Small brewers claim many products wearing a ‘craft beer’ label are in fact produced by the major brewers.
They have raised the ire of small craft breweries and attracted attention from the competition regulator. Some call them faux or ”undercover” craft beers, while Choice uses the term ”craftwashing”.
Whatever they’re called, Australia’s bars, pubs and liquor stores are awash with beers that appear to have been produced by microbreweries – but are owned by the two multinationals that control most of Australia’s beer market.
Choice calculates 47 per cent of the craft beer market is controlled by the two big brewers. This includes Little Creatures, owned by Lion, and Matilda Bay, owned by CUB, which started life as independent breweries that were bought out. Matilda Bay still refers to itself as ”Australia’s original craft brewer”.
Lion’s portfolio includes James Squire and White Rabbit, while CUB owns Fat Yak and Redback.
CUB says Matilda Bay has its own brewery and brewer who creates beers that are typically not mainstream lagers. ”Finally, beer is judged on its quality. It is either good beer or not; the drinker will decide,” a spokesman said.
But it’s not just about taste – some consumers want to support small, independently owned businesses. Some beer drinkers may know these labels are owned by the big companies, but Choice believes ”it’s not clear to consumers”.
”We think of a small operator and there’s a premium that people pay,” says Choice’s Tom Godfrey. ”I think the big breweries are cashing in on that.”
The situation angers craft brewers as they try to win tap spots in the cut-throat draught beer market. The big brewers can offer incentives to pubs to serve their ”undercover” craft beers on tap – at the potential expense of ”real” craft beer.
”[They are spending] lots of money trying to look like craft beer,” says Simon Walkenhorst from microbrewer Hargreaves Hill. ”To me that whole ethos is so far away from the craft beer ethos we follow … Why pretend to be something you’re not?”
One reason may be that craft beer is a source of growth in an otherwise stagnant beer market.
Last month the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission accepted a court-enforceable undertaking from CUB over its branding of Byron Bay Pale Lager and fined it $ 20,400. The packaging gave every impression it was a product of the Byron Shire – when it had been brewed under licence by CUB at Warnervale, between Newcastle and Sydney.