Mainspring: The Fall of British Craft Beer, Part 2

(Read Part 1 here)

mainspring
Mainspring’s logo, at the time of their launch in 2017.

“It was the beer. That was what I told myself. I mean, you tasted it, we all tasted it. It was phenomenal. We had no idea that we’d end up with this.” My interviewee, ‘B’, pauses a moment to gesture around angrily.

We’re sat in one of London’s Samuel Smith’s pubs, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, but I know B was not referring to the pub itself. He’s gesturing north, east, south and west, above and below, at everything wrought in the world of beer by his former employer.

The choice of venue seems fitting. Like monuments made from older, stronger stone, Samuel Smith’s pubs have watched quicker-lived beer cultures rise around them, only to be eroded by time’s tide. They remain the time-machines-to-the-1970s they always have been, and feel like a place of true escapism now. Once a contrast to a beer culture with a faster metabolism, Sam Smith’s pubs now feel like a holiday to a place without any painful traces of ‘craft beer’ to be found.

B is incognito to avoid any chance of crossing the path of an angry beer geek. I barely recognised him as he sidled up to me at the bar. His beard shaved to extinction, his glasses replaced by contact lenses, he dresses in an unbranded grey zip-up hoodie and a trucker cap (one small concession to his former appearance). B exudes the same nervous energy of other Mainspring employees I have met, sorry for what happened but not sorry for what they made. “We knew what we were doing could end badly. We knew there was a plan. But we really thought that the beer we made was worth anything. In the end, it cost everything.”

There is a commonly held misconception that Mainspring was co-opted after it was founded, and had its noble aims blackened. To get the truth of Mainspring’s origin, I had to speak to one of the founding directors.

Throughout Mainspring’s short, Icarus-like history, its directors remained in the background, to the point of appearing illusive or non-existent. The directors preferred the brewery’s employees, drawn from high-profile breweries across the UK, and the world, to take the limelight.

Nevertheless, six very real men and women were certainly running Mainspring, each with extensive backgrounds in brewing, distribution, finance, marketing, sales and operations; but they were brought together by another party. B admits that the offer of a job with Mainspring felt Faustian, but it was nothing compared to the one offered to the company’s directors in the first place: create the best brewery in the country within a year, and have almost limitless resources. The price? Knowing that there is a very real chance that your brewery’s rise to fame could precipitate the gutting of the entire industry.

‘D’ had worked in distribution for a number of UK and European companies for the past ten years, eventually specialising in craft beer and seeking greater challenges. She was first approached about buying into a new venture in late 2016, by a man named Wes Cavendish, from a company calling itself Caistor Insights.

“He told me from the very beginning that he didn’t know anything about beer, and that he didn’t care to. He said he was only interested in proving what could be achieved.”

D has met me at a bar in Hoxton, East London. Here, bars and pubs seem to have been the quickest to moved on, though A-boards on the street still bare the faint, recently-erased lines of the words ‘CRAFT BEER’. Ghosts rendered in chalk.

“Cavendish talked a lot about Brexit, and Trump, and populism, and knowing what people are going to do before they do it. Knowing what people want. He said his people had done enough research to prove that, with enough data points [about someone’s age, gender, interests, social media activity etc] it was possible to make a ‘perfect brand’. He said that they [Caistor Insights and companies like them] had proven it could be done with democracy, so why not with a business?”

It was true that companies like Caistor Insights who specialised in ‘Big Data’, information willingly given by people in their use of online services and applications, had played a role in the success of the UK referendum on Brexit and the US presidential election. Even so, some felt this role was overstated, so if they had had such a hard time in the world of politics, why make the move to beer?

“They thought craft beer was the perfect test, as there would be so much data for them to extract from social media, blogs, apps and so on, and with relatively low risk of being… discovered.” But why would craft beer drinkers be more gullible or less aware than others of this kind of manipulation?

The answer was simple. “Arrogance,” says D. “Caistor’s earliest work on the project had proven that craft beer consumers, as well as those working in it, often thought they were immune to being deceived, which made it all the easier for their egos to be flattered. Mainspring was designed for them.”

So how did Cavendish, a man used to the world of politics and with no interest in beer, create ‘the perfect brewery’ that would set the entire industry alight?

‘Big data’ specialists like Caistor Insights use psychometrics (also known as psychographics) to measure and determine people’s personalities, based on the ‘Big Five’ or ‘O.C.E.A.N.’ personality categories (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). To use these accurately once required extensive questionnaires, but in the age of social media, big data companies were simply able to mine people’s social media, particularly Facebook likes, to determine personalities and behaviour (and you can test it out for yourself on the website of the Psychometrics Centre of the University of Cambridge). Those with the right tools and resources could potentially use psychometrics to make lists of voters to target with specific ads, or, as Caistor envisioned, drinkers to target with specific beers.

