How To Sell Your Independence For Millions

Written by BottleShop founder and MD Andrew Morgan

It’s been a genuine delight to see people engaging in reasonable, structured debate on the subject of us working with Wicked Weed. Some people think it’s great (and we’ve sold the majority of the beer we imported) and for those who don’t, they’ve written some really well thought-out comments detailing reasons why. Honest debate in 2018…??? Wow.

However, the news that Beavertown had been part-purchased by Heineken has stirred the pot again. A lot of people have expressed a sense of betrayal with some shops and bars deciding to no longer stock their products. We were the first London distributor they worked with back in 2014 so witnessed many changes inside the brewery from Dukes to Fish Island to Tottenham and their plans for ‘BeaverWorld’. They were highly skilled in using independent rhetoric to build their brand and take it to the high-point that was the Beavertown Extravaganza in 2017.

Looking back at the names associated with BeaverEx, there’s no doubt that Beavertown commanded a lot of respect in the industry. I don’t think anyone attending would have doubted the brewery’s pledge of allegiance to all things independent. The idea of Beavertown selling to Heineken would have been met with laughter and disbelief. They had the trust of a global community of breweries and consumers who believed in independence.

I heard Logan passionately state his belief in Beavertown never working with supermarkets and this was backed-up by an interview he made with the Brewers Journal. Given that Waitrose haven’t magically reinvented themselves then what’s changed to make this now happen? The only variable is Beavertown themselves and their desire to overturn a fiercely held, publicly stated conviction. 

His aims were clear in a Q&A with long-time collaborator/advocate Matthew Curtis in 2016: 

“What I’m most proud of is we have stuck by our principles and ethos along the very fast road we’ve been travelling down. Our goal is to grow with the market and with as many independents as possible… We will do this by sticking to our morals, applying our ethos and working with the right people.”

However, how can anyone balance this out with a desire (in the same interview) to open ‘BeaverWorld’? Can you combine huge ambition with a socialist attitude to commerce?

The term ‘socialist commerce’ is one I’ve been using quite a lot recently – mainly towards American breweries who wish to define altruism, a belief in localism and opposing ‘big beer’ as business ethics. Obviously, this directly opposes capitalist ideology where, put simply, greed is good. US law dictates that businesses have a legal obligation to maximise profits for shareholders and this has led to businesses conducting some morally questionable behaviour in the name of profits.

There’s not a lot of grey area here - generally, you’re either good or bad – and that’s the Beavertown conundrum in a nutshell. They sold the world their vision of having morals but when offered the opportunity to ‘shoot for stars’ they took money from a company who many would say aren’t creating a better world for our children.

For some, the knee-jerk reaction of pro-independence is missing the point as the daughter of the Heineken’s founder still owns 51% of the business. This is pretty much the dictionary definition of being on the right side of independence. The real issue is that people don’t like ‘big-beer’. They don’t like businesses who are powerful and can have market influence because of their size. How Heineken can make any money selling 24 bottles of beer in my local Co-Op for £10 is a mystery to me – but if that’s what they want to do, then good luck to them. There are plenty of people queuing up for these low-priced cases and very few of them are thinking that they’re making the world a shabbier place because of their purchase.

There’s a perfect comparison with music where bands regularly leave fans behind when they sign to multi-national labels from their humble indie roots. Who wants to carry round your equipment or drive in a knackered transit when signing with a major will get you a helicopter to Glastonbury? Somehow, big-label credibility is a real thing. I can’t think of any act that would be banned from a festival because they’ve ‘sold-out’. Coldplay, U2…??? All indies gone big and signed with a major.

There are a few breweries who have managed to scale and build on their own terms. Sierra Nevada is a clear example of a business who give so much back to their community and really want to look after the planet when it comes to recycled water and energy at their breweries. The balance between growth and morality is truly inspirational when it comes to ‘good business’.

So, where does this leave us with Beavertown? They were undoubtedly the UK’s most credible brewery back at the Beavertown Extravaganza in 2017. From that point, they chose to go back on core principles that built their reputation, eventually aligning with a brewery that’s known for creating a price fixing cartel resulting in a fine of £150 million in 2007. The number of times I’ve heard breweries reference Logan as a ‘great friend’ of their businesses has been numerous – but this was surely based on a shared alignment of beliefs. Did Logan know last year he was going to sell to Heineken? Did he shake hands with people at BeaverEx who loved his independence, knowing he was going to sell? At what point did it turn into a fiction? Probably not that long ago, given the lengths Beavertown went to sell their Belgian contract-brewing scheme as a work of integrity. Who cares, now they’re likely to brew in several of the 140+ Heineken owned-factories around the world?

We all have the right to vote with our wallets. If you don’t like Beavertown – don’t buy them. The same with Nike, Heineken, Apple or Tesco. It’s interesting to see how Honest Brew have redrawn their ethics to accommodate a business that accounts for 5.2% of their online sales. Previously, the line passionately and firmly stood at ‘no big-beer’ but they’ll now make sure customers know before purchasing that their money is going to Heineken. This is quite a remarkable re-drawing of core ideology – but, again, maybe it’s just the industry growing up. Maybe we’ll all look back in 20 years and say ‘do you remember when the world gave a damn about Beavertown selling to Heineken?’ surrounded by a sea of Heineken owned ‘indies’ with the coolest craft beer labels you’ve ever seen.

For those left working for Beavertown who joined believing their independent rhetoric – you have my sympathy. Coming to work and looking your employers in the eyes having previously looked at ‘evil’ Lagunitas taps around the country and wished they were Gamma Ray - and now knowing you’ll see Beavertown beer alongside your Heineken owned half-brother brewery must be a slap in the chops. At interview stage, would these employees been hired if they said big-beer is great and suggest that Beavertown grow with the help of a multi-national?

As Morrissey once said ‘we hate it when our friends become successful’ – something that I’ve never really agreed with. I think we’d all actually love to see our friends do well but it’s the context of how they achieve this that often causes conflict. Never has this been truer than with Beavertown.



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1 comment

  • Really interesting and thoughtful.

    Tom Otley

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