January isn’t even in the books yet, but already 2014 is shaping up to be a year when disputes, challenges, and general sniping become much more of an issue in the UK beer world. As the inexorable rise in the number of breweries continues, inevitably toes are stood on*, sabres are rattled, and the protagonists grumble at each other like so many elephant seals, all trying to occupy the same strip of froth-flecked beach. That’s a mighty generalisation, of course – the public’s increased appetite for beer, allied to the mantra ‘Beer People Are Good People’ means that trademark disputes make the news because they are still unusual. But for how long?
*Like Marti Pellow from Wet Wet Wet, who once stood on my foot in a bar in Stirling, and walked off without apologising (true, albeit boring, story)
At the end of last week, Scottish producer Brewmeister revealed their new branding and line-up of beers (pictured above), which is a fair step away from the look they had launched with, back in 2012. That’s not really surprising; breweries are no different to other businesses, evolving a brand over time as the focus changes tack, or as the protagonists develop as business-people. However, once the wraps had come off the new Brewmeister bottles, almost immediately people began pointing out how similar it was to a certain other Scottish brewery…
It’s not difficult to see why some people had made that connection…
This is Brewmeister we’re talking about here, they of the ‘is it or isn’t it?’ Strongest Beer in the World, Armageddon (and now, an even mightier version; Snake Venom). Having gained considerable publicity from their high-abv escapades, Brew…meister have traded up in fairly spectacular style, from the beginnings of a £5,000 student loan to an investment of around £250,000. As a result, they have relocated recently from Kincardine O’Neil to a new facility on a station-side industrial estate in Keith, about thirty miles to the north. At the same time, new people have come on board, not least a new head brewer; David Beach, ex-of Purity and Batham’s. With all this going on, it makes sense to refresh the branding, and come up with some new recipes and soforth. Yet, did it have to be this similar to BrewDog? I emailed co-founder Lewis Shand, and asked him directly…
“I was in the US a few months ago with John the other founder of BM on a bit of a beery pilgrimage and found that there are 100s of modern breweries with bright branding and edgy tasting beers. The problem in the UK is that we don’t have many of them, so the UK craft beer market just sees the style as belonging to Brewdog. The confusion does not derive from the whispers that Brewmeister style ourselves on Brewdog. The confusion lies in the fact that both Brewdog and Brewmeister style ourselves on the US craft beer revolution. We are trying to get the same excitement about good beer in the UK and persuade people to ditch crap lagers for something more exciting!”
“There are a number of fundamental differences between us and Brewdog and when people get to know this they will realise we are not trying to copy them or anything like that. I LOVE Brewdog’s beers and think they have done a fantastic job, but they were luckier than us financially when they started. Other than financials, the nuts and bolts of the differences include 1) We bottle condition all of our beers because we think it allows the flavour characteristics to develop better 2) The malt we use is floor malt from Warminster Malting 3) We have staff of 13 people, they employ 100’s of staff 4) We can’t afford a sexy neon sign in our brewery!”
So, there you go. Not intended as a direct copy of BrewDog, merely reflecting the same influences that BrewDog had when they began, seven years ago. It should also be noted that Brewmeister didn’t sit round a flip chart themselves, they contracted out to branding agency CP and Co (although, of course, they then signed off on those designs). Whether you can see any similarities or not, I think it’s patently obvious that no one brewery owns the style that has become synonymous with ‘craft beer’. Comparing the likes of the Kernel, Magic Rock and Cromarty (to select three off the top of my head), brings you to three very different-looking conclusions.
It’s admirable that Brewmeister have decided to explore a change of image, ditching beers like Black Cock; “a big black bold one which goes well with a blonde…a Brewmeister blonde!”. Personally, I think there are fairly visible parallels between their new direction and the Ellon concern – but whether that’s merely through shared influences, who can say? At the end of the day, the two most important issues with regard to this are that firstly, as the numbers of breweries increases, crossover of this nature will inevitably occur (and for some, may end in a legal context). Secondly, and most importantly, what’s in the bottle is what really counts. And that, more than anything else, will determine how breweries like Brewmeister do when everything shakes out.
One thing I overlooked in all of this, and that has subsequently been pointed out to me via Twitter, is the marketing release that accompanied Brewmeister’s re-brand. It suggested (see screen-grab below), that as their beers are ‘craft’, prospective stockists should consider them, as they would then be able to charge a premium for them.
This flows down the line of what many people already believe/know; that calling your product ‘craft’ entitles you to pitch it at a premium. I’m not an on- or off-trade buyer, I really don’t know if other producers are as full-frontal when it comes to stating the ‘benefits’ of being in the craft bracket. But Brewmeister are clearly, and looking at that release, blatantly, courting that market.
Brewmeister issued an official response to the branding issue, and the pricing challenged by Chris from the Hanging Bat – read it here…