animosity goes.
In one corner is Guinness, an iconic 257-year-old brand, backed by its parent company Diageo, the largest spirits company in the world which also owns Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and Baileys.
In the other corner, we have BrewDog: an independent brewer founded in 2007 that today has revenue of more than $48 million.
The craft brewer has called Diageo everything from “dumb arse corporate freaks” to manufacturers of “mass-produced rubbish” — and for good reason, BrewDog would argue.
The fight began in earnest in 2012.
The setting was the 2012 British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) Scotland Annual Awards — a seemingly innocuous industry event that became the setting for a surprising sabotage.
BrewDog had been favoured to win an award for the Bar Operator of the Year. However, the award went to a different group — despite the fact that the trophy had the name “BrewDog” engraved on it.
Two days after the event, BII Scotland revealed that Diageo, a main sponsor for the event, had decreed that BrewDog could not win the award, threatening to pull sponsorship for future events.
Diageo apologised for the event at the time, calling the incident a “serious misjudgment by Diageo staff.” (The company declined to comment on the incident to Business Insider.)
BrewDog did not quietly accept the apology.
“As for Diageo, once you cut through the glam veneer of pseudo corporate responsibility this incident shows them to be a band of dishonest hammerheads and dumb arse corporate freaks,” the craft brewer wrote of the incident in the company blog. “No soul and no morals, with the integrity of a rabid dog and the style of a wart hog.”
Following the scandal, the outcry against Diageo blew up online, with fans posting more than 500,000 tweets supporting BrewDog in the #andthewinnerisnot hashtag. BrewDog wrote a followup blog post, stating that the incident was far from isolated, painting “a picture of a very corrupt and dishonest organisation.”
Four years later, the company’s opinion hasn’t changed much.
“Diageo was scared by the craft beer movement four years ago because it challenged their mass-produced rubbish,” says Warman. “They should be even more scared now.”
Why Big Beer fears craft
Craft beer has been exploding in the UK in the last few years. In 2015, the number of breweries in the UK had jumped to more than 1,400, generating growth of more than 10% for the third year in a row.
“The sector is growing, consumers are realising the value of craft and independent brewing, and big beer companies are just not cutting it any more with their unimaginative and passionless rubbish,” says Warman.
The past four years have been huge for BrewDog. From 2011, the company has gone from 67 employees, brewing 26,750 hectoliters (22,795 barrels) of beer, to 540 employees brewing 134,000 hectoliters (113,190 barrels). BrewDog has raised more than $30 million through crowdfunding, using what the company calls the “Equity for Punks” model.
As craft beer grows stronger, it has forced major beer companies to address the independent companies as competitors. That means taking steps to either wipe them out — or to acquire them.
Since the BII incident, most of BrewDog’s shots at Big Beer have been on the topic of acquisitions.
“Acquisitions go against the very nature of craft beer — by commoditizing it, big companies are pulling the wool over customers’ eyes,” says Warman.
When US brewery Ballast Point was sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion, co-founder James Watt announced BrewDog would no longer be ordering the brand.
Sad about the Ballast Point deal this week. We will no longer be ordering these beers for our bars. We are 100% committed to craft beer.
— James Watt (@BrewDogJames) November 18, 2015
After AB InBev’s acquisition of Camden Town, BrewDog stepped in with another comment on Twitter:
“It’s just going to limit choice and lead to a further reduction in beer quality globally which is going to be bad for the customer,” Watt told Business Insider on the recent £71 billion ($108 billion) merger of brewing giants AB InBev and SABMiller. “It becomes this huge global monopoly and those two companies have already not done much for quality beer.”
Guinness, for its part, says that it welcomes the rise of craft beer.
“We’ve been banging the quality and flavour drum for decades and it’s a relief no longer to be in the minority,” Emma Giles, Guinness’ brand director, told Business Insider. “Yes, the thousands of new breweries are increased competition for Guinness, but we view that as inspiration for us, too, to raise our game.”
Unlike rivals AB InBev and MillerCoors, Diageo has avoided acquisitions.
Instead, it has tweaked Guinness’ image to fit the craft mould, with initiatives like The Brewers Project, which Business Insider’s Oscar Williams-Grut called “a branding and marketing campaign tied to the launch of new Guinness beers, all trying to make the Dublin brewery look like a ‘craft’ beer maker of the type springing up across Britain right now.”
It’s a rebranding that BrewDog would consider deceit.
“We support craft, and craft breweries should be independent, not bastardized by mega corporations who will compromise the quality of the beer to cut corners, cut people, and make a profit,” says Warman.
2016: Payback time
BrewDog has never been silent in its disdain for Big Beer. However, its rivalry with Diageo once again reached a boiling point last month, when the craft brewer decided it was finally payback time.
It’s been three years, but tomorrow is payback time.
— BrewDog (@brewdog) February 10, 2016
In February, BrewDog released an ad parodying Guinness’ iconic surfers and horses commercial to promote the new Jet Black Heart stout.
The 1998 Guinness ad had a massive budget, and featured surfers taking on massive waves as CGI horses gallop over them. BrewDog’s version features Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie in a local swimming pool wearing a cheap horse costume.
“Big beer advertising is b——-,” Watt explained in a press release. “If you have to spend millions of pounds on ad campaigns to get people to drink your beer, the brewing is probably being neglected.”
Guinness declined to comment on the parody ad to Business Insider. However, the brand’s advertising has recently drawn from craft beer’s styling as part of Guinness’ crafty rebranding.
“Our brewers now star in our TV commercials, and there is way more information about our beer on the internet than ever before,” says Giles.
While BrewDog’s parody may cap off the current era of the BrewDog-Diageo war, don’t expect the craft brewer to stop speaking out against Big Beer any time soon.
“Being loud, reckless and shouting about what we believe in has allowed our Punk army to grow to over 35,000 members,” says Warman. “This incredible force continues to drive the craft beer movement forward and shows no sign of stopping.”
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