According to the latest Bord Bia report, the Irish craft beer market continues to grow domestically and internationally with 62 microbreweries now operating in Ireland, and craft beer representing 2.5% of total beer consumption in Ireland, projected to rise to 3.4% in 2016. That amounted to sales of €40m in 2015 and projected sales of €59 in 2016.
In the US, with craft brewers now accounting for 12% of the overall US beer market, the industrial brewers have not only taken notice but have responded directly and aggressively.
Budweiser/Anheuser-Busch InBev ran an ad during last year’s Superbowl declaring themselves proud to be a ‘macro-brewer’ featuring images of effete moustachioed hipsters ‘dissecting’ a ‘pumpkin peach ale’. Ironically, another plank of their strategy to take on the craft brewers is to take them over and one such recent acquisition, Seattle’s Elysian Brewing, had not long before that released a Pecan Peach Pumpkin beer.
In Britain, in 2012, Diageo was shamed into issuing a full public apology after a an unidentified Diageo representative was allegedly overheard threatening to withdraw the company’s sponsorship from future British Institute of Innkeeping Scotland awards if the renowned independent Scottish craft brewer Brewdog were to be awarded a particular prize with judges shocked when another competitor declared winners at the last minute. Brewdog founder, James Watt, went on to the describe Diageo’s actions as ‘shockingly dishonest and unethical’.
Seamus O’Hara, founder of Carlow Brewing Company in the 90s, recalls the ‘big boys’ employing very aggressive carrot and stick tactics with any publicans retailing his initial craft beer offering, a combination of bribery and threats, and he realised within three months that this would kill off his business unless he sought markets abroad.
In 2016, many of the large multinationals are now rushing to fill the marketplace in Ireland with their own versions of ‘craft beers’, often backed by large marketing campaigns emphasising ‘authenticity’ and other buzzwords associated with independent brewers.
Heineken Ireland and C&C Gleeson, in releasing beers onto the market in such a manner that they are perceived to be ‘locally-brewed craft beers’, have left the themselves open to accusations of deceiving the consumer, a lack of transparency and selling under false provenance, charges currently under investigation by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) and Health Service Executive (HSE).
So what exactly constitutes a genuine Irish craft beer? Reuben Gray, Chair of Beoir, the Irish Craft Beer Consumers Association, says: “We use the same definition as Revenue: an independently owned microbrewery, not owned by any larger brewery, producing less than 30,000 hectolitres per annum.”
Responding to the statements from Heineken and C&C Gleeson, Gray said: “We as the beer consumers organisation in Ireland would definitely welcome these clarifications because it clears up certain misgivings and misinformation that have been in the public domain. We welcome transparency from all brewers. It’s only from false provenance and when we don’t know where a beer is coming from that it becomes an issue. When the consumer sees a Bheanntraí Brú, they are not making an informed choice. Who knows where it comes from? It could come from Heineken in Cork or any part of the world. The independents are not competing on a level playing field, especially when it comes to sales and marketing budgets, they don’t even come close. This type of thing creates further imbalance and confusion. It skews the line.”
Brewer Seamus O’Hara is also the current chair of the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland, which is bringing out a symbol for use by all its members which the consumer can identify at point of sale.
“Our view is transparency and provenance is the key, different operations have different business models and a certain approach to business but the ICBI want our consumers to clearly identify where their beer comes from. It’s a busy market, the mainstream brewers potentially tie up space on the shelf and bar counter, so I can certainly see an impact, anything that causes confusion to the consumer is not good. It’s a very competitive market now, a lot of Irish craft brewers, a lot of imported craft brews and then the mainstream brewers who may or may not be transparent.”
Bantry-based Drinks Educator and Consultant Jaq Stedman, one of the first to publicly call out the faux ‘craft beers’, says: “there needs to be clarity for the consumer whether it be on the point of sale, a tap badge or bottle, so they can make an informed choice. The quality of the fake craft is much lower than the local, between micro [craft beer] and macro [big beer], is substantial, and that’s speaking in my professional capacity, including being a beer judge. Almost all the micros go through competition whether in Ireland, the UK or further afield, none of the macro beers appear to have been entered or won any awards. Macros in Europe even lobbied to avoid disclosing all ingredients in their beers.”
Stedman also mentions the case of Carlton United Brewery in her native Australia, a large industrial brewer penalised by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission for representing one of their products, Byron Bay Pale Lager, as being brewed by a small brewer in Byron when in fact it was brewed 600km from Byron Bay. CUB was also fined for the infringement.
“That’s what we need to see happening here,” says Stedman. “It’s a form of anti-competitive behavior, they might have their mainstream named product and also a fake product taking up tap space in the bar, it demeans the quality of the offering for the food tourists seeking genuine craft beer that Fáilte Ireland are currently trying so hard to promote and it demeans the standard of the genuine Irish craft beer industry.”
Heineken, Bheanntraí Brú and Blasket Blonde
Aug 7 – Bantry-based drinks educator & consultant Jacqueline Stedman spots Bheanntraí Brú for sale from a tap at the bar of a local hotel. There is no indication whatsoever of the beer’s provenance. Subsequently, Stedman learns ‘unofficially’ that it is apparently a Heineken product.
Further investigations show other pubs in Kerry, many of them prominent and well-regarded establishments, selling ‘Blasket Blonde’, with customers being told it is ‘’a craft beer brewed in West Cork’. Stedman raises the issue online and this writer is subsequently alerted by a Cork-based genuine craft brewer.
Aug 8 – Stedman tweets [as Liquid Curiousity]: NO brewery in Bantry/Blasket Island, yet Heineken branding blonde ale as local.
