Monday 5 December 2011

Just The Tonic

We received a letter from The Portman Group the other day regarding a complaint made against Vitesse Noir by a member of the public......

I've just written the response.

Portman Group
4th Floor
20 Conduit Street
London W1S 2XW
By Post, Email
and Open letter published on Dave’s Blog
05 December 2011
We note your letter dated 2 December 2011 regarding a complaint from a member of the public. We note your nine member companies, who between them represent a major contributor to the alcohol market. We recognise the need for pacification of the unreasonable pressure put on our industry by neo-prohibitionists who fail to recognise that the vast majority of drinkers are responsible and moderate. We note that the clever marketing campaigns conducted by your member companies, with their benefit of major marketing budgets, often subtly tread a fine line of your code. We note that major lager brands for instance often sponsor sport implying that by drinking that product you automatically become a sportier person. Additionally, adverts on the T.V. that suggest by drinking a product one’s party will be wild and raunchy must surely sail close to The Portman Group’s code of conduct.
We note that the majority of the volume of the products your members companies make are easy drinking, manufactured to a budget and a quality that is unlikely to challenge the taste buds of the drinker and sold in a manner that is designed to maximise volumes of sales. We respect this position and understand that this is what the majority of the law abiding drinking public is happy with.
We note that The Portman Group has no jurisdiction over us and is unlikely to be able to take action over this particular product, namely Vitesse Noir, as it is predominantly sold direct by us to a very small specialist market. The product is highly unlikely to be sold through supermarkets, which is where the majority of risk to public health would be.
We are a very small company. Our products are designed very much for a small, niche, and discerning customer base. To enable us to get to our target market we require a strong marketing message and it is disappointing that an organisation which is funded by major alcohol producers is seeking to interfere with real innovation and enterprising commerce. In the current economic environment it is the small producers like Hardknott who are likely to lead an economic recovery. Seeking to inhibit our success is inappropriate and unreasonable.
This particular product is inspired by an American Craft Beer the likes of which is very rare in the UK. It is part of a Craft Beer movement in the UK which is showing drinkers that a few well chosen drinks at a higher price is more responsible than looking for the lowest cost deal and drinking it in large quantities. It is highly flavoured and priced as a premium product and as such is recommended by us to be consumed only as a digestif. If the label is read in context it is clear that this is the case, and furthermore the label carries a warning, which the complaint has chosen to ignore.
It appears that it is the word “tonic” which is being picked out as the offending word. It is worth pointing out that pre-packaged “Gin and Tonic” is now a regular product in many supermarkets and is manufactured by at least one of your members. Additionally, several of your members regularly feature adverts in mass media citing gin and tonic as a refreshing pick-me-up.
We believe the risk to the general public of the innocent and obviously tongue in cheek wording on the labels of our bottles is insignificant. Indeed, we expect that our customer base will have all the intelligence needed to control their own health and wellbeing and are unlikely to believe that our little quip has any basis in truth. We believe our customers are intelligent and discerning and we market as such.
The product is manufactured in very small batches and we are unlikely to ever reach the manufacturing capacity that would cause this product to represent a public health risk.
We believe that for small artisan producers like ourselves a different approach to marketing is required. We will therefore wish to be allowed to progress with our business without interference from an organisation who is funded by major alcohol producers.
I note that this is not the first time The Portman Group has antagonised producers in the Craft Beer Sector. Hardknott recognises the importance of a regulatory body within the industry to prevent inappropriate Government legislation hindering the lawful and responsible actions of all of our industry. However, it is clear to me that The Portman Group is unable to consider the needs of the small artisan producer. Should a representative of small producers be required then we would be happy to help and thereby avoid further uncomfortable confrontations.
Dave Bailey
Brewer, Doer, Force Majeure.


Tandleman said...

Love it Dave. Doubt they will though. Good for you.

Ben (@CptCheerful) said...

