Brewhive – empty vessels?

2015-08-30 17.19.12

Small, far away

So, this Brewhive business – what’s it all about?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I put some questions to the company’s friendly intern in an email. Three days later – considerably longer than it took to deliver the beer – I got a reply from Andrew Veitch, one of the company’s founders. Here are my questions again, with Veitch’s answers inserted.

1. Who is/are the brewer(s)? What is their background (other breweries/Heriot Watt/home brewing etc)?

(see next answer)

2. Where does the brewing happen? Does Brewhive have its own brewkit, or are they going down the ‘gypsy’ route (brewing on other brewers’ kit), or contracting the brewing out? What’s the brew length for each of the main styles? Where is the cider made?

We did the initial test brewing at Drygate (although it wasn’t the Drygate team) and the brewing is presently at Clonmel in the small batch brewery on the Bulmer’s site. That brewery is 100k hectolitres.

3. The choice of styles is interesting – it seems quite conservative when compared with the more exotic and innovative styles that a lot of startup breweries are coming out with. How were these three beer styles (and one cider) arrived at? Will Brewhive be expanding this range or offering short-run specials?

We’ve done a lot of customer research and our customers are looking for beers that are more interesting than commercial lager but are lower ABV and less strongly hopped than most craft beers. This fits in with our focus on food matching. A conservative range is actually exactly what we are aiming for so I’m pleased you used that term.

We will develop the range further and may use other brewers for guest beers or special editions.

4. Why ‘craft’? What does ‘craft’ mean to you – and if someone asked you to justify calling Brewhive a craft operation, how would you go about it?

Our objective was to create some beers that are aimed at people who are presently drinking wine or drinking commercial lagers. We are absolutely not aiming at people who are presently drinking craft beers (and in fact we do try to avoid the term “craft beer” to describe our beers).

5. The pitch to the online retail space is very strong; from a customer’s point of view, you seem to have a lot of the bugs ironed out (lack of availability, high delivery charges etc). Will Brewhive always be an online retailer of bottled beer? Can we expect to see the Brewhive logo appearing in shops or on bar taps?

Our plan is to be online only although we may be available in certain restaurants. However we will never be available in supermarkets or bars.

Veitch has a few key points here, which he’s been putting across quite consistently (see his answers to the questions posed by the Look at Brew blog). Firstly, the people running the company aren’t doing the brewing. The Bulmer’s site at Clonmel in the Republic of Ireland (now owned by Guinness) is actually where Magner’s comes from – nothing to do with our own dear H.P. Bulmer’s (now owned by S&N). Secondly, these beers aren’t aimed at people who know about beer, and they’re meant to be bland: “more interesting than commercial lager” but not high in alcohol and not strongly hopped. (Veitch may need to have a word with Kevin Dorren, who told the world back in January that “Brewhive is unique due to it’s [sic] focus on the hop. Most beers don’t make a big deal about the hop, but we plan to!”) Thirdly, it’s not craft beer. There are some mixed messages here – googling for “brewhive” and “craft” brings back more than twice the number of hits as if you search for “brewhive” without the word “craft”. There’s also that line on the Liquid e-commerce site, quoted earlier, to the effect that Brewhive “plans to have the largest range of craft beers in the UK” – not to mention Kevin Dorren‘s description of Brewhive as aiming to be “the largest craft beer brand in the UK”. But let’s write that off as marketing flannel and take it that Veitch is speaking for the company: craft beer is (mostly) strong and hoppy, and that’s not what they’re doing.

All fair enough. But I still didn’t really understand where Brewhive was coming from – if you wanted to sell beer online, why wouldn’t you just set up as a mail-order retailer? if you wanted to sell your own beer, why wouldn’t you brew your own beer? if you were having beer made to a specification, why would you make it such a bland specification? A bit more poking around on the Liquid e-commerce site brought some enlightenment:

Kevin Dorren – Founder

Kevin has started or been employee No 2 in a number of startup companies in the UK and USA in a number of fields, including Technology, FMCG and advisory.

Between 1997 and 2001 he was CEO of Orbital Software – a person to person knowledge management company founded from Heriot Watt University.

In 2008 he cofounded Diet Chef with Andrew Veitch.

Andrew Veitch – Founder

Andrew founded Diet Chef with Kevin Dorren and also has been the founder of Fine Coffee Club a leading Nespresso compatible capsule competitor. He has extensive experience in direct to consumer marketing and has coding experience with Python, Django and other web technologies.

Which, in an odd sort of way, answers all my questions. Why aren’t they brewing their own beer? Because they’re not brewers. Why are they selling their own brand of beer instead of retailing other people’s? Because they’re running an online beer retailing business on the same lines as their earlier diet and coffee retailing businesses; being an intermediary for back-end suppliers would introduce complexity and cut their margins. Why are they having the beer made bland? Because they want to make the target market as big as possible, and they judge that strong flavours will repel more people than bland ones; because they’re not brewers and don’t have any personal investment in the flavour of the beer; and for simplicity and better margins.

