I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into pretty much every brewery in BC, in an attempt to figure out who actually brews what beer. While on the surface this task might seem to involve going to each brewery’s website, and writing down their big ole list of beers, in reality it’s quite hard (in reality, I pulled liquor licenses and financial records on some to follow the money… I am not kidding. Side note: you brewery owners sure lease a lot of your family cars).
You see, for whatever reason, some breweries tend to lie about what beers they brew. Not all of them, mind you. Not even most of them. A small minority, though, seem to think that actually admitting what beer they brew would be bad… somehow.
Thus enters the concept of a “Shadow Brand”: 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 #3 and #4.
So it’s simple, right? Find out all cases where the brewer isn’t the same as the brewery on the side of the can and we’re done! Whoa. Not so fast. Turns out this is more complex than anyone thought. So, as a precursor to my big list o’ shadow brands (coming soon, I swear), I will first talk about a few select examples to show how hard this all is.
Example One: Driftwood Brewing
Driftwood Brewing, founded in 2008, is still run by the owners out of its original location to this day. It is absolutely, most certainly not a shadow brand in any way. Had you worried, didn’t I? But I had to establish the negative case. Everyone after this is to a varying degree not independent.
Example Two: Red Racer
Again, no such company, but you wouldn’t expect it to be as “Red Racer” is quite clearly a brand of beer and not a brewery. At no point does the can say “Red Racer Brewery” anywhere, and the back of the can quite clearly identifies itself as brewed by Central City Brewing. The relationship isn’t as perfectly obvious as Driftwood, but it’s still decently clear.
Example Three: Cariboo Brewing
Cariboo Brewing does not exist. It did exist, a long time ago, and it produced an eponymous lager similar to the one that still bears its name today. In the mid-50s, though, CWB went belly-up and was purchased by the more familarily named Pacific Western Brewing Company. PWBC, though, elected to keep “Cariboo Brewing” as a brand, and further elects to accurately identify themselves (PWBC) as the brewer on the side of their cans. If you’re wondering why this is different than Red Racer, it’s the “Brewing” in the Cariboo name.
Example Four: Main Street Brewing Company
Also on the list of breweries that does not actually exist is Main Street Brewing Company. Despite their flagship Main Street Pilsner being nearly ubiquitously available all around the lower mainland, the reality is that its brewed by Russell Brewing under contract from MSBC, a brewing company that doesn’t operate a brewery or even have a license to produce beer (yet; that changes later this year). Personally, I think this is a good way for small breweries to get off the ground and finance their start-up, but it’s still misleading.
Example Five: Granville Island Brewing
Now it gets complicated. Molson owns GIB, but GIB is still a separate company, with separate offices, separate employees and yes, a separate brewery. The trick, though, is that the vast majority of GIB’s beer is produced by Molson under contract (anything in a 12oz is brewed in the big Molson plant on Burrard). The owner/ownee relationship complicates this, though, making this slightly more than just a contractor/contractee relationship as per MSBC. Usually the contractee, for instance, gets a say in what beer is made and how much.
Example Six: Big Surf Beer Company
This one’s a bit stickier. Big Surf has been quietly brewing a not-awful lager up in Kelowna for a few years, with fairly small distribution. This year, though, they launched a parallel line but neglected to use the words “Big” or “Surf” anywhere on the bottles. That line is labelled as “Prohibition Brewing Company.” So this is a clear shadow brand, right? It is, but not in the way you think it is. Turns out their license to produce beer is under Prohibition, not Big Surf, so it’s Big Surf that’s the shadow (both beers are distributed by “Allen Brands,” named after owner Dan Allen–see how murky this is getting?).
Example Seven: Stanley Park Brewing
At last, a pure shadow brand. This meets all the things we’re looking for: There is no such brewery as Stanley Park, there is no brewery IN Stanley Park, the bottle makes several misleading statements about the brewery’s history and production, and nowhere on the bottle does it make mention of the actual brewery: Turning Point Brewing (perhaps more famous for their Hell’s Gate Lager… and for being down by the sewage treatment plant). Turning Point, for their part, is owned by Mark Anthony Group, perhaps best known for Mission Hill Vineyards, but also responsible for a whack of other products.
So that’s seven, count them, seven categories of brewery. From the straight-up “brewed by the owners” approach of Driftwood all the way down to the “this tested well in marketing, and new beers outsell old beers, so let’s invent a brewery” of Stanley Park. I will now assign terms describing each of these classes of brewery, so that when I drop the big ole list on you later you’ll know which is which.
1. Driftwood is an INDEPENDENT BREWERY
2. Red Racer Beer is a BRAND
3. Cariboo Brewing is a HISTORIC SHADOW BRAND
4. Main Street Brewing is a CONTRACT BREWERY
5. Granville Island Brewing is an OWNED BREWERY
6. Big Surf Beer is a SHADOW BRAND
7. Stanley Park Brewing is a SHADOW BRAND (BUT EVIL) (preview: it’s just them in this category)
Clearly, I have not mentioned everyone in the province, so please don’t raise your hands in a chorus of “b-b-b-ut!” just yet, and yes, there are more subtle variations in each class. I’ll deal with that in a later post, I swear.
For now, though, let’s conclude with a discussion about why, fergordsake, would anyone want to do this? New labels cost money, new bottle shapes cost money, paying a company in Toronto to hold your domain listings anonymously costs money. Why go to all the bother?
Well, with branding comes reputation. Brew good beer and people will associated “Good” with your product. Brew bad beer and, well, you get the picture. The problem, though, is that pretty much all beer is profitable. Good beer’s habit of being increasingly profitable and taking more of the market leads to things like Shock Top (AB-InBev), because the public is more likely to try something if the marketing is also high-end, and distanced from your existing budget brands. Be honest, would you have tried a Hell’s Gate Wit?
It works the other way, too. Brew okay-to-good beer, but want a slice of that macro-esque, cheap swillin’ lager scene? Yet you don’t want to associate your existing brand with macro swill? Then you can invent Black Loon Brewing, a brand that has nothing Granville Island about it. At least it pays for the bomber program.
Next week: the big list.