I attended a conference in Bangkok a week or two ago and listened to a panel discussion. After it was over I walked up to one of the panelists. Well, not technically the panelist, but his business partner. The panel discussion was about something like, “who will make Asia’s craft beer?” Now, let me be clear, during the panel I only thought that the title of the panel was dumb, the content was good for the first bit. I was going to give the various panelists an “ada boy” and “keep going” type encouragement after, but then one of them said something monumentally stupid. From where I sat anyway. But before I go on, let me point out that this was the Southeast Asia Brew or SEA Brew. People in Southeast Asia tend to hyperbolically assign the term “Asia” to just them. It’s cute. I’ll leave it at that.
Now, back to the panel. One of the panelists representing the HK market was asked the question, “what’s your biggest struggle?” or something like that and he responded with a bit of a dramatic effect about how they are in the trenches battling/fighting/warring it out with the big boys. I almost shit myself. In case you don’t know, Great Leap Brewing is located in Beijing. That’s a klick and then some from Hong Kong. I can understand how hyperbole about fighting the big guys, warring it out, being locked in some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu roll of all rolls, nay, dueling in the GUTTERS works in Bangkok at a craft beer conference speaking about Hong Kong, but it didn’t work for little old me from all the way up in Beijing. I’ll tells ya why.
After I walked up to the panelist‘s business partner/brewer/instagram model and got his attention (not by putting my hand on his shoulder like Bane in Dark Knight Rises, I didn’t do that), I asked him who the big guys were that his partner was referring too. My man responded with, “you know man, the San Miguel, the Jebsens, ABI, Carlsberg, Heineken, all the usual ones.” I responded by asking if he worried about the big guys than why in God’s name was he in Beijing a week before doing a collab with Jing A which is part-owned by Carlsberg? Or is it ok to support the big boys just as long as it’s not in your market?” Listen. I get it. No one wants some buzz kill motherfucker interrupting their high fives. They got to get them those likes and high fives bruh! But the guy ruining said high fives is usually me. I’m the one that has to walk up to people during their feel good moment and ask them why I should give a shit about supporting their fight against “bad beer” or “big beer” or “the big boys” in their market when that same crusader for craft beer transparency comes to my market and shits in my mouth by doing a collaboration beer with a brand that failed into being owned by Carlsberg? It ended with me giving him some friendly advice, him saying some nice things and expressing regret and us parting ways. He’s a nice guy and my point wasn’t to make him feel bad, rather the opposite. I asked him how it would feel if I came down to HK and recklessly gave validation and credibility to a commercial brewery’s lipstick brand who wants to take food from the mouths of small business owners and entrepreneurs? He’d have a problem with that. And so do I.
But why? Why does it matter if a craft brand collaborates with a commercial brand in one way or another? There’s a personal aspect to my belief here and a practical one, let’s start with my person:
The first time I was approached by ZX Ventures to talk about Goose Island’s market entry in China it made me sick to my stomach. Why the fuck should what I built be used to promote a brand owned by the largest beer company in the world? One that speaks openly about wanting to confuse consumers and trick them into walking away from independent brewers? How does that make any sense? My reaction to them was that we would be more than happy to get to know the brewers and the technical team, but only as peers and not for marketing purposes. The delightful Korean woman representing ZX at the time replied with how cool it would be to do a collab. I snapped my fingers and pointed in her face and said no. Politely of course. She started to ask again and I did the same. True story. They left. Found someone dumb to do their bidding. That brand most likely doesn’t exist anymore. Oh wait. It was Jing A. Funny that eh?
Now beyond personal feelings, there is something more pragmatic than “believing” in something. Big beer fucked up. They slept on consumers and fell behind. The easiest way to catch up and break the momentum of craft beers growth is to confuse and manipulate consumers. They do this by manipulating smaller craft brands that are behind in their own market, but usually for a reason. Those kinds of craft brands look at working with the commercial crafty brands as a way to gain more market share and gain on their closest competitors in the craft space. They are idiots. The only reasons consumers have to look for better beer is because big beer has failed them. The average consumer won’t say it out loud, but they want to support something that has real meaning. It’s why Goose Island’s volumes are only growing in underdeveloped markets. It’s why Boxing Cat effectively hasn’t grown since the acquisition. It’s why Shanghai’s craft beer scene that is dominated by ABI hasn’t grown since 2017. Consumers who are attracted to craft beer want things that are validated and honest. And so the quick way to plant a poison pill is to make consumers doubt their own motivations. Convincing smaller insecure brands that it’s ok to do a little something something here or there plants said poison pill.
It’s like when you are a Tool fan. Because Tool speaks to you. And your aunt gets you the Christian rock version of Tool. I mean it sounds like Tool. And the art looks like Tool. But you know something ain’t right. But what does it hurt big beer to make craft beer consumers look stupid? Nothing. It costs them nothing. But it might end up costing me everything when consumers just give up and embrace prog death metal for Jesus.
So to everyone gearing up for Carlsberg Jing A’s knock off of our invitational beer fest this weekend, enjoy yourself. It would’ve been on a different weekend if Jing A hadn’t gotten kicked out of “What’s Brewing” in Norway for being a fake craft brand. But they did, so the cirque de soulless is this weekend. I won’t be in town. I’ll be in Shanghai at a conference on a panel, discussing the future of Chinese craft beer with a bunch of people trying to do it the right way…and some who aren’t.
And FYI, we were going to set up a pop up across from where tickets were checked on the way into the entrance to the Carlsberg Jing A mathlympics. It was going to be hilarious, we were going to give away free Carlsberg Chill courtesy of at least one of the independent brewers of Beijing. Banner was pretty sweet, “BEFORE YOU GET YOUR CARLSBERG IN THERE, HAVE SOME OUT HERE ON US- LOVE, GREAT LEAP BREWING”. But the only one of us that could’ve pulled that off was Monica Wang, and she’s in Norway pouring real Beijing craft at What’s Brewing this weekend. Maybe next year.