4 March 2020

Power & Influence & Beer

This will be just one of a series of hot takes you will find floating around the internet in the wake of the Portman Group's decision to issue a Retail Alert Bulletin after finding that the label of Lost & Grounded's excellent Running With Sceptres can violated their seemingly arbitrary, inconsistently-applied, endlessly subjective, malleable, wishy-washy beery-weery code of practice; a code which despite updates seems forever destined to be out of step with the constantly living, breathing, evolving state of the beer industry.


The brewery's bravado is to be applauded, although in situations like this where the cards are stacked heavily against them, more cautious folk would wonder whether this is a battle worth fighting. Tiny Rebel lost "a five figure sum" attempting to make Cwtch compliant after a similar complaint.

Oh - about the complaint, and the complainant. He or she appears to be a serial offender, randomly wandering into supermarkets and scanning the craft beer shelves for potential violators. Their recidivist-ego-stiffening and pencil-sharpening exercise is being performed in the shadow of one of the Portman Group sponsors' regional breweries, a place of employment with over 300 disgruntled macro beer worker ants. A coincidence perhaps.

There was never any doubt about what the verdict was going to be from the "independent" panel towards an independent brewery. Yet on the face of it, many beer commentators have agreed that the label does break the code in featuring anthropomorphic animalia in a garish cartoonish scene. Some have even gone so far as to victim blame L&G for inciting this ruling as if the brewery have been playing a very self-owning game of chicken with the regulator.

Perhaps it would be handy if the Portman Group, when they're not at the beck and call of A.N.Onymous (yes, the brewery doesn't even get to know who their tormenter is) drew up a list of which animals are allowed to be used on cans and how anthropomorphic they can appear. We already know from the Tiny Rebel saga that battered and bruised bears are out. Even more established names don't escape the wrath of the animation antagonist : Delerium's pink elephant was also compared to a cartoon character (Dumbo's mother?) in a previous complaint. It appears anyone can make a spurious comparison or link between two sets of imagery, and have said comparison taken seriously by actual adults, if it suits a narrative they feel necessary to drive.

For their part, the Portman Group had the nerve to tweet out that day "We don't react to vexatious complaints." However, even after Tiny Rebel had altered their can design for Cwtch to that suggested by the Portman Group, it still fell foul of the watchdog.

This is why some of us cynically smell rats. If compliance still isn't enough for A. N. Onymous of Caldicot, who could then make a further complaint, where does it end and how much power is vested in one very punitive individual with either an axe to grind or an ulterior motive?

But wait, I hear you say. Didn't the Portman Group rule against Oranjeboom (prop. InBev) on the same day for breaches of labelling? Well, yes, but that's a bit of a dead cat thrown on the sacrificial altar - Oranjeboom 8.5% is being withdrawn from UK market anyway so actual effect is negligible bordering on insignificant with a touch of meh. As an interesting footnote to this, the same design was ruled compliant by the Portman Group back in 2017.

Elsewhere, Purity Brewing's "Lawless" was ruled non-compliant for promoting crime in its name. That was even more laughable, but a name can be changed easier than a piece of artwork. Just ask Tiny Rebel, whose Clwb Tropicana had to rename itself to Clwb Tropica for fear of being confused with orange juice. Then again there's Loka Polly, a brewery who had to rename themselves entirely. And let's not forget Boss Brewing, who lost upwards of £10,000 in a fight against a vexatious complaint from Hugo Boss for daring to sell merch with their brewery name on it. Their cause is being taken up this week by Joe Lycett, who has changed his name to Hugo Boss by deed poll as part of the campaign. Watch out for the results on Channel 4 soon.

So what's the answer to the fact that the Portman Group, with its undeniable ties to big macro beer, its befuddled attitude to craft and its willingness to bend to the will of one very sad individual from Monmouthshire? Self regulation in its current form isn't working. The PG is dominated by vested interests in an industry that is (sometimes bitterly) divided into factions, tribes, groups. Having such a skew towards one such tribe leaves space for inconsistent interpretations

One ultimately undesirable solution is statutory regulation. For all its scary sounding inferences, whereas the Portman Group's code is not fit for purpose and would not stand up to scrutiny, statutory regulation could theoretically be challenged and changed with due process and reflect changing attitudes. For example, the state regulated alcohol industry in Sweden, where the Systembolaget only exists due to previous generations' pathological state-wide alcoholism, was recently relaxed to allow alcohol advertising in print media. Things can change depending on political and societal progress.

Not that our current government would want to get involved in that of course, and any state-backed regulator would be just as vulnerable to anti-alcohol and other pressure groups as any self-regulator. The big beer companies would also ensure a lions' share of representation too. But at least the complainants would be public, discussions open, industry representatives drawn from a wider demographic and censure would require reasons more justifiable than "I think kids will be unable to contain themselves at the sight of a non-Tigger".

So if self regulation is to remain, it needs to be reflective of the current state of the industry and be accountable to all players, not just its sponsors. Also needs more transparency, less inconsistency and more realism. It needs to be proactive and not reactive, working with the whole industry, not against certain sectors of it. I don't see why it can't be more dynamic. Comparatively, the ASA has to update its guidelines every time a new media comes along. YouTubers in particular hav to be careful with their channel sponsorship spots etc. Such a thing was unimaginable just a short time ago yet that industry adapted readily.

For now, Cwtch and Running with Sceptres are to remain, although if the Retail Bulletin has any bite, they will eventually disappear from the shelves of Waitrose and other outlets, and everyone loses: the brewery, the customer, the retailer and the beer world as a whole.

The only winner is one very self-satisfied killjoy; relaxing tonight safe in the knowledge they have saved the United Kingdom's children from falling under the devious evil spell of craft beer for another week.

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