Crafty counterfeiters jumping on the rise in the love of beer

Stuart Fuller

Next week will see the kick-off of one of the most popular events in London; well at least in my diary. Not only is it the start of the 2016/17 football season, but it’s also the start of the London Craft Beer Festival, taking place at The Oval. Gone are the days when ‘real ale’ drinkers were looked down upon by the drinking establishment. Today, the craft beer market has never been in better shape. According to the Society of Independent Brewers, a new craft brewery launches every two days on average, whilst production has increased for the seventh year in a row. Mail-order beer clubs have become the new Britannia Music Club.

Beer drinking has gone all digital-media-centric with the popular app Untappd, which can boast over three million active users, including a fair few around our London office. I’m not at liberty to say which member of staff has the most beers checked-in (me), the most badges for various types of beers (ahem) and who earned the ‘hair of the dog’ award for registering a beer before 7am (not me this time).

The overall picture for beer consumption in the UK is still relatively flat. Our enjoyment of these new breweries such as Beavertown, Redemption and Five Points – not to mention the daddy of them all, BrewDog – has been at the expense of traditional brewers such as Carlsberg-Tetley and SAB Miller. UK drinkers are increasingly choosing craft beer due to the interesting stories the small breweries can tell, their use of digital marketing as well as superior flavor, quality and choice – especially with seasonal brews that cannot be replicated by the major brewers. The big players have in many instances taken a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach, snapping up some of the bigger and more popular craft breweries such as Meantime and Camden Town; moves that haven’t been popular with the craft beer drinkers.

In our quest to find new beers to enjoy, we essentially open ourselves up to a degree of risk that we don’t really know what we’re drinking. With advances in technology, labeling production is now quick, easy and, more importantly, authentic looking. A genuine-looking new brand of craft beer can be created very quickly indeed, complete with a social media presence, with thousands of followers bought for a few dollars. What the actual product tastes like, or, more worryingly, what its ingredients are matters little to the counterfeiters. One seller on one of the biggest online marketplace websites is even offering to supply up to one million ‘private beer labels’ per day for prices starting at $0.001 per label.

Back in 2013, global brewing giant Heineken discovered that counterfeit beer was being produced and sold in South East Asia. It found that some of its most important and valuable brands, including Tiger and Heineken itself, were being mixed with “other beer” and then being delivered to outlets within cities in Vietnam especially. There have also been instances of beer sold in fake ‘Heimekem’ beer cans in China.

It’s not just fake beer that has made an appearance in China. Back in 2014, BrewDog, in many ways the pioneers of the craft beer revolution, discovered it had a bar in China to go along with its establishments in Britain, Sweden and Japan. All quite impressive growth, but it had never considered a bar in China. The establishment in Changzhou, complete with BrewDog branding was a fake. Not that BrewDog was the first organization to see fake establishments open in China – it joined the esteemed company of the likes of Apple, Ikea and McDonald’s, which have also fallen victim of counterfeit shops opening.

Whilst co-founder James Watt was surprised by the development, he was also flattered that his brand had joined such an elite group. Watt sent an open letter to the bar in which he actually praised them for choosing to rip off BrewDog’s branding:

"I know that most organisations might reprimand you, condemn you and maybe even sue you for faking their logo and their bar concept... BrewDog exists to make everyone as passionate about beer as we are, and frankly your choice to build a fake BrewDog bar in Changzhou – rather than a fake McDonald’s, a fake Starbucks or a fake Nike Town – suggests to me that we are getting there."

Watt went on to suggest that they may get inspiration to start brewing for themselves. BrewDog's approach to this clear infringement is unusual to say the least, but ultimately the bar was selling genuine products and thus actually not affecting BrewDog’s revenues or reputation.

According to a 2012 report by HM Revenue & Customs, alcohol fraud results in loses of up to £1.2 billion per annum to the UK taxpayer, with between 5% and 14% of total UK beer consumption being classed as illicit, or in other words, counterfeit. Counterfeit alcohol damages the reputation and revenues of the alcohol industry across the world, denies governments of valuable taxation revenue, and, more worryingly, kills hundreds of people every year.

Many people make a conscious choice to buy and consume fake alcohol, with price being the determining factor (a PwC report into UK spending habits found that 26% of respondents to a question regarding their purchase motivation said that price was the compelling element). But for those who are more health conscious, only buy the genuine item from reputable retailers.
The growth in craft beer is exciting, with new brewers opening their door every week. If you do come across a brand you’ve never heard of in locations that may not be where you’d normally find your local tipple, think twice before you take a sip and rate it on Untappd.