Craft beer proved to be fertile ground for Caistor – a beer culture that gave its opinions, feelings and desires willingly, and lengthily, across a whole range of social media and applications. But these drinkers were no long people, or even consumers, they became ‘datasets’. Based on all the information they happily gave to websites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, apps like Untappd, and the usual social media, the ranges of beers to best meet the needs of the datasets were composed and constructed. But these were not recipes, or even beer styles. More work was needed.

The overlapping and occasionally conflicting interests from different datasets, such as, for example, being obsessive fans of a particular cask ale, but generally preferring keg beer and shunning most other cask beers, presented ‘refreshing and exciting challenges’ for Caistor, which spent a great deal of time trying to ‘understand’ beer geeks. This was done by dedicating server capacity to unravelling common factors between blogs, RateBeer scores, Untappd data and more. Resources were spent interviewing attendees at various UK beer festivals, both traditional and modern, under the guise of a young couple starting a Dutch YouTube channel, ‘Bier Extreem!’. The answers helped Caistor Insights make sense of the flood of data.

D describes meeting another Caistor Insights employee, much later in the development of Mainspring. He resembled “a drill sergeant with marketeer’s fashion sense”. More rugged, less detail-oriented language was spoken. Data ranges were ‘thrown against the wall to see what sticks’, the raw results from their market research went through a ‘bullshit-strainer’ and was pulled apart by ‘number fuckers’ to extrude the most salient information. You imagine some Caistor Insights employees work far longer hours than others.

The result was based on the boiled down data from all this work. When it was all presented to D and her fellow potential directors, Caistor described the process as being ‘simple’, applying binary answers and continuing to filter the results as necessary, until they had formula for creating enough beers to please every beer drinker.

A set of four spectra were developed: light/amber/dark; strong/session/special; experimental/accessible; and modern/traditional. With these alone, Caistor believed it could create the range of beers to suit the specific demands and tastes of the vast majority of the UK craft beer scene. It could create a brewery with output to satisfy anyone.

Caistor called these combinations ‘brand desires’, each of which correlated to identified interests from thousands of the datasets. The results became Mainspring’s tantalising opening line-up.

Brand Desire 1: Light-Traditional-Accessible-Session (Zentrum Lager series)

Brand Desire 2: Light-Modern-Experimental-Special (Nucleus mixed fermentation project)

Brand Desire 3: Amber-Traditional-Accessible-Session (Heart cask beer range)

Brand Desire 4: Amber-Modern-Experimental-Strong (Alpha IPA series)

But why were there no big dark beers in this line-up, especially considering their popularity among the RateBeerians and Instagrammers? As ever, there was cold, straightforward reasoning behind it.

Caistor had identified some ‘intriguing’ correlations between consumers being ‘surprised’ or ‘shocked’ into purchasing unannounced beers or special releases, and the kind of heavy mega-stouts and flavoured big beers that breweries like to showcase at festivals and events. A ‘brand desire’ to match this had been defined, but deliberately held back from the initial line-up:

Brand Desire 5: Dark-Modern-Experimental-Special (Foundation)

So, when festival season rolled around, and Mainspring famously announced it would release a new member of the Foundation series at every festival it attended for the next twelve months, we all, of course, lapped it up.

We, the beer drinkers, had been identified, analysed, interpreted and understood. And we were going to like what we got. We just needed to be told what to do next.


To be continued, in Part 3.

Mainspring: The Fall of British Craft Beer, Part 1

mainspring
Mainspring’s logo, at the time of their launch in 2017.

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 9th 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 9th, 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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mainspringtweet1
(12:01pm July 9th, 2017)

Then, a few minutes later:

mainspringtweet2
(12:05pm July 9th, 2017)

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.


To be continued, in Part 2.

A Report from #EBBC15, Darkly

2015-08-28 11.55.48

The following is a piece of fiction, inspired by a thought that occurred to me earlier in the year: what if the monasteries of England were never dissolved, and our brewing history remained as strongly associated with monks and abbeys as it is in Belgium? What might change if England remained Catholic, and if Belgium became its greatest brewing rival? What might the 2015  European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Brussels be like, if history was different?

 

From the other side of the glass, it was a dark view.

Among the journalists and bloggers in the conference centre, there was conversation, warm greetings, a sense of community: a bustling, thriving discussion of Belgian brewing. It’s what we came for. But as I approached the Chairman, eager to put to him some stickier questions than he’d faced in the far-too-polite press conference itself, the dark side of the famous Anglo-Belgian brewing rivalry showed its face. I witnessed first hand the segregation, the suspicion and the prejudice.

