Mainspring, Part 4 – A Few More Nails

(Recap: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

“For some reason we saw ourselves as acting in a parental way. Trying to steer a child away from bad choices.”

I met ‘R’ in a restaurant half an hour’s drive from JFK airport. My layover was only a few hours before a connecting flight, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. ‘R’ is a former board member of the Brewers Association. He claims to be responsible for leaking the emails.

“I suppose we were poor parents.”

But why did the BA want this in the first place? Surely any kind of influence in the natural progression of another country’s beer culture was in contradiction of some kind of Star Trek-esque Prime Directive not to interfere.

“The entire board was worried that, without an effective body to protect the UK craft beer movement’s interests, and without a proper definition, it needed drastic measures to prevent Big Beer steering the whole thing into ruin. ‘Mainspring’ was actually called ‘Core’ – a plan to help ‘uplift’ a number of smaller breweries to becoming more influential, independently powerful and less prone to buyouts. The idea was to accelerate the UK scene.

“Cavendish was approached as a consultant, to help us figure out strategy, but he was deemed too dangerous to bring on board. We lost interest in the project and put it on the back burner. Little did we know, he took our ideas and ran with them on his own.”

Just a few months after the leak from within Brewers Association, a number of board members step down. Across the Atlantic, the outrage kept burning.

Mainspring itself was, to the surprise of many, still commercially afloat. Whilst its draught sales had spiked and than plummeted, the sales of Mainspring’s beers in cans and bottles seemed to stay steady. UK craft was a very different place, now that it had found both a bottomless source of bitter betrayal and a nascent protest movement of sorts to tap into it. Still, this was a scene ruled by social media, blogs and crucially: clicks. The bizarre side effect of this strange brew was that Mainspring’s beers were still being bought by the thousands, purely to be drainpoured, smashed, catapulted into the sea and blown up as part of a feeding frenzy, that seemed to generate neverending thousands of likes, shares, clicks, posts and retweets. The scene’s actors were still getting attention, but actual creativity and self-expression was starting to fade.

And one can only wonder just how many cans and bottles out of each six pack purchased were actually destroyed.

In response to these healthy sales, Mainspring didn’t close down, or even reduce output, it simply re-aligned its business model to focus on small pack. It continued to release beers, many of them quite exceptional, but now enjoyed, in their own way, by an increasingly lucrative ‘outrage market’. Only now have the brewery’s sales begin to dip. Several directors, brewers and other personnel have already abandoned ship. Perhaps soon, we’ll finally be rid of them.

Craft beer culture truly began to eat itself. Beer geeks, jaded beyond all sense, slowly turned away from UK craft beer entirely, seeing it as cynical, compromised and tainted by the likes of Mainspring. Those breweries with private equity stakes in them began to be viewed the same – ethically dubious at best; morally bankrupt at worst. Drinkers now demanded integrity, and argued bitterly about it in ways that made previous online beer arguments look like playground spats. The thing was, we had never created a charter, or a code, or set of criteria that measured integrity. Size and independence meant nothing anymore. So, the drinkers began to look to the beer of other countries, even the US, providing the brewery in question wasn’t a member of the now hated BA.

As 2019 wore on, trade in specialist craft beer bars and retailers slowed, sputtered and died. Smaller breweries felt the brunt first, with over a dozen in administration by the summer, and then some big names began to fall.

But there were unusual twists of the knife, too. Bermondsey’s The Kernel, Partizan and Brew By Numbers relocated to production sites in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, citing falling consumption within the UK, and a wish to focus instead on their lucrative European markets.

BrewDog, Fourpure and Beavertown announce strikingly similar arrangements, described as ‘unique partnership deals’ with Stone, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head respectively. Ostensibly maintaining their proprietary independence, each UK brewer dedicates a portion of its production to the brewing of its American partner’s beers, effectively making them satellite production sites without losing any of their precious ‘independence’. After just a year, those portions of production have now become on average 75% in favour of their American partners. The details of those arrangements remain shrouded in secrecy.

The sea change in the beer industry opens up UK craft beer to a series of previously inconceivable purchases. Total independence becomes a relic of the past, the preserve of nanobreweries and fantasies. Closures follow, by the hundred. Quickly, the average UK beer enthusiast’s ‘Following’ list on Twitter fills with deactivated, closed or unused accounts. The once endlessly crashing waves of craft beer social media slow to a quiet, flat, infrequent drip.

The change within the UK craft sector caused curious ripples and effects elsewhere, too. In 2019, Marston’s quickly shed its ersatz ‘craft’ brands from its various portfolios, selling them to major UK supermarkets. The money from the sale helps them acquire the Harvey’s, Timothy Taylor’s, Adnam’s and Brain’s brands. The pub estates of these breweries are sold off to the ever-avaricious Punch Taverns and Enterprise groups, growing their stranglehold over the pub sector. Now faced with such a behemoth in competition, industry whispers indicate a desire within Greene King and Shepherd Neame to merge, to survive.

Without any protected designation of what integrity in craft beer was, the term ‘craft’ quickly depreciates in the value, to the point that those few producers worth their salt stop using the term entirely, surrendering it to the Special Offers signs of supermarkets and the marketing men of far larger, colder concerns.

‘Craft beer’ in the UK quickly became something sold by large chains of pubs, major supermarkets, and almost no one else. Independent retailers and bars lacked the buying power and clout to survive. A handful of brewpubs and eclectic farmhouse breweries became the final outposts of independently sold and produced beer, and even those are likely not long for this world without significant investment.

We look at July 19th 2017, the announcement of Mainspring, as the harbinger of what came next. But there can be no doubt that everything that happened had links to events in 2016, 2012, 2007, perhaps even as far back as 2000 or beyond.

We’ll never know now if there was anything we could do, or if we were already on a path from which there was no turning back. Yet one cannot help but wonder, if, at the very least, we could have tried.

Author: Chris Hall

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.

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