BrewDog, ‘Boundary Road’, and becoming the villain

'Boundary Road' / Independent / Asahi's BrewDog flyer
‘Boundary Road’ / Independent / Asahi’s BrewDog sales flyer, with bonus superfluous apostrophe

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 'Punk' IPA tap badge
BrewDog ‘Punk’ IPA tap badge

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.

BrewDog's 'Revolution'
BrewDog’s ‘The Revolution’ — featuring Boundary Road’s apparently-beloved Carlsberg third in line

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 —, 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.

The Dark Knight

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.

29 thoughts on “BrewDog, ‘Boundary Road’, and becoming the villain”

  1. Personally, I don’t care who imports the beer as long as it means cheaper prices and more availability. BRB get a lot of flack, but they were one of the first ‘craft’ beers I tried. They were a stepping stone for me.

    I’m also enjoying the cheaper prices of Asahi beer 🙂 I look forward to seeing more BrewDog in nz stores

    1. I’m with you Sean, but Phil and I agreed to disagree on that one I think! He rollin’, he hatin’, he makin’ some excellent points which leave me unconvinced but interested in the debate. 😉

    2. I’m with you – Boundary Road was my gateway into the amazing deliciousness that is craft beer! I used to drink Mac’s and Monteith’s for ‘something different’ and when BRB came out I was all over it. Now, I hardly touch the stuff…but have to credit them (and Good George – that was what REALLY tipped me over the edge into a decent pint!) with introducing me into a world of flavour!

  2. I think using Harvey Dent is a very good analogy. The pained and bitter criminal who has lost trust in everything.
    Saying this, its hard to preach when almost everything we consume nowadays days has probably had its ticket clipped by an immoral, unethical party. The car you drive, the aeroplane you fly on, the food you eat, the music you listen too. Beer is just another one of these things.
    Apart from disconnecting from the world somehow we are all eventually corrupted like Harvey Dent.

  3. Further to my previous comment – if this move means more good beer, more readily available, surely it works in everyone’s favour? I mean, more people are buying things like BRB beers, right? So if they can introduce a new, better range of beers, those people who buy BRB beers might just be tempted to try BrewDog beers. If they try Brewdog beers and like them, they might just be tempted to try something else. I understand they can be distributed by other companies, but does it really matter. More beer is a good thing!

    1. People take issue with Brewdogs so called “punk” sensibilities. They spend more time crapping on about their ideals than they do anything else. So why not call them out when they turn out to be hypocrites?

      1. Seconded. (And Richard and I wound up having a good yarn back and forth on this point, on the Twitters.) Emma’s always saying that the main thing that annoys her in fiction is when the author tells us what a given character’s personality is, rather than *showing* us. BrewDog have been doing a whole lot of “tell” and not a lot of “show”, lately.

          1. No one should ever avoid Vonnegut and i am sure Rabo Karabekian would have drunk Brew Dog if that was avaiable to him in a piano bar in Midland City.

  4. Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos. Sorry, I left the conversation after footnote #8

  5. Good argument, as always. Is this a record for most footnotes in a post (not including the footnotes of footnotes that made an appearance a while back)?

  6. The Great Boundary Grain Train Robbery is still taking Joe public along for the ride , me included .Once bitten twice shy after the crafty Beggars post on your blog l thought it couldn’t possibly happen again, and now Samuel Adams beer has become the latest label in the stable of the Boundary Road reproduction Crew.We need to make a stand against this cuckoo in the craft beer nest.we need to have a beer of Origin competition , cos this whole Grand brand theft is leaving no one sure if they are buying a genuine craft beer,or Jack and Jill’s Pale of water.

    1. Well, in fairness — and I can’t quite believe I just said that — they are importing actual Sam Adams, rather than re-creating here it a la Carlsberg. But given that they do the latter, their motives for the former should be pretty-obviously suspicious.

  7. At the end of the day, I’m going to buy and drink just as much BrewDog when it reaches NZ as I would if any other company was importing the beer. It’s delicious beer.
    During the past year or two, the more I’ve learned about the brewery and brewers, the more I dislike them and their attitude.
    But they still make incredible beer and I will happily give up my money to drink it, no matter who’s getting a wee slice of the profits.

  8. While I have a full-on robot chubby over all the naked capitalism going on, this bothers me a little:

    “the more I’ve learned about the brewery and brewers, the more I dislike them and their attitude [but] they still make incredible beer and I will happily give up my money to drink it, no matter who’s getting a wee slice of the profits.”

    A common misconception about capitalism is that people abandon all ethics in search of cold hard cash! While I’m sure some do, they are the same people who will act like shitty human beings under any given circumstances. I’m a firm believer in people voting with their wallets, and using capitalism as the tool of ethical expression. If you hate the values and actions of a company, why would you reward them by buying their product?

    As for Brewdog, I’ve had good beer from them, I’ve had shite beer from them. I don’t think they’ve done anything I find so morally reprehensible I won’t drink their beer, but nor will I seek it out.

