Last month the Brewers Association launched a new PR campaign promoting beer education.
Beer The Beautiful Truth’s goal is simple – “to bust myths and communicate nutritional facts about beer”. The campaign has several components. The first stage is a new beer information website, and new nutritional labelling on a selected range of Lion and DB brands as “99% Sugar Free”.
Later stages will introduce a group of Beer The Beautiful Truth official spokesmodels, including Neil Miller, Beer Writer of the Year 2014.
Busting myths and providing information is laudable. But independent brewers say the campaign’s launch was secretive and sneaky, and accuse BTBT of being anti-craft beer.
Campaign organiser the Brewers Association has just two members in New Zealand – Lion and DB. BTBT’s New Zealand launch follows Lion’s launch of BTBT in Australia in 2015.
The Association launched BTBT on Friday 24 February, with a media release and a simultaneous email to independent brewers inviting them to become involved. But many small brewers felt caught out by the surprise launch, and question the Association’s motives and messages.
“There was no consultation, it’s railroading us basically”, says Invercargill Brewery’s Steve Nally. “I don’t see any value in it for me as a brewer. It’s purely a marketing campaign. The whole idea of saying beer is 99% sugar free is just an absolute joke.”
Kereru Brewing’s Chris Mills: “My immediate response is that it looks like an anti-craft brewing marketing campaign. It’s too early to tell how this will affect my business but I’m certain we will get queries from the public and we will have to prepare an explanation as to how we see it – it’s a marketing campaign created by the larger brewers to potentially disadvantage smaller independent businesses like ourselves.”
“If they were being genuine about wanting to counter the sway towards wine and spirits and the decline in the total volume of drinking, then I’d have thought they’d be more genuine, consult with other brewers first, and tell us they are wanting to lift the profile of beer,” says Mike’s Organic Brewery owner Ron Trigg.
“We can’t argue with the fact that what we are selling is 90-something percent water and as a result we need to hold the value up and sell at a decent margin. They on the other hand are saying, ‘What do you want to pay that extra money for a craft beer for? A bit of sugar?’ It’s just bad news all round but we should at least listen to what they want to say.”
Epic Brewing’s Luke Nicholas told Beertown.NZ he was caught out by the launch. “The industry didn’t know before the media knew, so how could we engage or comment? Essentially it’s a campaign to improve the image of big breweries’ beers. I can’t see much upside for small independent brewers to get behind it.”
Brewers question the relevance of the 99% sugar-free threshold. For a beer to meet this threshold it must be highly fermented with few residual malt sugars, and consequently little flavour. Brewers believe the threshold is set to exclude most craft beer from the BTBT campaign. Luke Nicholas believes the 99% sugar-free status actually defines bad beer and bad drinking habits.
“People that drink craft beer are doing it for the flavour. They’re not the people who sit down and drink a 24-pack. That’s the problem with mainstream beers – you can sit down and drink 24 beers because it is 99% sugar-free and it’s essentially like drinking water. Big flavours slow you down, but mainstream beer has no flavour so you can drink heaps of it and they can sell you more.
“If craft brewers got their beer tested, pretty much none would come out at 99% sugar free. Craft brewers aren’t going to have beer that is fermented as dry as the big breweries’ because they don’t want to lose that flavour.”
Chris Mills says, “Generally body and mouthfeel comes from complex sugars, and it would be surprising if most of the craft beers in New Zealand would fit into the category of 99% sugar-free.”
For this reason it seem unlikely that many independently brewed beers will qualify for the BTBT labelling or a listing as a Beautiful Beer on the BTBT website (at $1000 a year).
Independent brewers also pointing out the costs will fall heaviest on small brewers with a broad product range. “It very much favours larger breweries that produce consistent volumes of lighter, lower bodied beers and who have substantial budgets to run the analysis,” says Chris Mills.
Luke Nicholas: “My concern is that this will start out voluntary and then maybe three years down the track it will be mandatory. I don’t know if that’s the intention, but it’s an opportunity for large producers to put pressure on small brewers.”
This puts the Brewers Guild in a difficult spot. The Brewers Guild is a larger organisation than the Brewers Association. It includes (Association members) Lion and DB, but the majority of Guild members are independent craft brewers, and many have been calling on the Guild to unambiguously oppose BTBT. Both Invercargill Brewing and Kereru have announced they will drop their Guild membership over the issue, and other members are awaiting the Guild’s response before deciding whether to remain.
Guild president Emma McCashin says the Guild executive was aware of BTBT before it launched, and at this stage the Guild does not have a position on the campaign. Its executive is meeting tomorrow morning to discuss BTBT and its members’ reactions.
Brewers Association external relations executive director Kevin Sinnott told Beertown.NZ he is surprised at the negative response. “We’ve been approached by a number of independent craft brewers who are keen to be part of the campaign. No one involved directly with a brewery has contacted the Brewers Association with any negative comments.”
Kevin says the campaign is driven by a demand from the public and regulators for more information about what is in our beer. Last month the Association commissioned Colmar Brunton research, which found 75% of Kiwis want to know about the nutritional value of their beer – the survey did not ask about wine, spirits or RTDs. At the same time, Fairfax ran this article Why doesn't alcohol feature nutritional information on labels?
“We know the public want more information and the Government is already moving in that direction”, says Kevin. “We expect that within a year or two there will be voluntary guidelines for nutrition labelling (on alcoholic beverages). We know this is coming and we want to get ahead of it and get consumers to rethink the beer category. That will benefit every brewery.”
Kevin argues that if the two largest brewers choose to provide nutritional labelling voluntarily, it will reduce pressure on other brewers to make it compulsory. He also urges any independent brewers with questions or criticisms to contact him directly.
“We welcome the discussion, and we welcome a re-evaluation of what’s in beer, because we know the general public have misconceptions about beer being an unhealthy drink.”
We asked, with years of industry domination, just how did the Association’s two members let these misconceptions spread?
“That’s a very good question. I guess all I can say is we’ve recognised there are misconceptions and that we are not giving consumers what they need when they decide whether to have a beer or not. Regardless of who is involved in this campaign, we believe the whole category will benefit because people will think again about beer.”