Here’s an interesting angle on the “faux-craft” clusterfuck that has besieged the local beer business: BrewDog, plucky young Scottish upstarts equally loved and loathed for their antics and attitude, have finally signed up an official New Zealand distributor — and it’s ‘Boundary Road’. That is to say, it’s the grotesquely-misnamed Independent Liquor, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Asahi, operating under the guise of their contrived and not-really-existent “brewery… nestle[d] in the foothills of the Hunua ranges”. As a conglomerate, B.R.B. / I.L. / Asahi are peddlers of all kinds of bullshit and nonsense, and really know how to put the f-word in “faux-craft”, so to speak.
Independent work the fakery at both ends and very fond of the “origin-fudging” I tipped as the unfortunate theme of 2012. With Boundary Road, they’ve set up a Potemkin1 craft brewery which they pretend isn’t the hugely industrial facility that also manufactures three-litre casks of vodka RTDs and which pumps out licensed knock-offs of green bottle Continental lagers that try very hard indeed to look imported. Leveraging the mega-bucks of the alco-pop business,2 they seem keen to take up a seat alongside our existing local beer duopoly, and to carve out a greater slice of the market. Already armed with big, mainstream international brands — both counterfeit and genuinely imported — they recently embarked on a campaign to shore up some “craft” cred. It began in earnest with their ‘Resident’ project, which brought in (with some wankery and double-dealing) an American brewer whose image still adorns several beers,3 continued with their distribution of the Sam Adams / Boston Beer Company range from the U.S., and now — or at least very soon, judging by the Beervana exhibitors list— includes distributing BrewDog. The effort to co-opt some goodwill by associating with those brands is transparent in the way they’re labelled as imported by “Boundary Road” while they avoid using that name on their decidedly low-brow volume-game products like Ranfurly.4
BrewDog are expanding at an impressively dizzying pace, but signing up with Boundary Road / Independent / Asahi is complete nonsense and makes a mockery of all the occasions on which they’ve (rightly!) been invoked5 as aggressive and elaborate marketers who remain genuine rather than resorting to peddling offensive and insufferable brandwank. There’s tremendous worldwide demand for their stuff — including here on the other side of the world, and including by me. Some of my favourite beer-related moments have been BrewDog ones, one way or another, and I’d love to have them more readily-available around here. But seriously, guys, there are (approximately) eleventy-bajillion companies involved in the import-export of booze and most of them aren’t producers of exactly the kind of industrialised garbage you specifically rail against. It’s no surprise that a company like Independent will happily clip the ticket, take their markup, enjoy some collateral credibility, and not particularly mind being ridiculed by a member of “their portfolio” — but it’s fucking depressing that the “punks” at BrewDog would go into business with alco-pop-peddling bullshit-artists like these.
Because I really do mean “specifically rail against”, above: Carlsberg is one of Independent’s flagship faux-imports,6 and also regularly appears alongside Stella and Becks in BrewDog’s marketing material, being obliterated with golf clubs or sent to the gallows. They even once had a memorable campaign — BeerLeaks.org, now retired, but cached in the Wayback Machine — which quite-rightly decried the origin-fudging practices of brand-first companies and called out Carlsberg by name. With its maximally-deceptive combination of subsidiary, parent, and licensors, Independent is exactly the kind of “faceless cartoon monstrosity” with a “destiny dictated by accountants” that was supposed to be first against the wall. With the aforementioned eleventy-bajillion alternatives, I just can’t believe BrewDog couldn’t find anyone better to deal with7 — and, really, if you can’t find a distributor worth doing business with in a given territory, don’t do business there; craft beer drinkers, the impassioned people you’re supposedly brewing for, will understand. Likewise, there’s a horrible irony in the joyful way BrewDog have been joining in the healthy skepticism about the U.K.’s new ‘Let There Be Beer’ campaign while shipping beer to those very-same “fakes and phonies”. Hypocrisy’s an interesting sin, one that’s basically immune to evasion and retreats to relativism,8 and one which undermines BrewDog’s authenticity. This isn’t ‘Equity for Punks’ anymore; it’s descending into Equity for Avril Lavigne.
