Shadow brands, contract brewing, and the rise of “crafty” beers…
Figuring out where a beer is actually brewed can be like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that comes in a six-pack.
Take Sneaky Weasel. The “real craft lager” first appeared in the province’s liquor stores around six months ago, with a slickly designed can, featuring a mischievous rodent wearing a bandit mask. Aside from the brewery name – appropriately named “Balderdash Brewing” – details were scarce on where this mysterious brew came from.
For those in the craft beer intelligentsia, Sneaky Weasel has the immediate signs of a common frustration: the shadow brand.
Although a shadow brand sounds like something illicit – like it’d be whispered about conspiratorially in backroom marketing meetings – it’s not an uncommon business strategy in the beer business. Albeit, one that consumers might not typically be aware of.
One of the most in-depth looks at the province’s shadow brands came from beer writer Chuck Hallett on his Barley Mowatt blog in 2013. He described the shadow brand as a “beer that sure looks like it’s made by an independent brewery, but in reality is just rolled off the assembly line between batches of Big Brewery Beer No. 3 and No. 4.”
He dug deep to shine some light on the province’s shadow brands.
The Murky Underworld of Shadow Brands
For most breweries, the labels on their beers tell you everything you need to know; from what’s in the beer, to where it’s brewed. But not all of them.
During Hallett’s research, he encountered a spectrum of brews that didn’t quite live up to their label. There was Stanley Park Brewing – actually a Turning Point brand, sold to Labatt last year – that’s brewed on Annacis Island, far away from the Vancouver tourist spot.
There was also the sub-category of contract brewers. These are breweries, usually start-ups, without brick-and-mortar spaces that brew elsewhere while waiting for a space. But bigger breweries that don’t have the space to keep up with demand also use contract brewing. Two notable examples of this in the States are Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Brewing. Both breweries had actually been brewing in Pittsburgh and Ithaca, New York, respectively.
Hallett’s list of shadow brands ran deeper and more complicated than one might expect, but on the shadow brand concept now, Hallett stressed to The Growler that it isn’t as nefarious as it sounds.
“This isn’t necessarily underhanded. This is a practice that is common throughout business to promote products to different consumer bases, he explained. “You create a brand to match your demographic.”
But shadow brands can still rightfully raise the hackles of those who care about beer and where it comes from.
“The worst ones, from that point of view, would be the ones that are pretending to be something that they’re not,” said Hallett. “Let’s take the macros who are spinning off their sub-brands in a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers into believing a story about the beer that simply isn’t backed up by reality,” referring to Blue Moon and Shock Top, two notorious brands that have the appearance of being craft, despite being created by two of the world’s largest brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev [AB InBev] and MillerCoors.
Ken Beattie, Executive Director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild, suggests that the concept of shadow brands might stem from the larger uneasiness of the “crafty” beer strategy that’s capitalizing on popularity of craft beer.
“The sociological attraction of craft beer,” explained Beattie, “is the fact that if you go to the brewery, you can meet the brewer and have a conversation with someone who’s completely knowledgeable about those brands.” The crafty beers and shadow brand both obfuscate that.
The issue of ownership can be just as important as where the beer is brewed.
Highlighting the most extreme example of crafty brands – and why people might care where their craft beer comes from – Beattie floats the idea of large multinational operation purchasing a local brewery, but keeping a secret who was pulling the strings.
Craft beer nerds have suffered a rough fate watching with some high-caliber breweries getting purchased by AB InBev, like Seattle’s Elysian, Chicago’s Goose Island and Oregon’s 10 Barrel, each becoming another brand in the brewing giant’s arsenal.
Which brings us back to Balderdash Brewing. On the spectrum of shadow brands, it’s hard to prove there’s much deception simply due to the lack of information provided by the brewery. On their website, the only tidbits revealed about anyone involved is that they’re a “100% locally-owned company,” staffed with lovers of craft beer.
And while technically both of those things are correct, Balderdash is not an independent brewery.
Sneaky Weasel Revealed
The biggest reveal about Balderdash Brewing lies on small print on the can: an address that leads directly to Yeast Van, minutes away from a handful of the city’s craft breweries. The address doesn’t lead to a brewery, but to the office of the Northam Group.
Don Gordon, VP sales, is the first to admit Northam “sounds like we’re selling photocopiers,” but the B.C. alcoholic beverage company was founded in the mid-2000s to buy Whistler Brewing and Bowen Island Brewing from Big Rock, with the goal of bringing beer production back to Whistler.
Today their portfolio also includes Lonetree Cider and Hey Y’all Southern Tea, and Gordon – also Chairman of the BC Craft Brewers Guild – explained their new brand to The Growler, admitting that he’s glad if people think that “something’s up” when they stumble across Sneaky Weasel.
Sneaky Weasel and Balderdash Brewing were created as a brand to bring “excitement” to what Gordon calls an untapped beer market in B.C.: the value drinker; those looking for a six-packs for under $8. Names aside, another sign of them not taking the new brand seriously is that they also give away whoopee cushions.
“The consumer that drinks Sneaky Weasel is not a kettle-sour drinker,” said Gordon. “It is targeted towards value beer drinkers who want a good tasting beer.”
The use of shadow brands is common in the value market because it distances them from a company’s more prestige brands.
“You can’t cross-contaminate your brand,” noted Hallett. Cariboo, Hell’s Gate, and Big Surf Brewing are also shadow brands chasing the same “value” demographic, operated by Pacific Western Brewing, Turning Point, and Prohibition Brewing, respectively. And Northam’s the same. Balderdash Brewing was created as a separate entity for branding reasons, even though Sneaky Weasel is brewed and packaged in the same Kamloops facility as some of Northam’s other beverages.
Yet even though they’re clearly having fun with the tongue-in-cheek new brand, Gordon still takes issue with the shadow brand concept as a whole, dismissing it as simply contract brewing.
Pointing to Sam Adams and Brooklyn Brewing’s contract brewing past, he says it can be seen as a strength that successful craft breweries can operate without a brick-and-mortar brewery.
But as the popularity in craft beer rises, more people will presumably care about exactly where their beer comes from.
“People have very personal relationships with their alcoholic beverages,” said Hallett. “In some way, if you find out your beer isn’t brewed by who you thought it was, that’s cheating on you a bit.”
And while Gordon may disagree with the shadow brand label, Balderdash Brewing and Sneaky Weasel are playing with definitions in an even trickier way. Sneaky Weasel might be something completely unique: the first shadow brand that’s technically a craft beer while also being purposely crafty.
Or maybe they’re a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a six-pack, that comes with a whoopee cushion.