Excusez-moi, monsieur – sorry – please, sir, you must step this way.” A polite voice in my ear and surprisingly firm grip on my arm turned me away from the relieved-looking Chairman. “You will be far more comfortable, we are sure, with your countrymen and colleagues in the viewing gallery.”

I glanced up at the dim-lit room behind smoky glass on the balcony above.

“Will there be any opportunities to-”

“Please.” An implacable smile, an extended hand gesturing to the top of the stairs. Inside the ‘viewing gallery’ I found fellow bloggers from the British contingent, looking as peeved as me. Unwelcome guests, tidied away to a place out of sight. “Typical bloody Belgians, eh?” one asked aloud, to no one in particular. “What have we done to deserve this?”

The answer was obvious, but uncomfortable. We had done the same thing to them on several occasions. This was the first time the European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference had been held outside of the UK, and naturally our longstanding brewing rivals were first in line to welcome the EBBC organisers with open arms. Whilst colleagues from across Europe and the world were given full access, we were treated with cool suspicion, even overt contempt. Had we really been so frosty towards the visiting Belgian bloggers at the previous EBBCs?

Until now we had only seen the representatives of the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) – dusty and opaque corporate bodies with their roots in the ancient Trappist monastic breweries – in the pages of the business press, but from the viewing gallery of the Hotel Orval’s conference centre, the people below seem no different to our own British Abbey Brewers Association (BABA). Their habit-inspired suits were tailored with longer, wider cuffs, the collars broader and looser, the branding more intricate, but they were largely the same white middle-aged men talking about ‘beer as it should be’.

The BABA’s Council may choose to wear, over their robe-like uniforms, the stylised stoles appropriated from the faith from which their fortunes historically stem, but the appearance was largely the same. They even seemed to share their Belgian counterpart’s fondness for sprinkling their speech with Latin to make themselves sound reverent and important. Links to the past. Eyes on the future. The similarities were stark, and quite surprising, to those of us from the UK. These men who spent fortunes on outperforming each other were actually quite alike.

In the UK, only the handful of independent brewers outside of the jurisdiction of the BABA’s ‘Designated Monastic Brewing Regions’ display any form of transparency or open dialogue with the press and blogging community. Still, gaps in the overlap of DeMBRegs have encouraged unlikely artisanal brewing scenes in areas of post-industrial decline such as Grimsby and Rhyl. Not so in Belgium. Here, the established Belgian brewery conglomerates (some four companies owning over 3000 brands between them) make up over 99% of the domestic market, with the scant remaining few hectolitres produced by private individuals and sold on the black market, much of it to private British collectors. Belgian beer covers the counters and shelves of bars across France, Italy, Spain and beyond, yet, like British beer, unable to break the German market, which has grown ever more stagnant and inward-looking. Still, its hold in North Africa, Asia, and South America makes for eye-watering volume figures, with the soaring demand met by ‘Supervised Trappist Breweries’, plants built abroad to meet domestic needs. Growth seems to continue apace, driven by the sheer choice of brands Belgian brewers are able to offer.

British brewing seems more rigid, its markets unchanged over hundreds of years, output spread along historical trade channels, to the remnants of the Holy Empire in the South East Asia and New English States, throughout the Baltics and Nordic Federation, and as far south as South Africa and Australia. Britain’s world-famous Aged Pale Ales (APAs) astonish palates on every continent, but despite unparalleled scientific achievement, lack the magic and mystery conjured by the Belgians.

It’s easy to be cynical about Belgian beer’s appeal, when they hide so much and yet continue to trade on a monastic heritage all but sterilised by corporate governance, but the opportunity to discover more about their brewing industry was irresistible, especially for British bloggers used to a similarly homogeneous beer scene. We came to learn, not to spy, but the chance to dish out some of the prejudice served to Belgian visitors to the UK must have been too tempting.

The hubbub below that we were now excluded from had begun following the BFB’s press conference, which was used to announce its latest campaign promoting the superiority of Belgian beer. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff, a good way to burn through 20 million francs, but didn’t really add much beyond a slick new font and sharper photography. The message remained derivative of previous campaigns, this time using the form of words ‘Belgian Beer – The Pinnacle of Brewing Excellence’ with a series of images depicting giant glasses of Sixtus and Orval towering over the Alps, Andes, Kilimanjaro and so on. The Q&A session was a joke; nothing but fluff questions from pocketed journalists about how they can keep up with the growing demand and how they live up to such constantly high expectations. The answers were right out of the scriptbook, as expected. Raised hands from non-vetted journalists, mostly the people I now stood with in the viewing gallery, were ignored.

