How Irish craft brewers aim to protect integrity in wake of Heineken scandal

Microbreweries are going to ramp up the branding as big business muscles in on their turf...

 How Irish craft brewers aim to protect integrity in wake of Heineken scandal

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Heineken Ireland confirmed to Newstalk on Monday night that it had asked financial services firm Grant Thornton to investigate how some of its beer products were mis-sold as local craft beers by various outlets around the country.

While it apologised for the potential involvement of any of its employees and made assurances that the practice had stopped, the news could serve to undermine consumer confidence in the integrity of Irish craft beers.

This comes at a time, too, when many large-scale, multinational brewers are attempting to co-opt the craft movement, either by gobbling up smaller, independent companies or marketing their new beverages with "artisanal" notions.

Grainne Walsh, PRO of the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland and co-founder of Metalman Brewing, joined Breakfast Business this morning to offer her take on the mis-selling of Heineken and what small brewers can due to prevent confidence in the sector taking a significant knock.

"Obviously, it is a practice that we don't like to see going on," she said of the news. "It isn't new, it isn't the first time this has happened, and in other well-established markets...

"There have [also] been big multinational beers marketed as craft or local products before.

"But as a small and indigenous growing industry, the Irish microbrewers are obviously keen to do what we can do to try and prevent this going forward and to give consumers back confidence in Irish craft beer.

"So one of the driving actions of the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland at the moment is to introduce a logo which will represent Irish microbrewed beer.

"The idea being that Irish microbrewers by definition – as Customs and Excise define microbrewing – can place this logo on their packaging which will demonstrate to consumers when they're choosing brews with this logo that the brew is made in a physical microbrewery in Ireland and packaged on the island of Ireland with no link to any large multinational brewers."

Walsh was glad to see the spotlight being shone on such misleading activity, stating that it was positive that people were talking about the difference between genuine Irish microbrewed beer and "some stuff that comes from a great, big multinational company with owners in a foreign country, calling their beer 'local Irish craft beer'".

One of the key problems Walsh sees facing the sector is the very term "craft beer" itself.

"'Craft' is a very difficult term to define. It doesn't have any legal definition, in general it engenders a local produce, local employment sort of ethos...

"That's why, as the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland, we're really using the word 'microbrewery' as your legal standpoint.

"That's what the government uses. Any microbrewery producing less than 30,000 hectolitres per annum is by law a microbrewery in Ireland. So, for us, that number really does represent what it is that we're about.
It's small-batch process. We're not making vast quantities of beer for the global market. We're local companies, we employ locally.

"We're usually hopelessly inefficient in terms of our staffing in fact because of our size! We're tiny, we have very little in terms of economies of scale."

The challenge for Walsh and brewers like her is strengthening the visibility and identity of official microbreweries. 

The introduction of the logo next week is the start of that process.

"We would like to see it as a symbol, compared to 'Love Irish Food' or something like that... [to] educate the consumer about the existence of Irish craft beer and difference between that and big industrial beers posing as craft beers.

"There are about 90 small breweries involved in brewing in Ireland at the moment," Walsh concluded. "So if we stick together and we try and tackle this head on, I'm confident that we can be successful."