  9. I was living in Scotland over the last couple of years, and so got really in to Brewdog. They were the ones who introduced me to the crazy wonderful thing that is eccentric, ever-changing beer. I bought shares at the last release, enjoyed the AGM and had a chance to muck about at their old brewery. But even though I love what they do, I do get a bit sick of the constant harping on about the whole ‘punk’ thing. However, I’m happy enough to just roll my eyes and think ‘whatever guys’. I know it’s a marketing thing. Hell, they got their big break through tesco. Their Punk is still a tesco house beer (although under a different name).
    While I do feel a bit dirty about having to deal with ‘BR’ in order to get it, I do also understand how and why that is the case..They were the ones to stick their hands up first, the ones with the finances to make it a safe bet for the BD boys (and after all, they are running a business). Plus, their thing has always been against shit beer. Unlike companies with ‘ethical’ standpoints, they don’t give a shit about the companies and their activities, just about the shitty beer they produce. If anything they’d argue this was a ‘take them down from the inside’ move.

    1. I’m sure they’d be tempted to argue that. But I don’t think it’s right to say they don’t pretend to have an ethical stance about big companies and their bullshit. Their videos (a few of which are linked in the above) are peppered with references to big-producers’ dodgy practices, not just their dodgy products — and it’s a large part of what “Beer Leaks” was about.

      Worse than that, though, Boundary Road definitely weren’t the first to put their hand up. While you might be right about Asahi having reassuringly large stacks of cash that smaller local players couldn’t remotely match, there were plenty interested, capable, and handing small amounts already.

      I still think this really was a needlessly dickish and hypocritical move by BrewDog.

      1. I think the main problem is that they’ve outgrown their ethos. Their whole ‘down with the man’ thing was set up before they had the slightest idea that they might grow to the size that they have in the time that they have. I’m sure when they were first setting up they hadn’t the slightest clue that they’d reach a point where they’d be looking for a keg distributor in New Zealand. Perhaps if they’d realised the extent to which they might need to get into bed with ‘the man’ to get their product out there they might not have been quite so hard core with their original outlook.

        That said, I do still wish they hadn’t. But if it means I get some Dogma and maybe even a slight chance of some of the limited release stuff, I’ll come to terms with it :-p

        1. This is interesting in the frame of the US as well. Due to the three tier system, breweries in most states have to partner with a distributor, most of whom are owned by ‘the man’. Even Stone, for all their fizzy yellow water bluster (to their credit though, they own the largest distributor of craft beer in Southern California).

  10. Phil could we re-blog this entry on the thirstyboys site as it is very relevant to a recent tasting event hosted at the Hop Garden. Scott and our very own Greasylightbulb challenged us in a blind tasting to discern craft beer from faux craft beer. We did very poorly but it did start a heated debate among a group of people who claim to know our beer.

    One of the beer highlights of the night was a faux craft beer, there was a trace of guilt in this for us all.

    1. Yeah, go nuts! I was reading the ThirstyBoys piece just the other day — a great run-down of a well-picked round-up. (Bonus nerd points: this is one of the many joys of the Creative Commons license I always publish my stuff under. Any non-commercial re-posting / re-use is totally legit, with a little attribution.)

  11. I used to be pleasantly disposed towards Brewdog, especially when I could get Punk IPA at my local Tesco in London back in 2008. The Portman Group complaint saga, and their general douchey-ness (especially stupid claims such as ‘cask is not craft’) has led me to bascially ignore them. There is plenty of other great beer and breweires to seek out and enjoy, and I generally leave Brewdog to throw their little tantrums in the corner.

    The always excellent UK beer bloggers Boak and Bailey tweeted this about Brewdog’s business model – worth a read:

  12. I still drink BrewDog beer – I just ordered a few, some of them are quite nice. Hey, I still drink some ABInBev beer too, quite partial to a Hoegaarden in the sun.

    For some of us BrewDog won beery hearts and souls early on. I was a round-1 shareholder (the not quite as extravagantly successful round that they don’t mention until deep into the prospectus – the one before they “tore up convention” – hah!). They were different and they do seem to have made a difference to the beer scene in the UK, and for that I thank them – it is of course impossible to say whether they were a catalyst or merely at the head of an inevitable wave.

    We can all snap back to reality now, BrewDog are just a company – they do things that contradict other things they say. All par of the course. They’re no saints, but perhaps they’re worthwhile evangelists – swaying people towards beer we like, for the most part, if not quite the same religion (so it turns out).

    There never was any answer to jruffell’s question on the EFP forum – no surprise. They take the correct tactic of ignoring criticism from us yapping masses. They have marketing and PR machine and we don’t.

    Anyway! New Zealand?! Why the fuck do you give a shit about BrewDog? They’re just another international beer brand that make some OK beer. You guys have a vibrant beer scene with local breweries making great, to even *amazing*, beer. Forget about BrewDog.

    Further to Raffe’s link to the excellent Allgate’s post exposing their really kind of weird “share” diddling, I offer this chap’s take on the ethical dubiousness of BrewDog:

    Meanwhile – our 2 round-1 shares are now 20 shares, apparently worth nearly 2000 quid. if there’s ever any way to sell them for that price I’ll dump half and invest in a CAMRA life membership. Just for a laugh. 😉

Have at it: