Mainspring, Part 3 – The Weapons Turn

(Recap: Part 1, Part 2)

The launch of Mainspring had made it clear that the British craft beer drinker was ready to be exploited. The brewery’s directors, brought together by the plans of Caistor Insight’s Wesley Cavendish, were steering Mainspring to worldwide fame and acclaim. Their launch, and subsequent international summer beer festival campaign concluded, social media was awash with praise for their beers, people and attitude. Everything from their Zentrum series Pilsner (Tettnang), Heart series Porter (London 1850) to their Nucleus series Pajottenland Sour (Gooseberry) were received with nothing less than total admiration and delight. The beers were unquestionably world-class.

Visitors to Mainspring’s brewery and taproom in Stevenage were bowled over the size, scope, polish and skill on display in every aspect of the operation. The location began to quickly make sense: easily accessible to those in London by train, but equally easy for those in the North of England to reach by rail, shrugging off any sense of the brewery being specifically ‘London’, or even Southern. It was embraced by England. and the UK, as a whole. Operating costs were lower too, helping to afford a spacious enterprise, and a taproom with the capacity to seat hundreds, who visited every weekend and experienced none of the carnage of similar ‘beer destinations’. Everything, and everyone, seemed under control.

By the beginning of 2018, the directors of Mainspring would have been forgiven for believing they had created the perfect brewery.

Indeed, after barely a year in operation, Mainspring found itself named 5th best brewery in the world in the 2018 RateBeer awards, beating Cloudwater out of the top 5 and other UK breweries down the rankings. Bottles and cans were traded internationally on an almost daily basis and hyped to the point of social media saturation by thousands of fans.

Then the madness began.

Mainspring’s ownership had always been stated as a mix of private equity and independent capital. As early as late 2017, consumers had become used to the phrase ‘private equity’ being banded about, and almost indifferent to the idea of venture capitalists carving out ever greater slices of the booming craft sector. Consumers even seemed a little bored by the constant arguments about it. Even some of the macro brewers had managed to successfully make the case that, whilst independence could be important, surely the beer was far more important?

The quality, output and sheer volume of well-received and highly-acclaimed beers released into the marketplace by Mainspring had squashed a lot of the life out of the debate. Private equity? So what? Now, more than ever, British beer was in true ascendance, and the rising tide was raising all the boats. Until August 1st 2018, the day when (what was to be the final) London Beer City was launched.

Mainspring had filled the yearly celebration’s calendar with events, and had hinted they would soon be announcing a London-based bar of their own. The beer world was at fever pitch with excitement for what the summer would yet bring. Until the news broke.

An American beer blogger had contacted Good Beer Hunting with an audio file, and its transcript, of Wesley Cavendish at a ‘big data’ business conference, admitting privately to a few friends that, of all the work his company had done, he was most proud of ‘the whole Mainspring thing’. The blogger gave the contact details of a former Caistor Insights employee who had corroborated the audio file. After GBH made their own enquiries, obtaining statements from several other Caistor Insights employees who no longer feared reprisals, they ran the story on their Sightlines column. Whilst the full understanding of how Caistor did what they did only became known many months later (see Part 2), GBH’s piece did effectively place Cavendish as the main antagonist of the piece, orchestrating the creation of a ‘perfect brewery’ to prove just how pliant and malleable the beer industry, and its consumers, could be.

The beer world all but erupted.

Announcements of buyouts, private equity purchases and ‘special partnerships’ had become almost commonplace, but the revelations of the work of Caistor Insights was another matter entirely. People’s memories were short, but not short enough to forget the role of ‘fake news’ and the manipulation of public opinion in both the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Those wounds, and the wounds caused by subsequent and myriad other shocks in politics, business and sport since, were still raw.

Everyone knew social media was as a battlefield. But consumers, bloggers, professionals and key influencers had thought themselves the soldiers in that battle, when in fact they were the weapons, ready to be used by those with the skill and dark intention to do so. Unless, those weapons became truly aware of what they were. Suddenly, all eyes were on Mainspring the company, not the brewery, and the success story began to unravel.

Mainspring’s directors names had always been publicly available – all them well-known as experienced industry professionals with many years of experience between them. When the truth about Caistor Insights’ involvement, and direct role in creating Mainspring, came to light, the dry kindling of the internet-connected beer world was set ablaze in fresh outrage, as it had been time and time again. However, this time was different. When crowdfunding campaigns had led to breweries being bought either in part or in total, for example, people felt somewhat hurt and manipulated. This was that same feeling multiplied tenfold. One peek behind the curtain had turned the pliant and malleable masses into a venomous, enraged mob.

Blog posts poured forth, articles in mainstream press helped spread the flames, and suddenly there were organised drainpours being livestreamed on social media, all whilst Mainspring’s beers continued to receive award after award in competitions judged months before. #FAKEBREWS was the hashtag that became the adopted masthead for the reaction to the news.

Perhaps most memorably, the major craft beer festivals that summer and autumn (most of which Mainspring quickly pulled out of, anyway) saw a heavily increased security presence, as the digital outrage became very real, physical protests. Some occurred spontaneously in queues and halls, whilst others were orchestrated, masked, ‘Occupy’-style events, most notably resulting in injuries and a police response at 2018’s IndyManBeerCon, and at Mainspring’s taproom itself, until it was of course forced to close ‘for the foreseeable future’. The brewery would never open to the public again.

Towards the end of the year, the situation began to calm, to a low simmer at least. Articles bemoaning the damage Mainspring had caused seemed to grow less frequent (and all the while, those who still had the brewery’s magnificently brewed beers in their fridges and cellars enjoyed them as before, but silently). More buyouts by AB Inbev became more popular talking points for a month or two, until the Mainspring saga flared up once more, and for the final time.

One quiet November morning, a leaked email thread was forwarded from a quickly-deleted Gmail address to roughly two hundred journalists, beer bloggers, and industry professionals. The email thread in question, now infamous, was between a number of colleagues of the Brewers Association in the United States, discussing, with increasing concern, just how they were going to contain and, ideally, hide their involvement as the originators of the plan to create Mainspring.

Within a year, British craft beer as we know it would be almost extinct.


Final part tomorrow.

Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

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