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Crafty Pint

Your Guide to Australian Craft Beer / Saturday 19 April 2014

Clear As Mud?

Crafty Pint / 29.01.13

Byron-bay-lager-labelling

On Friday afternoon, while most of us were preparing for the long Australia Day weekend, one man found himself unwittingly in something of a funk. The cause of said funk was an email that had landed in his inbox earlier that day. On the surface it seemed innocent enough. It announced that Byron Bay Pale Lager was to be released nationwide in bottles, and contained such harmless lines as:

“Following our sponsorship of the Byron Bay Surfing Festival and in the middle of a hot summer, we thought it was the perfect time to release the Pale Lager into pack. We love brewing beers that speak to our lifestyle up here and to share that Byron Bay magic with the rest of Australia,” says Barry Schadel, owner of the Byron Bay Brewery.

The thing was, the guy receiving this email was Matt Kirkegaard, founder and editor of Australian Brews News. For those unfamiliar with the site, it frequently casts an eye into the murkier parts of the Australian beer world; while The Crafty Pint heads off on flights of fancy about the latest beer releases, Matt and his team can often be found with their heads in the archives uncovering the latest half-truths or worse from the nation’s brewers and marketing companies. The site is, in Matt’s own words, The Cranky Pint.

As such, when the media release landed, Matt was aware that there is no bottling line at Byron Bay Brewery. He also noted that the media release had come from the company employed by CUB to spread the word about its beer releases, so he decided to ask a few questions. We won’t go into detail here, as you can read the entire story on Brews News, but let’s just say he didn’t get what he was hoping for, even if it was what he was probably expecting…

In short, he has surmised that one of the country’s brewing behemoths is licensing the Byron Bay brand, brewing the beer at its Warnervale Brewery, and handling all sales and marketing itself. “So what?” you may well ask. Well, from the beer’s packaging itself (which includes a handy map on the back of the bottle showing you just how close Byron Bay Brewery is to the town’s Main Beach), you would have no way of knowing this and, says Matt, CUB/SABMiller don’t want you to know either.

“It’s simply a case of CUB doing everything it can to make this bottled beer look like it’s fully controlled by a tiny little brewery in Byron Bay,” he says. “Quite simply it’s not.

“Authenticity is a vexed and complex issue and the notion of contract brewing stirs up passions, but this is a clear case of one of the world’s largest brewing company’s hiding behind one of the world’s smallest and doing everything it can to hide the fact from the consumer.

“The beer business is robust and companies always seem to push the limits but, once again, CUB has crossed the line and just kept going.”

Byron-Bay-lager-2

A handy map

As a result, Matt has published an open letter to Avi Mervis, the CEO of SABMiller, and launched a Facebook page to campaign for transparency. Transparency, or the lack of it, is but one aspect of a number that threaten to pose fresh challenges to the growth of beer from smaller breweries in Australia, following hot on the heels of the launch of the Sail & Anchor and Steamrail ranges of beers, which instantly landed primo positions in the fridges and on the shelves of liquor outlets owned by Coles and Woolworths to the detriment of other brewery’s beers.

The danger is that such practices threaten the further marginalisation of smaller, genuine craft breweries who are already fighting an uphill battle to gain recognition and market share. The knowledge (and, perhaps, desire to learn) of the average Australian beer drinker remains low, with few people armed with enough knowledge to tell a “faux craft” brand produced by a multinational and boosted by a large marketing fund from something crafted with passion and integrity by people who have poured their heart, soul and – in all likelihood – life savings into their brewing dream.

As Matt says in his open letter, practices such as that involving the Byron Bay brand risk “misleading consumers”, “fuel[ling] the cynicism that many consumers already feel about multinational brewers” and could “unfairly hurt the brewers who make up a very small but vibrant part of the Australian beer market”.

He concludes: “This is not a call not to make the beer. It is a call to be transparent and to clearly label your involvement in the brewing and marketing of your beer, both on the packaging and in your marketing communication, so that beer drinkers can make informed decisions.”

UPDATED WITH RESPONSE FROM LIQUID IDEAS, THE COMPANY MARKETING THE BEER:

“Byron Bay Brewing Co continues to be independently owned by Barry Schadel. The Byron Bay Brewery owns the brand, the formula and the product which it brews in draught beer at its Byron Bay brewhouse.

“CUB has a licencing agreement to produce and distribute its Pale Lager in pack form. This provides Byron Bay with a national platform, something that they would not be able to achieve by themselves and from which they benefit.