Your response seems like it's way OTT considering all they've done is write to let you know they've received a complaint and to invite you to respond before they consider whether or not the complaint's warranted/justified. Instead of just pointing out that it's a daft complaint, explaining why, and going about your business, you've tried to turn it in to David and Goliath, Hardknott takes on the tyrannical overlord of British alcohol, and have come off looking like you're trying to be James Watt Junior. Don't get me wrong, I like you and your beers Dave, but this seems a bit ill-advised to say the least. If you have issues with Portman, campaign for a change within the trade rather than going for cheap publicity stunts. You want people to talk about your beer, not them.

No doubt people will disagree with me and want to shake their sticks at Portman too, but I just think this doesn't reflect positively on Hardknott.

Stiggle said...

'adjective' 2. invigorating
'noun' 2. anything that is refreshing or invigorating.

The tonic in a gin and tonic contains quinine to help against malaria - which has medicinal properties and so is a tonic in their definition.

Unknown said...

Ben, I respect your view there.

The truth is it's a tough job getting your name out there. It's simply not good enough just to be a nice person or brew nice beer.

I've never made any secret of the fact that I take a leaf out of the BrewDog book, but not without my own approach.

I'd like to think my response was balanced and truthful. It would have been written the same had it only been sent direct to them. But why not make it public?

Ben (@CptCheerful) said...

Telling your story and brewing amazing beer is how you get your name out there. One account at a time, one tasting/MTB at a time, and one tweet/blog/interview at a time. Word spreads and demand grows. If the product's good, people will talk. It's your job to create passionate ambassadors for your brand by selling it to them in the first place though.

The response itself is out of all proportion to the letter they sent you. I've no issue with you making it public, just with the fact that you took a run of the mill complaint and turned it into something it isn't. Instead of focusing on the complaint itself (the subject of the letter), you used it as a platform to attack the Portman Group on unrelated issues.

Unknown said...

I don't agree with you Ben on a number of points.

The main thing is that the 9 member producers of The Portman Group have major marketing budgets. I do not.

I have to find whatever means I can to get our name out there louder and stronger to more people.

Doing meet the brewers and selling up and down the country is great fun, but very time consuming and expensive.

We have yet to make a profit partly due to the fact that we are making a product that more suits contemporary city based market rather than a local saturated market. The delivery costs and marketing costs to deliver what has to be a national brand by it's nature demands this approach.

Besides, I stand by my comments in my letter. The Portman Group may well be better than government legislation, but it does not serve the small producer well at all.

Doing the things you suggest by itself isn't working; we do them already. It's a simple as that.

Unknown said...

Oh, and Ben, building a brand and the infrastructure to support it needs funding. Banks need to see demand for the product that is growing strongly, exceeding supply capabilities. Being meek doesn't achieve that.

Ben (@CptCheerful) said...

The letter you were sent had nothing to do with Portman offering or withholding support from smaller brewers - That's the issue I was raising. It was about a specific complaint related to the wording on your bottle label. It had nothing to do with whether or not the Portman Group does enough to support smaller brewers. It also had nothing to do with your marketing budget or business model. Hence, I don't think your response was balanced, reasonable, or warranted.

With regard to the challenges you face, there's far too much to discuss in a blog comment - One to debate over a few pints when you're next in Manchester!

In short though, I'd take a different approach to sales and distribution, and I'd focus on a few key cities nearer to home, rather than spreading yourself too thinly across the whole country.

Neville Grundy said...

As an experienced negotiator, I'm inclined to agree with Ben's point. Most of your letter would be appropriate if they had found against you.

My Collins dictionary has several definitions of tonic, including as a medicine, but also as a mineral water, so the use of the word 'tonic' to describe a recreational drink is part of the language. Most people probably associate the word with gin than with medicine. Tonic is also often used metaphorically, e.g. "His speech was a tonic to the audience". The Portman Group has to take into account all uses of the word, and not just pick one definition out of several.

Stiggles: the use of quinine in tonic mineral water is for the flavour. No one in this country drinks a G&T to protect themselves from malaria, and that fact should be relevant to any decision.

Unknown said...

Ben, I offered advice to a Molson Coors person last Thursday relating to their excellent King Cobra. I have only ever seen it once in an Indian Restaurant and suggested they should get it into more.

