Mainspring (or, The Fall of British Craft Beer), Part 1 – Like a Trap, Sprung.
Though only three years ago, the UK craft beer scene of 2017 was in great condition. The beginning of that year saw the number of UK breweries topping 1,700, with nearly 100 in London alone. There was a sense of continued momentum, sustained enthusiasm and new ‘waves’ of beer culture being born and growing organically.
On the global stage, we were starting to see the first signs of much-sought-after parity of esteem with American craft beer, but more importantly, British beer was being heralded on its own merits around the world. For example: in early 2017, Cloudwater, then barely two years old, took 5th Best Brewery in The World at the RateBeer Best Awards; UK brewers of all sizes and modes had an increased and regular presence at international festivals; some, like Beavertown, were hosting global craft beer festivals of their own; and the likes of BrewDog were even beginning overseas ventures, all in spite of the financial obstacles posed by a economy-wounding Brexit referendum the previous year.
Now, in 2020, we find ourselves in a ghost of that very same craft beer culture: a revolution turned to rout; a renaissance turned to ruin. At first eroded by tribal infighting, then diluted by increasingly avaricious buyouts and mergers, and, most spectacularly, shattered to its very core by a brewery (as difficult as it is to now call Mainspring ‘a brewery’) that many would blame for an ‘unforeseeable catastrophe’.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, the warning signs seem not only clear, but glaring. As those individual flashpoints began to flare, one after another, the real question is: how didn’t we see this coming?
Recalling those more innocent days, when beer geeks queued gleefully for the latest hyped releases at ever-larger events across the UK, is difficult and even painful for some. As hard as it is to imagine now, with so many of those exciting breweries now empty light industrial units and tenantless railway arches once again, even six months into 2017 the industry seemed stable. ‘Ale and hearty’, as the mainstream press so frequently termed it.
The announcement of Mainspring’s forthcoming launch on Twitter and Instagram was nothing short of a full-blown 24 hour phenomenon. People waking up on July 19th 2017 had never heard of Mainspring, but by 11pm that night, the whole UK beer scene had saturated social media with those oh-so-promising early images of their minimalist branding, beer range and the jaw-dropping brewery being built. By the end of July, we all knew, or least seemed fairly certain, that the arrival of Mainspring heralded the next phase of the British beer industry.
Mainspring was undoubtedly a sum total of a complex equation: the mid-2000s microbrewery explosion; added to the viral growth of the London beer scene of 2010 onwards; multiplied to the power of American fast-consuming, fresh-drinking beer culture. Mainspring was built not just to create hype but to consistently meet and exceed the expectations created by that hype – a dream come true for a UK craft beer scene with a sense of entitlement to match its prodigious growth. And what hype it created. It was, to speak personally, deeply discomforting to read those early tweets and posts from Mainspring again to research this piece. How could we have not realised just who had been paying attention to this tumultuous, evolving beer landscape? Not just observing, but constructing and executing meticulous plans.
At the time, all that industry experts and commentators could see was an astonishing new player on the scene, one who was revitalising the enthusiasm of even the most seasoned and jaded beer geeks. The frequently-tweeted variations on ‘April the 1st was ages ago, this can’t be for real’ filled everyone’s timelines that fateful day. Others, though, seemed strangely quiet about Mainspring, in particular, many of the UK’s leading beer writers and industry journalists. It was only revealed much later that certain members of the British Guild of Beer Writers had been issued a sternly-worded embargo by Mainspring, the incentive being offers of favourable access for interviews, tours, tastings and other ‘promotional opportunities’. My own employment at a brewery excluded me from being approached, but it was undoubtedly a masterstroke, making the announcement of the brewery’s existence all the more of a surprise, and most importantly, a social media feeding frenzy.
Now, Mainspring’s business model reads like a preposterously arrogant blueprint for a Tower of Babel. Back then, it gave hope to an industry desperate for new vision; a new powerhouse to take things to the next level, whatever that might be. The UK craft beer scene, whilst a thrilling and fulfilling world to be part of, had become an over-privileged child with an limitless appetite, flexible morals and little in the way of self-awareness. The landscape, shaped by the desires of completionists, rarity-hunters and social media activity, had become fertile soil in which to grow a brand that seemed to be pure wish fulfillment.
The brewery’s marketing was keen-edged and finely polished from the get-go. ‘We are Mainspring’ said the fateful first tweet from @MainspringBeer at 08:01am on July 19th, accompanied with the now-infamous image of their gargantuan facility. Over the course of the day, more detail was gradually and tantalisingly revealed, including the fact that they were based in Stevenage. Stevenage? we all asked with incredulity.
After the initial tweets about the branding and state-of-the-art brewhouse, came the incredible details of the brewery’s almost unbelievable proposed portfolio. The ‘Heart’ cask-conditioned beer range; ‘Zentrum’ family of authentic European lagers; the ‘Alpha’ canned IPA range; and, if that wasn’t enough, the ‘Nucleus’ mixed fermentation project, each was described with a barely palatable level of confidence. Furthermore, each seemed to have an equal priority in the brewery’s production plans. This was a big brewery they were launching, and they seemed utterly alien in comparison to their peers at that time. The absence of any ‘core’ range, like that of Beavertown, BrewDog or even Lost and Grounded, or even a seasonal catalogue like that of Cloudwater left many wondering how a brewery that scale could sustain such an approach. What would pay the presumably astronomical bills? Of course, we should have been asking, who.
Once those beers were finally released, and tasted, each and every one demonstrated an unsettling level of mastery. For, as the launch of the brewery came closer, many began to suspect a hoax, but no one was truly ready for just how good the beers would be. And the hordes of beer geeks who tasted them for the first time had been whipped into a frenzy long before then.
It’s hard to not feel naive, now, looking back. In a way, Mainspring had almost tipped its hand to us all, with some tweets just a few hours after the first. It wasn’t what they said, but rather, what they chose not to say.
Then, a few minutes later:
The first definition was certainly the one that Mainspring’s marketing team wished to convey as the ‘mission statement’, but in the end, it was that second definition that deserved our close attention. The mechanism of their plan, designed to be as predictable and certain as clockwork, had indeed been loaded, wound and, like a trap, sprung.
I'm a freelance writer and marketer. I also judge at global beer competitions including the World Beer Awards and the International Beer Challenge.
I co-authored Future Publishing's Craft Beer series: '365 Best Beers in The World' volumes I & II, and 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World'. I've also contributed to Good Beer Hunting, Original Gravity and Pellicle.
I also work full-time managing Marketing and Social Media for Howling Hops.
View all posts by Chris Hall