Good Beer Hunting

Are the UK’s Largest Drinks Corporations Regulating the Brands of Their Smaller Competitors?


Newport, Wales-based brewery Tiny Rebel Brewing Co. is being made to alter the can design of its award-winning Cwtch (pronounced “cutch”) Red Ale. An anonymous complaint made to UK responsibility body The Portman Group in July 2017 claimed that the design was “targeting the wrong age group” with its use of bright colors. The claim was upheld by the group despite the complainant stating that, upon closer inspection, it became obvious that the can contained beer. The thing is, this isn’t the government forcing the change—it’s a group backed by the country’s largest corporate drinks companies with a mission that’s outdated at best and anti-competitive at worst.

The nature of this complaint, and the fact that it was subsequently upheld, is indicative of a growing divide between traditional understandings of beer and where modern craft brewers are heading with their brands.

The Portman Group was founded in 1989 with its express aim being “to promote responsible drinking; to help prevent alcohol misuse; and to foster a balanced understanding of alcohol-related issues.” The group is funded by 10 drinks industry members, including Diageo, Heineken, Molson Coors, Carlsberg, and Anheuser Busch-InBev.

It’s widely understood that the group’s existence is one of self-preservation. The Portman Group aims to self-police the industry’s marketing and branding in order to avoid a more substantial imposition from potential government regulators that most industries would prefer to avoid. Whether these entities continue to represent “the industry” is an increasingly concerning question for small craft brewers whose branding and marketing tactics fall far outside traditional methods.

Tiny Rebel was founded in South Wales by business partners Brad Cummings and Gazz Williams in 2012. In 2015, the brewery became a household name when Cwtch (the beer brand in question) took home the prestigious Champion Beer of Britain award at the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. In January 2017, it completed a £2.6 million ($3.5m) expansion into a 30,000-square-foot space, giving it the capacity to establish its presence nationally.

Such an expansion elevates Tiny Rebel—and Cwtch in particular—into a new level of competition among the UK bars and retailers. It’s also that wider exposure that caught the attention of—and potentially confused—customers and the Portman Group through the public complaint process.

“We've spent the best part of five months arguing this with the Portman Group just to settle on the smallest design change ever: moving our logo from the front of the can to the back,” Cummings tells GBH.

Somewhat curiously, however, it was the color of the can and not the brewery’s logo—which depicts a stuffed bear—that initiated the original complaint. The complaint was upheld, however, on the basis that the can might be appealing to those younger than 18, and that its packaging “may encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption, such as drunk-driving, binge-drinking or drunkenness.”

A similar complaint was made to The Portman Group about Beavertown’s Gamma Ray Pale Ale in 2015. Gamma Ray’s can also uses bright, primary colors as the basis of its design. However, it was ruled that the can was not in breach of the Group’s code, with one of the reasons given being that “the word ‘ale’ featured alongside the brand name together with the alcohol by volume.” Meanwhile, Tiny Rebel’s can also prominently features the word “ale” at the center of its design, along with the ABV.

“Fear of reprisals based on branding will not only further the divide between established and modern breweries, but also blur the lines for the consumer in the long run,” Beavertown creative director Nick Dwyer tells GBH. “At Beavertown, our designs were a big part of our early following and subsequent organic growth. A system that investigates brands off of the back of a single complaint is very much open to abuse [such as] trying to take down young, creative brands that may threaten the big boys’ market share. I fully appreciate what the Portman Group is there to do, but its non-reflexive methods may need looking at.”

A further complaint was made about the size of the can itself. In recent history, the 330ml container was more closely associated with soft drinks in the UK. However, over the past five years, the format has been overwhelmingly adopted by the beer industry, especially so at the smaller levels of craft. Brightly colored 330ml beer cans are now a regular fixture in the majority of supermarket chains, the most ubiquitous including BrewDog’s Punk and Dead Pony Club as well as Hells and Pale from ABI-owned (and Portman Group participant) Camden Town Brewery.

The complaints made against the likes of Beavertown and Tiny Rebel are anecdotal examples of a beer industry that often has a target on its back when compared to other parts of the drinks sector. Conversely, the alcopop industry, which targets younger drinkers with alcoholic or “hard” drinks that share flavors with popular soft drinks, often doesn’t receive the same level of scrutiny. The brightly colored cans of the passion fruit infused Hula Hooch from the Molson Coors (another Portman Group participant) could certainly be posed as one example. And that brings into focus a strange conflict between alcoholic beverages that are perhaps straddling the line with their visual branding appeal and those beverages strategically aligned with the occasions and flavors appealing to underage drinkers.

Attractiveness to underage drinkers isn’t the only conversation being had about this group’s jurisdiction. Among craft brewers, the issue of sexist beer labeling is much more concerning.

The Portman Group came under fire recently for this very reason at the Brewers Congress organized by trade publication The Brewers Journal. Portman’s compliance manager Alastair Taylor was questioned about the group’s lack of guidelines when it came to enforcing complaints about sexist beer branding. Jeers from the crowd were met with a cool-headed response from Taylor, saying that following his seminar an assessment of these rules would take place.

The Portman Group was originally established to self-police the industry and to avoid strict regulations—such as those levied upon the tobacco industry—from being passed. Does this group now represent the biggest UK drinks corporations, who are now weighing in on their smaller-but-growing competitors’ brands in a potentially anti-competitive scenario? And if so, what does it mean for the industry that they'd regulate those smaller companies while they themselves pursue a similar—and likely more effective strategy—within the alcopop space?

While the Portman Group once represented the beer industry with the largest corporate players attempting to preserve their independence from government oversight, and potential overreach, they could now represent exactly that threat to their smaller competitors who are outpacing them in terms of brand relevance. It’s likely time to weigh these conflicts of interest anew and have an open discussion regarding the group’s role, relevance, and necessary evolution in representing the industry and the best interest of its consumers.

—Matthew Curtis