Incidentally, a bit further down the page we meet

Anna Roper:  Marketing Manager

That’ll be Anna Roper, Digital Marketing Manager for Fine Coffee Club (“I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of Fine Coffee Club since starting when the company was formed in 2012.”). You may also remember the name from my earlier look at the Brewhive blog; there she figures as

Anna Roper
Beer lover & trainee sommelier.

“Apparently there is a Brewhive sommelier,” says Brew Geekery. That’s not quite how I’m reading it.

So here’s what seems to be happening. A couple of entrepreneurs build up a track record in online FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods – food & drink, basically). The MO – which has been highly successful, as you’ll see if you google Veitch and Dorren – seems to go something like this:

  1. find a market which is well-established but has a bit of potential for expansion
  2. set up an operation with a prominent ‘online’ stamp, doing something just different enough to be eye-catching
  3. get it working, run it for a couple of years, then
  4. move on to the next thing.

The latest thing they’re moving on to is beer, where they’re looking to get in at the mass-market end of the spectrum – not the ‘BrewDog in Sainsbury’s’ mass-market, the real mass market, the one where people don’t want to sandblast their tastebuds but just want to feel like they’re drinking something a bit… different. Given their (lack of) background, it’s not too surprising to find that they’ve got the online user experience and the fulfilment side pretty much right, but that they can’t really talk the talk when it comes to beer. And then there’s an even bigger problem, which is that they have a much stronger idea of what the beer shouldn’t be (strong, hoppy, challenging) than what it should be – and the actual brewing is being done by a big corporate brewer, to (presumably) a tight budget.

So we end up with a total mismatch: it’s the kind of bland, mediocre beer that you can sell by the gallon through a keg font with a magnet on the front, but they’re trying to sell it in 33 cl bottles (a classic symbol of ‘craft’), in an online marketplace where the level of customer knowledge is pretty high and the demand for innovation is even higher. It’s interesting that they’re planning to stay online-only, except perhaps for “certain restaurants” – presumably restaurants where they can get exclusivity; it sounds like a strategy for avoiding direct comparisons, and makes me wonder if they’re conscious that the beer isn’t all that good. The trouble is, you don’t need a blind tasting of their IPA and Punk IPA (or even Greene King IPA) to know how poor their IPA is – anyone who knows anything about beer will tell straight away. Is the idea to make it work by somehow angling their marketing at all those people who don’t know anything about beer? But if that’s the case, why would they be trying to market it through bloggers and beer cognoscenti like what I am?

Since I started this series of posts another couple of reviews have appeared, and I’ve had to consider an unwelcome possibility: what if they don’t care about quality? To put it another way, what if they’re aiming at a market consisting of people who don’t care about quality – wouldn’t that make it completely pointless to criticise the beer in terms of quality? And what if a bit of ‘ordeal by social media’ were just part of the process of getting the name out there and building brand recognition? Even if everyone’s more or less critical about the beer, every review that appears online is another search engine hit for “Brewhive” – and every review can be quoted selectively. Maybe I’m being played, to put it bluntly.

All things considered, I don’t feel under any obligation to be positive about Brewhive. In my opinion, the beer is not very good at all, and the underlying approach is misconceived. We can all agree that strong and challenging beer isn’t for everyone. I’m less convinced by their minor premise – that there are a lot of people who don’t drink beer but could be persuaded to drink relatively bland and unchallenging beers; that to me sounds a bit like a non-sexist version of the justification for those “ladies’ beers” which are launched every few years and sink without trace. But even if that is true, we don’t need these beers: there is plenty of beer out there with un-scary hopping rates and nice, gentle a.b.v.s, and most of it is better than Brewhive’s. The “Look at Brew” review concludes

I like that the company are aiming towards the ‘entry level’ end of the market, and once those recipes are re-worked they could well prove to be a good bridge from mass produced to artisan.

But better bridges exist already. It’s not as if you needed to book an appointment at Beer Ritz in order to find anything better than “commercial lager”; just look in the beer aisle of your nearest supermarket, or stick your head in one of those temples of geeky beer elitism called J. D. Wetherspoons. And it’s not as if Brewhive were offering to educate the ‘entry level’ crowd as a public service. It’s a bit like saying that a sausage with most of the meat replaced by rusk and fat would make a good gateway food to encourage non-sausage-eaters to explore the good stuff, and then starting a business selling a new brand of low meat-content sausages. You’d make some money, but you wouldn’t actually be doing anyone a favour, including your non-sausage-eating target market.