“As Byron Bay Brewing Co is the owner of its brand in Australia, it is their brewery details that are on the label together with the reference that some products may be brewed by licensees in NSW. This is common practice for beer labels in Australia.

“There is no intention to mislead anyone and we believe that fundamentally this is Barry’s product, not ours.”

In the meantime, the chances are that if you read The Crafty Pint you care about your beer: who makes it, where they make it and what goes into it so that you can make these “informed decisions”. If that is the case, we suggest you check out Matt’s open letter and Facebook page and, if in agreement, sign on the dotted line (well, click “ Like” on his page – tis the 21st Century after all).



Comments

Andy — 29 January at 03:13PM

They can pretend they are small and craft like but the proof is in the pudding. Looks like craft ,tastes like crap. I don't buy what tastes bad more than once.

NEIL SMALL — 29 January at 03:56PM

like i wrote on there fb page never trust a byron bay hippy!!

Richo for beer — 29 January at 08:49PM

Perhaps CUB's marketers feel they need to hide ownership.

I don't think anyone would deny that there is much reflex dislike for the 'big guys' amongst craft beer lovers.

Why did CUB start Matilda Bay, and Lion start Malt Shovel Brewery? Surely both have brewed a few quality craft beers? Are these examples any different to Byron Bay Brewing?

Does the size of a brewery determine whether or not it's product is worthy of being called "craft". Surely, big brewery's are allowed to make craft beer too? Judge a beer as a beer I reckon.

Some small breweries have terrible packaging. Some small brewers have abrasive personalities. To a true lover of beer, I don't believe this ever changes the way a beer tastes.

Similarly, just because a brewery is independent, small, and has the hopes, dreams, enthusiasm and life savings of it's owner's behind it, doesn't make their product craft. Some small breweries brew lots of poor, average, and inconsistent beer.

There are some good and passionate brewers working for the big guys, making some excellent beers. Though I do agree, for those of us who love good beer, and those brewers working for the big guys that make some, it's often a shame about the marketing gurus on level 9 who think they need to convince us a product is something it's not.

Perhaps though, it's many of us beer lovers who have given them a reason to feign authenticity. Perhaps we care too much who owns it.

P.S. Haven't tried the beer in question. Could be rubbish, but point still remains.

Crafty Pint — 30 January at 02:30PM

Richo - thanks for your message. Some interesting points raised there, although some that aren't directly related to the campaign that Matt has started. As far as I can tell, he is attempting to keep this to a single issue, that of "misleading" marketing that could lead buyers to believe the product was made somewhere else and seemingly hiding CUB's involvement in the beer.

In relation to your other points, CUB didn't start Matilda Bay but purchased it from the founders, who launched the original Sail & Anchor brewpub in Fremantle then opened Matilda Bay back in the early 80s.

As for what makes a beer "craft", it's a discussion that has been held many times before and never seems to end with a firm definition. But, yes, beer should be judged on its quality when it comes to being drunk. The larger breweries are capable of and occasionally do produce excellent beers, whilst every time a small brewer willingly releases a substandard or infected beer into the market, which does happen, it impacts badly on the craft beer world too. As does a retailer holding onto beers for too long before putting them onto the shelves or not keeping them in the best conditions, for example.

I guess part of the concern is that, in reacting to the growth of craft beer and the falling sales of some of the major brands, a number of actions by major brewers or the company's in control of the major liquor retail chains risk pushing smaller brewers even further into the margins, if not stamping them out completely. And while the brewing skills, equipment and knowledge to make fantastic beers may well be present at the world's larger breweries, they are never going to be truly experimental as for them beer is predominantly a commodity. We need to encourage, promote and protect small, creative breweries as not only do they have great stories to tell and offer a wide variety of experiences at the cellar doors, they are also the ones who are likely to take chances and move the beer world forward.

Matt Kirkegaard — 03 February at 12:08AM

Hi James - Thanks for discussing this issue and for actually managing to get an answer from CUB, though I just wonder about one thing. When CUB say:

“As Byron Bay Brewing Co is the owner of its brand in Australia, it is their brewery details that are on the label together with the reference that some products may be brewed by licensees in NSW. This is common practice for beer labels in Australia.

For the life of me, I can't think of another example of a small brewery's beer being made under licence by a multinational brewery. Given they describe what they have done as "common practice" could you please ask them to point to a few examples to illustrate the practice exists at all, let alone that it is common?

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