The response was similar to what I'd say to you, if it were that simple we would.

We can only go with the markets that are working for us and the opportunities that are presented.


Why do you think it's a negotiation? It's not, it's a "shove it" letter. They have no jurisdiction against me and I'd be happier if they did find against it.

However, if they want to invite me to contribute more positively then they know where I am.

Now, I have a business to run, so any further comments are likely to not be responded to. Have you last say if you wish.

Meanwhile, I'm still chuckling......

StringersBeer said...

Golly Dave, did you forget to let trading standards have a look at that label? They'd probably have told you that a "health claim" on booze was not only contrary to industry "best practice", but might even be agin the law. You'd have saved yourself the unwelcome attentions of these meddlesome busybodies.

Unknown said...

Stringers, a "tonic" as has been indicated elsewhere, can simply be a nice drink.

Ben (@CptCheerful) said...

"We can only go with the markets that are working for us and the opportunities that are presented."

Well that probably explains why demand hasn't exceeded supply yet.

StringersBeer said...

I'm not a lawyer Dave, but I think it's the case that pretty much NO "health claims" are permitted on alcoholic beverages over 1.2%. I gather that specific derogations are in place for various uses of the word "tonic". I don't know about "could have you dancing on the ceiling". But again, Trading Standards are the bods to ask about this sort of stuff. Very helpful, and free (or at least paid for out of all those taxes the excise are stinging us for).

Unknown said...

Stringers, Trading Standards don't even recognise Barley Wine as a beer.

Ben, and here was me thinking I was working too hard to keep up.

Neville Grundy said...

This is the conversation:
PG: someone objects to the word 'tonic' - what's your response?
Your reply: why are you big boys picking on me?

Whether or not they have jurisdiction, I'd have been inclined to shoot down the original stupid complaint in flames, but you're not interested in that. All you want to do is depict yourself on your blog as a heroic David challenging the villainous Goliaths of the drinks industry. I've come to this conclusion because if the jurisdiction argument was significant to you, you'd simply have binned the letter.

Alex Routledge said...

To be fair Ben, demand hasn't exceeded supply for two reasons.

A) I'm working my socks (keeping it clean!) off to see that doesn't happen;
B) 90% of our output is sold more than 2 hours away from the brewery.

We have very little in the way of a local market, this is something I really want to remedy, but it's pointless just now as we're in the off season. In order to keep the cash flow respectable, we need to seek out these more lucrative markets and deal with the logistical issues that brings as they happen. We are still a very small company, there are the three of us working flat out to grow the business while at the same time maintaining the quality and consistency of our products.

When an opportunity such as this one presents itself, I think that Dave is right to take the stance he has, especially when all it boils down to is someone with a common sense/sense of humour failure. As he rightly points out, the Portman Group is investigating Vitesse Noir on a contradictory or slightly hypocritical point, so why not make a fuss out of it?

Unknown said...

Nev, you are right, you've found me out, this is just a PR exercise. We love it.

Ben, what Alex said.

Alex, stop reading and commenting on the blogosphire, it's my job. Get those kegs washed and filled with Code Black, last time I looked demand was outstripping supply.

Neville Grundy said...

Yes, I realised that after your reply to my first comment.

Kristy said...

hey Dave - since I've been (albeit very subtly) outed in your comments I thought I'd wade in with my views.

You know we've discussed (being a loose term) Portman before and I'm with Ben on this one - your reaction is not only OTT but potentially dangerous to the rest of the industry if you really think it through. This isn't a case of poor artisan brewer against the big corporate mcbastards - regulation has to be a blunt tool or it would be pointless - you may believe your customers to be intelligent and discerning but can you prove that is true 100% of the time? You're expecting a regulatory body to make judgements based on the reaction of the general public at large, it's madness to expect we can provide for every reaction so we have to assume the safest position.