Basically, there’s nothing Brewhive are doing that needed to be done. These people have no brewing background and know next to nothing about beer; they’re only in it to make money out of customers who don’t even like beer. I recommend giving the beer a wide berth (never mind the cider), and I hope the people behind the company have a serious rethink – preferably to the point of quietly giving up the whole idea.

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8 Comments

  1. metatone
    Posted 7 September, 2015 at 9:00 am | Permalink | Reply

    It may be a product of their business plan, which is “build the brand and then sell it before we have to really think about long term success” – but I find the product plan pretty hard to understand.

    Fair enough to create something for a market not that interested in beer. Hence not very distinctive. But why would people like that order over the internet instead of from their supermarket (or these days, from their supermarket over the internet.) Especially looking at the prices – 330ml Dark Brew – £2.20. Fuller’s London Porter – £2.10 for 500ml. Who is not interested in beer, but interested enough to go looking for it from a specialist supplier on the internet?

  2. Rob
    Posted 7 September, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink | Reply

    This has all been tried before but maybe they’re a bit slicker with the operation. (I remember some place down in Devon that was trying to flog ‘craft’ beers, yet didn’t have a brewery, but they seem to have sunk without trace. Shame.) There is another blogger review of this outfit which is nauseatingly keen. I’ll not link to the blog but they appear to know fuck all about beer, and just seem to be so flattered to have been given beer for free that they couldn’t possibly say anything bad about it. I can only presume that they’ve tried to get as many bloggers as they can interested, and any positives they get will be spun out as much as possible to give the semblance of credibility.

  3. kate
    Posted 9 October, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Well I am very happy with the beers brewed by them or not! Delivery was free and only took 2 days.Great Christmas present, included a book about beers and Chrystal glass. Good value for money!! If your not happy then don,t buy it! simple !!

  4. Posted 13 October, 2015 at 8:32 am | Permalink | Reply

    I ordered a sample batch at discount which I was very disappointed with!
    The free glass was the best part about the order!
    I have just left review on brew hive site which I am sure will make no difference to their viewpoint.
    The IPAwas one of most disappointing beers I have ever sampled and indeed think there is more flavour in a can of bass shandy!
    I am a genuine lover of craft beer and find it hard to understand why anyone would bother to drink beers with no character or flavour made by a company with no love for either the beer itself or their own customers.
    Sampling their brews was an impulsive mistake one which I will not be repeating and I would advise anyone to stay away from these beers.
    There are so many different beers available with so many different styles and flavours and strengths that there really is beer out there for everyone without having to go down the flavoured water route!

  5. Phil
    Posted 13 October, 2015 at 5:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting couple of comments there.

  6. Ethel Prunehat
    Posted 3 December, 2015 at 9:52 pm | Permalink | Reply

    > If your not happy then don,t buy it! simple !!

    How does one know in advance if one is happy with the product without buying it?

  7. Robby
    Posted 18 December, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink | Reply

    Just drunk their sample batch – IPA was watered down to a point where you can’t really taste the hops. The chocolate porter was better , but still lacked any depth a porter should have. This is yuppy beer, buy it to be different but still enjoy the bland taste of mass produce 4% lager. This is beer for people that don’t like beer but want to say “I joined the craft beer bandwagon”

  8. Craig harrison
    Posted 22 April, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve just had 12 bottles of cider and a glass delivered, ordered on Wednesday drinking now straight after work on Friday got delivered at 8:50am this morning. Cost £9 plus £3.95 delivery through woucher. I’m no expert on cider or beer but like to drink. The cider tastes good, apart from a bit watery. But possibly not such a bad thing. I could quite easily drink all 12 the way the first bottle has gone down, in no time at all. If this was cheap I would buy and drink in bulk. Much better than strongbow or lydls but not as good as a magners, bulmers etc. These would be good for a BBQ because quite watery they are refreshing and very easy to drink. And at 5 percent after 7 or 8 should still give u a bit of a buzz. Was interesting to read te review before sampling but I’ve got to say the blogger has got an serious issue with these guys. At the end of the day you try something if you like it you buy again if it’s crap you don’t. There’s so many beers in the supermarkets I just try randomly and if I like something I buy again if I don’t I don’t. I also go to the beer festivals when in town and the same there try – if you don’t like it don’t buy again, if you do drink more. The problem is you can’t remember which the good 1s were. If you don’t like the guys because you’ve got issues fair enough but spreading negative conspiracy theory’s against them isn’t going to do anything. People can make up their own minds, and take your review with a pinch of salt. Your just the view of 1 person, at the end of the day the masses will decide. Do something useful in your own life instead of bitching about people who are trying to earn a living. If the price is right I will buy again, the same I would guess as most people who have tried it as a drink without trying to be critical.

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