It wasn’t as though we were trying to catch anyone out. We had questions because the amount of detailed information about the Belgian brewing scene in our home country is near non-existent – a smattering of specialist forum threads, piecemeal and highly dubious encyclopedia pages. Social media provides images and opinions, but so few facts. I’ve attended a number of tastings of Belgian beers (held in relative secrecy of course, in private groups) and been impressed with a number of beers, but, like with so many ‘classic’ British monastery styles, wondered if something has been lost in the battle for global brewing supremacy? The nationalistic fervour imbued in each of our brewing cultures, celebrated by many as a link to our past and powerful indicator of our place in the world, seems increasingly narrow-minded, even totalitarian, in a nation like ours where the cuisine of the world arrives on our doorstep.

Belgian beer bloggers interacted with us cautiously, as if unsure whether they will be tainted by association. Some, however, approached us enthusiastically in private, like us, eager to learn. We were pleased to have our suspicions confirmed on one issue though: the key battleground is in the New English States, where the gradual institution of federal democracy (with His Catholic Majesty the Prince of New England remaining as constitutional monarch) has seen the emergence of real diversity in the beer marketplace. The much-discussed grassroots movement of homebrewers starting, incredibly, their own brewing companies separate of BABA control, has undoubtedly set in motion a excitable reaction in the BFB, and confusion in the BABA.

Complacently assuming that brand loyalty and history would ensure superiority, no provisions for industry regulation such as the DeMBRegs were written into the Colonial Charter. The States could potentially be a clean slate, or rather, a blank canvas upon which a wholly different brewing industry could be set out. The BFB is naturally hoping to capitalise on this (the new ad campaign notably contained a version with Rochefort looming over the Rocky Mountains). Belgian bloggers may be able to access more privileged information on this issue. For now, we can only speculate on how the battle will play out, but as the last remaining free market to conquer, it’s be expected that both the BABA and BFB will be spending considerable resources. The real unknown element here is the the growing number of so-called Independent Craft Brewers in the States, whose beers are are reported to be quite unlike those from either Britain or Belgium. If they produce beers that capture the public’s imagination, the BABA and BFB might that money alone won’t buy them victory. Here’s hoping there’s a Conference in the States one day so we can try and find out for ourselves.

APRIL FOOLS’ DAY: Can-tillon?

The future?
The future? Designs for Cantillon’s new packaging.

 

It’s still sinking in, to be honest with you.

The first time I visited Cantillon nearly two years ago, it was breathtaking. It was everything people said it would be, and more, because there is a level of sensory interaction with the place beyond smell, sight and sound that is hard to put into words. And that’s before you taste the beers themselves. All of them, including the fresh and utterly mystifying lambic, were incredible. Incredible because they provided new flavour experiences but also left questions. What is that flavour? What does this remind me of? Is this still even beer?

Like the best pieces of art, so much of what is great about Cantillon is unspoken; undeclared; nuanced and yet, vibrant. Jean Van Roy presides over one of the most highly-regarded breweries in the world. Why then, would Cantillon need to do anything differently? Why would Van Roy, one of the world’s most respected brewers and an undeniable master of his craft, need to change processes there?

“America” must surely be the simple answer. Bottles of Cantillon’s beers do not travel very far, and with a massive (and growing) population of drinkers interested in craft beer and unique, sour styles, the homegrown varieties are no longer enough. The lucrative export market, denied to Cantillon for so many years, is now finally within reach.

When I received the email yesterday from a slightly nervous man from the “Ni-san” PR agency, wondering if I could look at some proofs of designs sent to him by his client, a ‘very known Belgium brewery’, I had concerns. He seemed reluctant to show me any images without me agreeing to ‘consult’ on them. I said fine, I’ll help however I can, and the next email I received astonished me.

Cans. From Cantillon. The man had found my blog posts about craft beer in cans and thought I was a good sounding board for what would prove to be the early designs for Cantillon’s new canned beers.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Immediately my mind ran away with itself, picturing slabs of Fou’foune in my fridge, but no offer of samples was forthcoming. Indeed, the entire thing was over as suddenly as it began. A subsequent email just twenty minutes later begged me to delete the previous one with the images attached, said there was no longer ‘obligation for services’ and that I should act as though the entire thing had never happened.

How could I? Especially since, unknowingly, the PR had left the text from a previous email exchange in the footer, namely the text “NO DO NOT SHOW THESE IMAGES THIS IS EMBARGO UNTIL 1/4 12PM – J”

J? Jean?

I suppose we’ll find out at 12pm.