Craft beer’s beef with big beer is no secret.
The rivalry between a major craft brewer and the largest spirits maker in the world show just how deep the animosity goes.
In one corner is Guinness, an iconic 257-year-old brand, backed by its parent company Diageo, the spirits market leader that also owns Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and Baileys.
In the other corner we have BrewDog, an independent Scottish brewer founded in 2007 that hasrevenue of more than $48 million.
The craft brewer has called Diageo everything from “dumbass corporate freaks” to manufacturers of “mass-produced rubbish” like Guinness.
“We started BrewDog because we were bored of the industrially brewed lagers and stuffy ales that dominated the UK beer market,” Sarah Warman, BrewDog’s head of marketing, told Business Insider. “We won’t conform, we won’t apologise, we are punk and we will stand up for the beer in the face of anything.”
The fight began in earnest in 2012
The setting was the 2012 British Institute of Innkeeping Scotland Annual Awards, a seemingly innocuous industry event that became the setting for a surprising sabotage.
BrewDog had been favored to win the award for bar operator of the year. The award went to a different group, however, even though the trophy had the name “BrewDog” engraved on it.
Two days after the event, BII Scotland revealed that Diageo, a main sponsor of the event, had decreed that BrewDog could not win the award, threatening to pull sponsorship for future events.
Diageo apologized for the event at the time, calling the incident a “serious misjudgment by Diageo staff.” (The company declined to comment on the incident to Business Insider.)
BrewDog did not quietly accept the apology, seeing the move as part of a wider issue of establishment beer companies trying to stamp out craft brewers, which pride themselves on experimentation and complexity over profit.
“As for Diageo, once you cut through the glam veneer of pseudo corporate responsibility this incident shows them to be a band of dishonest hammerheads and dumb ass corporate freaks,” the craft brewer wrote of the incident in the company blog. “No soul and no morals, with the integrity of a rabid dog and the style of a wart hog.”
A backlash against Diageo blew up online, with fans posting more than 500,000 tweets supporting BrewDog in the #andthewinnerisnot hashtag. BrewDog wrote afollow-up blog postin which it said the incident was far from isolated, painting “a picture of a very corrupt and dishonest organization.”
Four years later, the company’s opinion hasn’t changed much.
“Diageo was scared by the craft beer movement four years ago because it challenged their mass-produced rubbish,” says Warman.”They should be even more scared now.”
Why big beer fears craft
Craft beer has been exploding in the UK in the past few years. In 2015, the number of breweries in the UK had jumped to more than 1,400, generating growth ofmore than 10% for the third year in a row.
“The sector is growing, consumers are realizing the value of craft and independent brewing, and big-beer companies are just not cutting it any more with their unimaginative and passionless rubbish,” Warman said.
The past four years have been huge for BrewDog. The company has gone from 67 employees brewing 22,795 barrels (26,750 hectoliters) of beer in 2011 to 540 employees brewing 113,190 barrels (134,000 hectoliters). BrewDog has raised more than $30 million through crowdfunding, using what the company calls the “Equity for Punks” model.
As craft beer grows stronger, it has forced major beer companies to address the independent companies as competitors. That means taking steps to either wipe them out – or acquire them.
Since the BII incident, most of BrewDog’s shots at big beer have been on the topic of acquisitions.
“Acquisitions go against the very nature of craft beer – by commoditizing it, big companies are pulling the wool over customers’ eyes,” Warman said.
When the US brewery Ballast Point was sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion, BrewDog cofounder James Watt announced that BrewDog would no longer be ordering the brand for any of the company’s 44 bars.
Sad about the Ballast Point deal this week. We will no longer be ordering these beers for our bars. We are 100% committed to craft beer.
— James Watt (@BrewDogJames) November 18, 2015
After Anheuser-Busch InBev’s acquisition of Camden Town, BrewDog stepped in with another comment on Twitter:
— James Watt (@BrewDogJames) December 21, 2015
“It’s just going to limit choice and lead to a further reduction in beer quality globally which is going to be bad for the customer,” Watt told Business Insideron the recent $108 billion (£71 billion) merger of the brewing giants AB InBev and SABMiller. “It becomes this huge global monopoly, and those two companies have already not done much for quality beer.”
The difference between craft beer and big beer. pic.twitter.com/ICwp0VRShM
— James Watt (@BrewDogJames) December 8, 2015
Guinness, for its part, says it welcomes the rise of craft beer.
“We’ve been banging the quality and flavor drum for decades, and it’s a relief no longer to be in the minority,” Emma Giles, Guinness’ brand director, told Business Insider. “Yes, the thousands of new breweries are increased competition for Guinness, but we view that as inspiration for us, too, to raise our game.”
Unlike its rivals AB InBev and MillerCoors, Diageo has avoided acquisitions.
Instead, it has tweaked Guinness’ image to fit the craft mold, with initiatives like The Brewers Project, whichBusiness Insider UK’s Oscar Williams-Grut called“a branding and marketing campaign tied to the launch of new Guinness beers, all trying to make the Dublin brewery look like a ‘craft’ beer maker of the type springing up across Britain right now.”
It’s a rebranding that BrewDog would consider deceit.
“We support craft, and craft breweries should be independent, not bastardized by megacorporations who will compromise the quality of the beer to cut corners, cut people, and make a profit,” Warman said.
2016: Payback time
BrewDog has never been silent in its disdain for big beer. But its rivalry with Diageo once again reached a boiling point last month.
It’s been three years, but tomorrow is payback time.
— BrewDog (@BrewDog) February 10, 2016
In February, BrewDog released an ad parodying Guinness’ iconic surfers and horses commercial to promote the new Jet Black Heart stout.
The 1998 Guinness ad had a massive budget and featured surfers taking on massive waves as CGI horses galloped over them. BrewDog’s version features Watt and cofounder Martin Dickie in a local swimming pool wearing a cheap horse costume.
“Big beer advertising is b——-,” Watt said in a press release. “If you have to spend millions of pounds on ad campaigns to get people to drink your beer, the brewing is probably being neglected.”
Guinness declined to comment on the parody ad to Business Insider. But the brand’s advertising has recently drawn from craft beer’s styling as part of Guinness’ rebranding.
“Our brewers now star in our TV commercials, and there is way more information about our beer on the internet than ever before,” Giles said.
While BrewDog’s parody may cap off the era of the BrewDog-Diageo war, don’t expect the craft brewer to stop speaking out against big beer anytime soon.
“Being loud, reckless, and shouting about what we believe in has allowed our Punk army to grow to over 35,000 members,” Warman said. “This incredible force continues to drive the craft beer movement forward and shows no sign of stopping.”