That said — and even while keeping a few well-worth-reading cautious words about their partial-public-ownership model very firmly in mind — I’d still rather have a slice of BrewDog than of, say, Moa. The apparently spineless hypocrisy of the former doesn’t remotely rise to the level of the latter’s misogyny and clueless backwardness — which earned them an enduring personal boycott (not that they’ll ever care). But, much like my reaction to Emerson’s after the Lion buy-out, if this rubbish deal stands, I’ll just be less excited about BrewDog than I used to be. Handing my money over to their habitually-bullshitting distributor will happen less readily, and feel a little bit gross. Getting in bed with ‘Boundary Road’ takes the shine off the Scots and sits there as another depressing little data point that “success” always involves selling out at some point — which I sure as hell hope isn’t the case. Martin, James — BrewDogs, of all levels — I implore you;9 be the freakin’ Batman again, don’t be Harvey goddamn-Two-Face Dent.
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
1: Matt Kirkegaard and I are resolved to use this term more often. It comes from the maybe-never-actual (but-still-perfectly-symbolic) façades apparently thrown together to once fool a visiting Empress. I first used it for the way D.B. kept the corpse of Monteith’s around to pretend they still brewed on the West Coast (a practice they’ve actually since resumed, but for a long time the place was mothballed), but it fits these foundationless “brewery brands” so perfectly as well. This kind of shallow origin-fudging for the purpose of creating illusory scale and/or origin and/or character is — if you ask me — “faux craft” in its purest form. ↑
2: During serial abuse of the meaning of the word “independent”, they note that they’re #1 in RTDs and that their “key brands” are “Woodstock, Cody’s, [and] Vodka Cruiser”. ↑
3: Meanwhile, that whole production was a year ago, now. Has anyone seen them advertising for a new “resident”, or are they going to keep producing Spike’s beers in perpetuity? And if so, does he know that? I’d love to see the contract he worked under… ↑
4: Itself a very long-standing piece of origin-fudging, I suppose, given that the town the beer is named after almost couldn’t be further from where it’s brewed. ↑
5: Including quite-frequently by me. They were, if I recall correctly — always a big “if” — my go-to example for non-aggravating beer marketing in our podcast thereon. ↑
6: Along with preposterous claims to “Uncompromising Quality” and “Exclusive Aromatic Hops”, Boundary Road’s version of the Carlsberg carton bears a quote from Jacob Jacobsen, the brewery’s founder: “In working the brewery it should be a constant purpose, regardless of immediate gain, to develop the art of making beer to the greatest possible degree of perfection so that this brewery as well as its products may ever stand out as a model and, through their example, assist in keeping beer brewing in this country at a high and honourable level”. I submit that, given the context in which his beer now finds itself, if you attached magnets to his corpse and wrapped his coffin in copper coil, he’d be spinning in his grave so hard he could power the whole of Denmark. ↑
7: For completeness’ sake, I suppose there is an outside chance that BrewDog don’t actually know the nature of Boundary Road / Independent. But the companies register and the Googlemachine aren’t exactly rocket wizardry, and so this alternative (if anything) makes me even further depressed. Meanwhile, I once worked for a bar — the Malthouse here in Wellington — which imported a whole bunch of BrewDog itself, way back in 2009, without a need for a distributor at all, and one of the aforementioned “favourite beer moments” of mine was personally lifting an actual metric tonne’s worth of cases into cool storage in the ceiling. ↑
8: Unless you take your “punk” to the absolute extreme and turn into some kind of full-on morality-denying anarcho-capitalist. In which case you should say so, because no one likes a fucking nihilist. ↑
9: In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s worth pointing out that while drafting this piece I learned that Jos Ruffell (a director of Garage Project, site of my day job, and himself a BrewDog shareholder) posed a similar (though presumably less sweary) question in the Equity For Punks forums. I have no idea whether Martin and James have read that, or replied, and I hope it’s obvious that I’m speaking just for myself here, as always. ↑