alcohol freebeeropinion

When do unethical breweries get a clean bill of health?

ETHICAL BREWERY: I received a pack of no and low-alcohol canned drinks this week. It’s ‘Canuary’ the box proclaimed. I was excited to take a look inside. I knew there would be a non-alcoholic Aperol Spritz in there. Having had exceptionally good iterations of this classic cocktail in the past I was keen to try it. I wasn’t sure what else I was receiving. It was actually quite surprising that a Mikkeller low-alcohol beer had found its way into the set.

To be honest, I don’t buy Mikkeller beers. I haven’t done for about a year now. So I found myself in a bit of a quandary as to whether I wanted to give any coverage to their products, even when they had been gifted to me. In turn, this reminded me of an issue that has been playing on my mind for a year or so now, brought all the more into relief by the airing of the B&$@D*$ documentary recently. When does a brewery that has been called out for bad behaviour get a reprieve?

Mikkeller Limbo
Are Mikkeller an ethical brewery now?

Harrassment in the workplace

Mikkeller has been arousing interest in industry news and on social media recently as one of a number of breweries called out for alleged gender bullying occurring in the workplace, particularly at their San Diego brewery. Arguably this hasn’t really filtered into the mainstream, although Mikkeller is a pretty big craft beer brand. In response to the allegations, a number of key breweries withdrew from showcasing at the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen festival – no doubt at great detriment to their own sales. I decided that I would not be spending any money with the Danish business.

At first, Mikkeller denied the allegations. But last autumn, after a couple of false starts, they publicly apologised and admitted wrongdoing, promising to find a way to make the situation right. After much corporate soul searching, they recently announced a reconciliation program managed by consultants Hand & Heart. They will work alongside legal counsel in a number of countries to evaluate cases (some accusations go back years) and offer appropriate redress, be that professional counselling or financial compensation.

Now, it took a long time, but it looks like they are doing everything they can to address the situation. Now they are listening to their employees and making good on past errors, can they go back on my ‘to drink’ list? Or do actions speak louder and words and they have to prove that real change has taken place? If so, when do I get to feel comfortable spending money on their beers again – in 6 months, 1 year or 5 years?

Cancel Culture

This case touches upon issues that I have been considering in other contexts too. I am not a fan of the current discussions of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘erasure’ that is doing the rounds on social media. Too often they are wielded by right-wing zealots or transphobes for nefarious ends. Trying to keep things positive was the reason that I started the ethical and sustainable brewery and cider directory on this blog. I wanted to celebrate the good rather than focus on the bad. So often social media is relentlessly negative and this was my way of doing something a little lighter and brighter.

At the end of the day, we all have to take personal responsibility. I have my own personal blacklist of breweries and businesses that I have decided not to spend my money with. I don’t share the whole list publicly. But I have written in the past about some of the breweries that I have abandoned and why. Other people aren’t really bothered and they buy the products they like, irrespective of the track record of the business that makes them. And you know what, that’s OK too.

Spend with your conscience

I believe that it is up to the individual how they spend their money and what they are comfortable with. It hasn’t passed me by that Mikkeller’s 0.3% ABV Flemish Primitive Ale with raspberries is called ‘Limbo Series’. While it is surely a reference to the alcohol content, it does feel that the brewery occupies a place of purgatory with many consumers at the moment.

I have been working with small businesses for 5 years now, helping them to amplify their messaging and tighten up their brands. In that time I have seen that business owners fall into two main camps. There are those who want to make the most profit possible, come what may. There are the people that love what they do and want to create the best possible product or service. Profit is usually a lesser concern to this second type of businessperson, but they do still need to make a living just like the rest of us.

The two types of business

I’m not quite sure how well this theory scales up to big business… But generally speaking the profit-driven business cuts corners and takes shortcuts. This allows them to squeeze every drop of cash possible from their customers. The restaurant that gives the impression of caring about ingredients but has waste bins in their yard stuffed with the packaging of off-the-peg ready meals from catering wholesalers spring to mind. Take a look at the online catalogues of those big catering firms. You might be surprised how many dishes you recognise.

The business that genuinely cares about the product tends to be better for the customer. They are driven, passionate people who will pay more for the best quality. This often means sacrificing a little of their margin to stay in line with the average pricing within their industry. They are usually, in my experience, the same people who look after their staff a little better too. They are more hands-on with their business and care more about customer service being delivered with genuine love.

In some cases, it can be surprisingly difficult for the average punter to discern between the two. One provides you with better value for money and is generally just a better place to spend your cash. But you will have to do a certain degree of research to find out what’s what.

You pays your money

We all know that when we visit certain pubs, usually but not exclusively chains, the kitchens are likely to contain little more than a deep fat fryer and a microwave. But in the moment, whether because of time, distance or convenience, we make the decision that that’s OK and we eat there. I think most people know what life is like for battery hens, but still their eggs are widely available for sale. Some people buy them, some people won’t. We all have different levels of tolerance to what we find acceptable, and how hard we intend to work to find out more about what we eat and drink.

It is possible to spend a little bit of time interrogating the veracity of marketing claims about sustainable ingredients, fresh produce and provenance. There are ways of assuring ourselves that a business treats their staff with dignity. We can all make a personal decision about whether Business X sits comfortably with our own moral compass.

For me, Mikkeller have passed the litmus test, for now. I don’t see the sense in putting an indelible black mark next to their name when they have admitted wrongdoing and put robust steps in place to counteract it. I could wait a couple of years to collate evidence that the reconciliation program wasn’t just a token gesture, but then they might not still be around in a few years. It might transpire that it was all a bit of a flash in the pan. I reserve the right to change my mind and stop buying their product again.

In summary

We all spend according to our conscience. I think that genuine contrition and taking positive action should be rewarded. If breweries that face bleak accusations are all irretrievably on our blacklist, do they have any motivation to make a change? I imagine that it has been extremely difficult for brewery owners dealing with allegations to see a way through to the future. My sympathies are first and foremost with victims. I hear their experiences and I believe them.

No doubt some businesses will deservedly fail because they simply did not look after people that were under their duty of care. But I think we need to find a way to acknowledge when offenders have paid their debt to society and to move forward together. I’d love to hear about what other people think in the comments below. I am definitely occupying a shifting mental space here!

The calibration of our moral compasses is deeply personal. Mikkeller is OK for me now, but it might not be for you. Happily, there are thousands of breweries out there to discover, and I guarantee at least one of them will be as good for your soul as they are for your tastebuds.

I was gifted the can of low alcoholic beer but my thoughts are my own. I can’t tell you how it tastes because I haven’t tried it yet.


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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