Aug 10 – Heineken Ireland tweets: All beers we brew are labelled as ours. We don’t brew/claim Blasket Blond or Beanntrai.
Aug 17 – Stedman lodges complaint with FSAI.
Aug 20 – Stedman returns to hotel and takes video and photos while asking for locally-brewed West Cork beer and without hesitation, the barperson serves Bheanntraí Brú, saying ‘this one is brewed locally’ but can’t clarify further.
Aug 22 – Stedman lodges additional complaint with FSAI supplying additional information, pics and video.
Aug 24 – Tap is removed from the hotel.
Aug 24 – This writer tweets: Joe McNamee@jozeemac to clarify, are @Heineken_IE claiming no involvement whatsoever in Beanntrai blonde?
There is no response.
Sept 8 – This writer calls Heineken to ask: ‘Do Heineken have anything at all to do with the two beers in question, yes or no?’ Company officials unable to provide a response.
Sept 14 – Heineken Ireland’s PR company release the following statement to this writer:
‘HEINEKEN Ireland has become aware that some of its low-volume high-quality draught products were being sold in a small number of outlets under different names. This is not HEINEKEN Ireland’s policy and accordingly, this practice has been stopped.
“We apologise to our valued consumers and customers. This should not have happened. HEINEKEN Ireland has appointed an external firm to investigate and help us understand how this occurred and to prevent it happening again. We cannot make any further comment at this stage of the process.’
Sept 14-16 – This writer calls the pubs in Kerry and Cork selling the mislabeled Heineken products. All now state without hesitation that it is a Heineken product.
Sept 19 – Item on the Heineken statement is broadcast on Newstalk FM. Heineken subsequently announce professional services firm Grant Thornton will be the external firm to conduct their internal inquiry.
C&C GLEESON AND ‘PANA CORK LAGER’
A new beer, ‘Cork Pana Lager’ appears for sale in several Cork hospitality outlets. There is nothing whatsoever on the point-of-sale merchandising to indicate where it is brewed or the identity of the brewer.
Hotel manager subsequently states tweet was a ‘mistake by the marketing department.’ Tweet no longer available online.
Sept 20 – Statement from C&C Gleeson, producer of Pana Cork Lager:
‘Pana Cork Lager is produced by C&C Gleeson at its brewery in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. Pana Cork Lager has been developed for customers in Cork only and it is this that has influenced the name.
All our trade customers know the origin of the lager as all of our Irish beers and ciders are produced in Clonmel. This is clearly stated on the keg collar and communicated through product collateral and our sales teams.
For consumers, our marketing campaign around Pana Cork Lager confers that it is a ‘lager for Cork people’ and some collateral, such as beer mats, will feature a map of Ireland depicting the slogan ‘Not Cork.’
It is absolutely not our intention to mislead consumers and we are hopeful that our point of sale marketing will ensure there is full transparency around the lager’s origins. We are very proud of our Clonmel heritage and will consider reviewing our marketing of Pana Cork Lager to ensure that there is no ambiguity in relation to its provenance.
It had come to our attention that a Cork outlet had mistakenly posted a Tweet about the lager being produced in Cork and we have asked them to remove the post.’
Sept 20 – This writer asks for further clarification, particularly on the following line from the C&C statement: ‘It is absolutely not our intention to mislead consumers and we are hopeful that our point of sale marketing will ensure there is full transparency around the lager’s origins’.
This writer says, as far as I can see, [C&C’s] point of sale marketing does not supply ‘full transparency around the lager’s origins’, in fact, it makes no mention whatsoever of the lager’s origins.
Sept 21 – C&C Gleeson elaborate on their original statement: ‘As Pana Cork Lager is only available on draught, C&C Gleeson is rolling out ‘fish-eyes’ (on their tap markers) that will carry the ABV and the wording: A lager made for the people of Cork. Brewed in Clonmel. These will be in outlets over the next fortnight or so and together with other marketing POS, will ensure full transparency around the lager’s origins.’
(Despite C&C stating that ‘all our trade customers know the origin of our lager’, the message obviously needs further clarification as a further two Cork pubs post pictures of the Cork Pana Lager tap on Facebook along with the following messages:
Sept 16 – ‘Cork’s newest craft lager – … has just landed … why not pop down and sample a pint today
Sept 21 – ‘…gets a free pint of new Cork beer, Pana’
Vintner’s Federation of Ireland Response
Believing the Vintner’s Federation of Ireland would be deeply unhappy to learn certain of their members were involved in a campaign that might deceive the consumer, we requested a response.
Sept 20 – Statement on behalf of the Vintners Federation of Ireland:
‘The VFI has only very recently become aware of these allegations. At this stage it is important to first of all see if these allegations have any substance, and we are therefore not in a position to comment any further at this juncture.’
Sept 20 – This was our reply: ‘Heineken have acknowledged in a statement released last week … that this has been happening, that it shouldn’t have happened and that they have removed the products and are now investigating how this happened as it is not general company policy. They are no longer ‘allegations needing to be substantiated’ but facts so … the VFI [don’t] need to worry on that score. Can [we] ask for a [further] response on this basis?
Sept 20 – VFI reply: ‘The VFI is not in a position to comment any further at this juncture.’
Food Safety Authority of Ireland
Sept 15 – This writer contacts the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to enquire into progress of their investigations into allegations of mislabelling, false provenance and misleading the consumer on foot of Stedman’s original complaint. FFT is referred to the West Cork EHO. Response from both is that an investigation is currently ongoing.