The global movement that's grown from Black Lives Matters protests in the US has reached the local beer community. A prominent retailer has made the decision to drop Colonial Brewing's beers from their stores after being challenged by customers.
The move by family-owned bottleshop chain Blackhearts & Sparrows has sparked controversy online amid growing discussion of Australia's history.
In a social media post, the Fitzroy-based operation said: "after many discussions, we’ve made the decision to stop stocking Colonial Beer at Blackhearts & Sparrows. We will sell through any remaining stock that we currently have in stores, and will be donating all profits from those sales to the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance."
Their decision – one they said followed past discussions with Colonial – has sparked fierce, at times unpalatable, debate on social media and in Facebook beer groups, where moderators have been kept busy. While there are many speaking out in support of Blackhearts & Sparrows, the business has faced a backlash from some quarters too, including a spate of negative online reviews in the past 24 hours. There have also been calls for other retailers to follow suit and drop Colonial from their stores.
Colonial's managing director Lawrence Dowd told The Crafty Pint: "We are taking this very seriously but we don't want to have a knee jerk reaction.
"We will take a considered approach [including] talking to Indigenous communities to see if they are upset [by the name]. As a company, we don't stand by any historical references to colonialism; it's just a word. But we want to come up with a considered way forward."
He says Colonial inherited the name when they bought the original Margaret River brewery in 2008, adding: "It's not something we came up with to marginalise people, and we've always tried to engage people. No one wants to do marketing that offends people."
UPDATE (17/06): Given the manner in which this has blown up online, we contacted Blackhearts & Sparrows co-founder Paul Ghaie for more background. You can read more about the business he built with his sister Jess in our September 2019 feature here.
Paul says they first sat down with the brewing company back in February 2019 after customers and staff had said they felt a little uncomfortable with the name Colonial.
"As we've always tried to operate our business with fairness and inclusivity for all, we thought it would be good to broach this with CBCo," he says. "They were very receptive [and] we had a great discussion and, whilst we all agreed there was no malice behind their name, they were aware at that stage that it could be perceived as somewhat problematic and were exploring their options around it. We decided at that stage to keep working with the products in light of seeing some progress on the name.
"In October, they had told us they had reached out to elders in the Indigenous community about the best way to approach it.
"Given the current climate we find ourselves in, and the voice of concerned customers and staff growing louder, we thought it was the right decision in lieu of CBCo not having made any changes yet. We wanted to ensure our diverse customer base felt welcome in-store at a very emotional time for many."
He says the Blackhearts' team have been taken aback at the reaction the move has created, pointing out that much coverage and commentary has ignored the fact this has been an ongoing discussion between the two businesses.
"It was not a knee-jerk reaction to social media," Paul says, "but a very considered decision. We make decisions every day about products to stock and many are rejected on their potential to offend, so, for us, it was just part of that process.
"CBCo has actually been very respectful of the decision and we certainly bear no malice or ill will toward the company or their people – they've always been great to deal with. We are working on a way forward with them as we really rate the beers and we would love to range them again."
For Colonial, they have faced a similar challenge in the past. In 2017, a Brisbane councillor took a stand against an Australia Day banner hanging outside The Fox, a pub owned by Colonial's parent company, hospitality group CLG.
In a statement issued today (16/6), the brewing company said: "In light of the current climate and recent events, Colonial Brewing Co acknowledge the significant stress and angst surrounding the Black Lives Matter community built to bring justice, healing and freedom to black people across the globe.
"We have had significant messages and comments regarding our name, we want you all to know; we hear you."
The statement goes on to say the name "was not chosen, or intended to celebrate colonialisation" but instead refers to the brewery "colonialising the wine region with one of the first craft breweries."
Lawrence said a review started six months ago with the aim, he says: "to have people talking about our beer and not our name. We're here to sell beer and be a strong, independent brewing company."
When they first acquired the business, then a small microbrewery in WA's South West, he says: "We didn't change it as it had won some significant awards in the past. The landscape then for these type of issues wasn't as strong as it is now."
As one of the largest and fastest-growing independent breweries in Australia, he says there would be "big cost considerations" were they to change the brand, but adds: "That's not everything. It's about how we move forward with taking on the next chapter of the brand so it's a positive one.
"There's no quick fix because we are a big brand. We have to listen to everybody and get all the facts down."
Colonial Brewing's Media Statement
In light of the current climate and recent events Colonial Brewing Co acknowledge the significant stress and angst surrounding the Black Lives Matter community built to bring justice, healing and freedom to black people across the globe.
We have had significant messages and comments regarding our name, we want you all to know; we hear you. The brand and name Colonial Brewing Co was inherited in 2008 when purchased, what was at the time, a small microbrewery in Margaret River; it was not chosen, or intended to celebrate colonialisation. The name Colonial was given to the Brewery as it was one of the first to establish itself in the well regarded wine region of Margaret River, colonialisng the wine region with one of the first craft breweries.
Over the past 6 months Colonial Brewing Co have undertaken a process to review and understand the options we have to approach the name considering the historical meaning. The process includes consultations with the appropriate parties to ensure a considered outcome is reached. The process is extremely important to us, one which we haven’t approached lightly.
Colonial Brewing Co is owned by the Morris Family and through its philanthropic arm Morris Family Foundation we have a significant focus on projects to reduce inequality, in particular projects working with First Nations people in regional areas, including a dedicated project in Townsville, Queensland.
We thank you for your ongoing support whilst we work through the risk and impact for all involved. Further information on the Morris Family Foundation.