Saturday, 12 June 2021

Never glad confident morning again

The British craft beer movement has been marked not only by a commitment to brewing interesting and innovative beer, but by taking a principled stand against various “isms” in society. However, that image has been considerably tarnished this week when 61 former workers of craft standard-bearer BrewDog published an open letter accusing the firm of hypocrisy, exploitation, and toxicity. The full text can be viewed here. This paragraph is particularly telling.
BrewDog was, and is, built on a cult of personality. Since day one, you have sought to exploit publicity, both good and bad (and usually with the faces of James and Martin front and centre) to further your own business goals. Your mission might genuinely be to make other people as passionate about craft beer as you are (and in a sense you have succeeded - your fanbase certainly has some true zealots in its ranks), but the ambitions you impressed on your team have always seemed business-led. Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy.
This is not an isolated incident either. Last week, Cloudwater brewer Charlotte Cook published this angry and passionate article in which she recounted similar experiences of workers at a number of other smaller but still well-known craft breweries, and stated "These companies are not run as businesses, but as theocracies."

However, perhaps these incidents are not aberrations that betray the spirit of craft, but something whose seeds are contained in the very nature of the project.

It is recognised that the founders of successful start-up businesses often tend to be single-minded, driven people with little regard for social niceties, who often trample roughshod over the concerns of others. Their behaviour is tolerated and excused as long as the money keeps flowing in.

In a non-beer field there was a prime example of this recently in the case of Ray Kelvin, the charismatic founder of fashionable clothing brand Ted Baker, who was ousted by the company after a catalogue of misdemeanours including the creepy forced hugging. Yet, as sales tanked without him at the helm, he was later brought back in some capacity, although not restored to the leadership of the company.

In beer we have seen the cult of the “rock star brewer”, although we don’t hear so much of that nowadays. This is very much putting the emphasis on personalities, and rock stars themselves are not noted for their sympathetic treatment of those around them.

This tendency can be compounded in organisations that lay claim to some higher moral purpose beyond merely that of making money. It is sometimes believed that charities, local government and the health service are friendly and unthreatening work environments compared with the cut and thrust of the private sector, but often they are the scene of even worse bullying and abuse, partly because the restraint of actually needing to make a profit is taken away. Any complaint is seen as undermining the noble objective. There have been many examples in non-profit organisations of a toxic atmosphere developing because individuals were afraid to challenge the dominant culture.

As companies mature, they grow out of a reliance on individual personalities, and become the impersonal corporate behemoths that are often seen as the embodiment of what craft is setting itself against. But, while the likes of Heineken may be widely derided, they have HR departments, employment policies and grievance procedures, and any abuse of this kind would probably be swiftly nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester.

Looking forward, it’s not hard to imagine that, as a response to these issues, companies create a different but just as stifling climate of fear in which a blanket of conformity is thrown over the whole organisation and people live in fear of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps it is time for craft brewing to concentrate on the beer and stop proclaiming that it is trying to change society. It needs to become less of a movement and more of just another market segment.

18 comments:

  1. The other day after having read about this Brewdog matter the first time I received an email from them. It says
    "Planet Brewdog. This is your way of helping us offset CO2 and save the planet. As a thank you for helping us kill carbon, you can also earn rewards through Planet BrewDog, from free beer to exclusive content."

    Utter nonsense. I have 1001 Brewdog "shares" and paid £500 for them at the time. On paper these are worth a lot but am sure somehow us small "shareholders" will get shafted. "Kill carbon". FFS.

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  2. Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success.










    Don't hesitate to step on them.

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  3. Are Brew Dog actually successful (i.e. do they make money, as opposed to just generating social media noise and filling Tesco shelves). Genuine question. It's just they're always quiet when I gp in one for their food, which is often the best in town.

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  4. A lot of people seem to have a very misplaced faith in a HR department, who let's fact it know which side their bread's buttered. Brewdog no doubt have an HR department, and last night I spoke to a female brewer who used to work for a multi-national and she had stories every bit as bad as what's been reported from the craft breweries.

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    1. Maybe, but in general a bureaucratic culture is likely to act as something of a brake on the activities of of dictatorial and abusive founders.

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  5. Brewdog seem to have made about £1 million in 2020, which isn't great on sales of £215 million but also not too bad for a rapidly growing company. However, they plan yet another fund raising (along with an IPO) when conditions allow and this will probably be vital to their financial health, unless their US private equity backers come up with more cash - no doubt at a price in terms of their percentage stake). The catch is that continuing expansion will put back the time when they are able to declare a meaningful profit.

