Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Beerleaks : Don't buy it

A little while ago, those erstwhile courters of controversy, Brewdog posted a video on their blog with a web address displayed at the end leading to a site displaying a countdown clock.

When this clock ran down, nothing happened. A few hours later, perhaps when someone woke up from a CO2-induced coma having imbibed too much fizzy so-called craft beer the night before, the site went live. It proclaims itself, in true Brewdog style, to be the saviour of beer and calls upon the masses to throw off the shackles forced upon them by unfair and misleading advertising practices perpetrated by multinational breweries.

A noble cause, and I cannot fault anyone for educating people about the half-truths and outright fabrications employed to secure the average Joe's beer tokens. With that in mind, I feel it's only fair that someone (me) attempts to elucidate the half-truths and outright fabrications perpetrated on the very site claiming to be protecting the consumer from those practices.

What is Beerleaks?
The simple answer is that it's a cynical marketing strategy masquerading as consumer protection. That's a pretty bold claim and I'd rather not leave it there, though I'm sure there are many Brewdog-critics out there who are happy to accept the plain statement. I'd much rather the reasons for my holding that view were made clear, though. Reasoned argument is, after all, the best defence against criticism.

Beerleaks has 4 bullet points listing it's raisons d'etre; three of them are fairly vacuous rabble-rousing statements of revolution with no real content. The fourth (actually the second on the list) is 
No more will our perceptions of beer be skewed by marketing
The entire purpose of marketing is to skew perceptions of the product being marketed, James Watt  knows this, and Brewdog is a living, breathing example of successful marketing. Some would even argue that it's a victory of marketing over product. This is the first (obvious) clue that Beerleaks is a cynical ploy to subvert "consumer concern" over the provenance of their drinks and turn them away from mass-marketed beers and towards an alternative. Of course, the obvious alternative is Brewdog.

Smoke and Mirrors
The very front page of the website proclaims that we should "Keep Beer Real", and that the site exists to "dispel the smoke and mirrors that surrounds the UK beer industry". As I've already argued, the entire site is itself just another example (albeit a highly accomplished one) of that smoke and those mirrors, but I'll go a little further into some examples. The very nature of the half-truths employed in these exercises means that most of the points can appear tenuous; this isn't an excuse for what may appear weak or paranoid arguments, only an acknowledgement that they can and do appear weak and/or paranoid -- these campaigns are designed just so that the targets of criticism can dissemble and deflect. I'll make the arguments, you agree or disagree, it's up to you.

Those very first words ("Keep Beer Real") are at first glance a simple statement about the purpose of Beerleaks, but upon slightly closer inspection could be seen as an attempt to subvert the meaning of "real" in the context of beer. Brewdog are a "real ale" producer, but that constitutes a tiny fraction of their output, and their attitude towards the Campaign for Real Ale is no secret. "Real", in the beer world, has a very specific and technical definition so using it in another way and associating it with "craft" beer is advantageous to a brewer who want to produce keg and only serve keg in their bars.

Skunky Beer
The entire section on "skunking" of beer, while factually accurate, ignores a critical question: the amount of UV exposure required to produce the reaction. The answer is "more than you would reasonably expect a bottle to be exposed to".  The solution to skunking caused by the beer being in a green bottle is simple -- store them somewhere dark, or drink them. Since fridges are dark except when you open the door, there's little chance of any deleterious effect on your beer.

The Evil Amylase
The mention of this enzyme, employed in breaking down starch into maltose and dextrose sugars for fermentation, sticks out like a sore thumb in the first paragraph of a posting about isinglass. Why? Amylase is present in malt. It's the entire reason malt is useful! "Malting" activates the enzyme, and without it beer would be a thin, alcohol-free, biscuity-tasting watery soup with some starving yeast floating around in it.
Quite why it would be mentioned in a section on vegetarianism is a mystery, except perhaps as a scary jargon word intended to scare people into believing that big breweries are putting "chemicals" in their beer. Ask any brewer (regardless of which company they work for, or even if they just brew at home) if there is amylase in their beer and they'll cry, "Of course!". See, they not only admit it, but they don't think there's anything wrong with it! That is, of course, because there isn't.

Ignoring the attempt at making isinglass sound "icky", they also fail to mention that the beers in question don't claim to be vegetarian, that the amount of isinglass used is tiny, and that it probably doesn't end up in the finished product anyway.

What's it for?

Nowhere on the Beerleaks website are we told that it is funded, run, or in any way linked to a brewery, with the obvious conflict of interest that arises from a campaign to discredit the competition. Early indications are that all mentions of Beerleaks in comments on the Brewdog blog are being expunged, presumably to maintain the apparent separation between the two.
The argument could be made, then, that it cannot be an attempt to promote Brewdog, as no mention is made of it on the site. However, most people in the know know that it's a Brewdog affiliated site, and the layout, style, and graphics are all similar to the Brewdog brand. An unsuspecting consumer happening across the site won't know, but will soon be associating this apparently sincere campaign with mentions of Brewdog elsewhere. The entire thing is a viral campaign, not to improve the quality of mainstream beer, nor to bring judiciary pressure to bear on irresponsible advertising practices of big industry, but to get people thinking about Brewdog beer. It is exactly the thing it claims to be campaigning against.