Whatever your views on Portman they aren't going to go away and nor should they. The Portman code is clear and in the public domain so you could have easily avoided this fracas by checking in with them up front. Would you sell one less bottle by not having the word tonic on the label? I doubt it but if we moved to a world of enforced regulation where all you can have is a plain white label detailing the health risks, no tasting notes and this very blog would be deemed illegal I doubt you'd sell anything at all.

If this is a PR stunt it's misguided, it's been done before and was met with disdain then - I don't suppose Messrs Brewdog sold too much more as a result of their similar protest and nor will you. If it's a true attack at Portman then it's even more misguided - all this kind of stunt does is to highlight to the powers at Whitehall that we are an industry incapable of self regulation and that we need government intervention.

Portman are not the enemy and arguably the small producers should embrace them the most - as you point out you don't have big budgets so in a world of dark marketing and enforced regulation only the big brands could afford to survive - I don't see that many artisan tobacco companies springing up these days.

Unknown said...

Kristy, good to get your comments. Indeed we have discussed this before and we didn't agree then, although it would be churlish to suggest that the discussion didn't have a positive effect on me. I recognise the place for the Portman Group, and as has already been said, they may not find against our product anyway.

But really, do we think the words on my bottle are going to bring down the social well-being of the general public or even accelerate inappropriate Government legislation? I doubt it. It seems to me that it's only people in the beer business that notice me.

I simply haven't got time to have a to-and-fro discussion with a Group that might have vittoed my words anyway.

And a major concern of mine, when watching much mass media adverts, the subliminal message by those clever producers is something we simply haven't got the resources to achieve.

Misguided? Perhaps. Did the last people who tried this fail or do they now run a 6 million pound turnover business? Perhaps you can remind me of that one.

Rest assured, I'll not be putting in my own complaint should this one fail to attract enough attention. Nor will I sink beer in The Irish Sea and pretend it's any different to putting it in a lagering tank.

As I have said, I'm flattered that I've been noticed. Flattered and a little bit amused. If it's worth anything, I think The Portman Group have done what they had to do; they have a code, which I don't entirely agree with, and a complaint from someone who is a little bit silly. The complaint has to be investigated.

But really, publicity stunts, opinion, sparklers or force carbonation, keg, cask, traditional and contemporary, Government policy, multinational and artisan, it's all part of a big game, innit?

But, I still love King Cobra and would love to see it out there more.


Kristy said...

"Rest assured, I'll not be putting in my own complaint should this one fail to attract enough attention. Nor will I sink beer in The Irish Sea and pretend it's any different to putting it in a lagering tank." - thank goodness for that!! Having been lucky enough to try some of the offending beer in question I can honestly say it is outstanding - what you do is brew great brew well and that's where you should concentrate your efforts!

What I can say is that, whether you agree with the point of the Portman Group or not, the people there are excellent and far from to-ing and a-froing you'll get the right advice back quick smart. Use em - it's why their there!

Kristy said...

ooops - I owe you these xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sat In A Pub said...

A good day’s work, I’d say, Dave. Little bit of publicity-and we know there’s no bad side to that, just ask Brewdog-and a healthy blog comment count. What’s wrong with that? For me, it’s not whether your response is OTT, but the principle of the matter.

The Portman Group are as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Why deign them worthy of respect in the first place? Far better, as you did, to fire a broadside against their bombastic hide. I only wish more in the industry would do likewise and stop the cart pulling the horse.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

I thought it was rather well written. When you said that they (Portman Group) had bought a bottle, I thought they would go after the speed angle, like tying it in with meth or something.

How does this group get its authority?

Gareth said...

Surely nothing is going to come of this? Or is that the sort of crazy thinking that runs along with 'common sense will prevail?'

I find the whole thing hilarious, a beer called 'vitesse' and it's the word tonic they're whining about. Merits of the Portman group aside these people should be told to go away and stop wasting other people's time. (Unless it's a comic expose of a sham system, in which case they can carry on...)

Neville Grundy said...

Tyson: "Little bit of publicity - and we know there’s no bad side to that." I think Gerald Ratner and the News of the World may beg to differ.

StringersBeer said...

@RedNev Bad publicity bad for established brands, for small brands in crowded markets, anything goes. Even being evil.

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