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    1. Any company in the hospitality industry which made money in 2020 must be doing something right. In the case of Brewdog they seem to have survived by producing vast quantities of beer into cans and selling their beers in any supermarket which will stock them (which seems to be all of them). Maybe not the most "punk" strategy but if it keeps them afloat who would blame them.

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  6. I think Brewdog is fast becoming a Harvester of craft (bollocks) beer market. Tacky, naff. The market/trend has moved along and left Brewdog behind. Why pay those kind of prices for something so shallow a concept? That's all it is, a has been concept, accepted mainly by the entrant customers not knowing any better. Angus steakhouse of the beer market, for the mugs.

    On the other hand I have no sympathy for the snowflake employees either. It's supposed be a workplace, not a woke playground for "vulnerable". I wonder if Brewdog should have a safe place for trans employees when they can find shelter from the evil owners?

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  7. Wow, 15:31, that's quite the mouth you have there.

    No workplace - none - should put so much pressure onto their staff that they feel bullied, undermined, stressed beyond reasonable measure or expectations, and certainly not abused. It's nothing to do with "woke" demands, whatever the term "woke" currently means.

    If women - and sadly it is always women - feel unsafe working for a brewer, or in a bar, it is not their fault. Your snide insult to transpeople is noted for what it is.

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  8. I tend to agree with Martin in that they are always fairly empty when I go in despite decent beer, food and no hassle.

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    1. The Brewdog bar in Manchester is overflowing on a Friday or Saturday night. It seems less busy at other times but I've never seen it empty.

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  9. its been nearly 2 years since Ive been to a place that even had a Brewdog, though the rumour mill perpetually threatens theyll set one up in Ipswich eventually, but so I couldnt judge how popular they are now, they were always less busy when I made the effort to go to one, but then I always deliberately tried to pick a time to to avoid the crowds anyway, Id always assumed they busied up with the late evening crowds. I never thought the places really sold the PR line of being these ultra focussed on customer beer palaces, more often than not the staff looked bored and were happier chatting to their mates, which is quite frankly the standard in 90% of bars/pubs you go in.

    but I assume they make enough profit from it, even if it isnt perhaps as successful as its portrayed, but Ive never seen them as rock star brewers I think thats very much a craft beer bubble thing, very few people even with a passing interest in beer are going to be able to see a photo and identify them, I could have sat next to one in a bar and I wouldnt have been any the wiser. It maybe highlights craft brewers have an ego,and inflated self importance, which leaks into other areas as much among the people who are then attracted to work for them as it is the way business is run.

    but I dont know enough about the allegations, certainly the more serious ones that have been published, to comment on them, so I wont.

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    1. Only ever been to one once, in Birmingham at the end of a Proper Day Out in 2017. They come across as a slightly more hip and urban Brewhouse & Kitchen.

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  10. TakeSexPestingOutOfCraftBeer14 June 2021 at 09:48

    It's also exposed just how sycophantic and producer captured most beer writing is, whether it's a beer positive craft kids Curtiszine, or any number of local CAMRA magazines.
    News has a habit of exposing PR fluff.

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  11. What is striking about the letter is the lack of detailed allegations which would amount to a breach of the contract between the employer and employee. The main substance of the letter is a moan by former employees about how the business has been developed with particular reference to certain marketing ploys. I accept that this could result in a culture of disillusionment but it does not amount to a culture of fear.

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    1. I doubt even Brewdog themselves would deny they have used some fairly outlandish marketing campaigns. That they are based only half-truths would also not be much of a surprise to anyone.

      The issues raised regarding the workplace seem to stem from the culture of the company being fast-paced and pressurised. This which is common in businesses undergoing high growth. That type of workplace is never going to be for everyone.

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    2. Yes, I think some people may have unrealistic expectations about what working for a dynamic start-up business is like, made worse by them believing it's pursuing a noble cause.

      Apparently there was a damning article in yesterday's Sunday Times by Camilla Long, showing little sympathy for either side, but it's paywalled and I haven't seen a photo of it.

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    3. Camilla was very strong on the faults of both sides, but on balance I'd say the two Brew dogs copped it more. The phrase "Hipster Philip Greens" will live on I feel.

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