If you can't beat them...

Europa Press published yesterday the piece of news that had been rumoured for the last weeks among people in the scene: Heineken acquires 51% of Madrid-based La Cibeles brewery. Founded by David Castro in 2010, the year in which the microbrewing scene in Madrid was almost identical to that of the late 90s in Barcelona, with little more than imported beer as an alternative to the major national brands, La Cibeles soon achieved notoriety and was a source of excitement for the few beer enthusiasts with concerns beyond the eternal cañita de Mahou.

"The ownership and independence of a company are secondary to a fundamental value such as consistency"

The truth is that since the buyouts of Spanish microbreweries began with the partial acquisition of Nómada by Mahou-San Miguel, La Cibeles was a sure bet for many along with other companies such as La Virgen or La Sagra, which did not take long to confirm the forecasts of the sector after the interest shown by the big guys in planting their flag in the Iberian craft. In this sense, I doubt that the news has surprised anyone.

The fact would not have greater relevance at this point, if it were not for a detail that is far from trivial. The head of production and founder of La Cibeles, David Castro, was until this very moment the President of the Asociación Española de Cerveceros Artesanos e Independientes -Spanish Association of Artisan and Independent Brewers, AECAI-.

The Association: lobby or launcher?

The AECAI was founded in 2014 by Domus, Sagra, La Virgen, La Cibeles, Dawat, San Frutos and Arriaca breweries -three of which, coincidentally, acquired totally or partially by large brewing groups-. Today it has almost 50 associates. As highlighted in its website, among the objectives of the Association are:
  • The definition and guidelines on the denomination of 'Craft Beer'.
  • Promotion of the craft beer culture.
  • Defence of the common interests of the associates.
  • Publication of sectoral data.
In short, its function is to ensure the interests of associates and potential associates, seeking coordination between companies for common projects and disclosing about their activity, while lobbying other organisations to represent common interests. The clearest example of the latter would be precisely the first point, in which the Association worked for several months, that was included as an item for debate in the agenda of the Assembly held by the AECAI on September 9, 2016.

In this Assembly, according to the summary published by the same Association, the concept of 'Craft Beer' was agreed upon to be transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, so that it could be incorporated into the Beer and Malt Drinks Quality Standard, approved by Royal Decree 678/2016, which includes this concept in its Article 3.4:

'Craft brewing: Elaboration in accordance with the provisions of this quality standard, through a process that is fully developed in the same facility and in which personal intervention is the predominant factor, under the direction of a master brewer or artisan with demonstrable experience and giving priority to the human factor over the mechanic, obtaining an individualised output, which is not produced in large series, and as long as the legislation that applies to it in the field of craftsmanship is fulfilled.'

A very generic definition, tailored to suit the needs of the big guys, which left the door open to the consideration of craft to beers such as La Virgen and La Sagra after being acquired by ABI and Molson Coors, respectively. And that will now also serve La Cibeles and Heineken. It seems that the common interests of some associates have indeed been defended.

Another one of the outstanding initiatives of the AECAI was the creation of the Association's seal so that '[...] people know whether they are drinking craft beer or not, and especially to guarantee the quality and independence of the product'.

'All the members of the AECAI will be able to use the seal of the Association on their labels, giving a value to the final consumer who will see in them the quality guarantee of drinking a real craft beer'.

Yet again, the fallacy of associating craftsmanship and quality. Nothing new. Although the interesting part is the background paradox, which comes from the fact that, by virtue of the statutes, La Cibeles cannot be part of the Association because it is owned by a company that does not meet the requirements of volume, method and ingredients. Therefore, no use of the distinctive seal of Craft Beer of the AECAI, despite that by law the brewery can be considered as such, thanks to the definition approved by the Association itself. To delve into delirium, this  link is worth a read. Here's a spoiler:

''The consumer has the right to know what he is drinking and who is behind a beer sold as craft but that, in our opinion, it is not' said David Castro, president of AECAI'.

On consistency and enemies

La Cibeles during the AMCA Festival in Madrid, may 2012

If you have begun to identify a pattern of inconsistencies, fasten your seat belt. In his work leading the AECAI, which some associates assure that he has developed with effort and diligence, David Castro has become one of the well-known faces of the scene in speaking louder and more clearly about the role of the big breweries as financial institutions for bars, denouncing the rebate agreements as a detriment of magnitude for small brands, who see how they are limited access to points of sale in a thorough abuse of dominant position. He went as far as to point at his now fellow partners for malpractice.

Now it is La Cibeles the one who will benefit from that finger-pointed 'enemy' in all those bars controlled directly or indirectly by the Heineken Group. Certainly, a greater variety will be achieved with the addition of their range of beers; but, just like before, it will continue to be at the cost of leaving no room for the smallest and humblest brands.

The Presidency of the Association has brought David to appear in dozens of media for all kinds of interviews, articles on craft beer and industry perspectives, in which he has defended the small brewers and has disseminated his good knowledge of the sector. We must recognise this task. However, in his infamous late resignation, he has omitted the clear incompatibility between representing the interests of small processors and selling part of the shares of your own brewery to the second largest brewing group. In my book, this one comes under 'conflict of interests'.

David said that 'the enemy is not among us, the artisans'. But now La Cibeles will not only occupy the taps of many bars with the same practices they denounced, but they have also smeared AECAI's reputation with this corporate move. After all, my impression is that it would be worthwhile that the associates take a step forward and proceed to make a deep internal reflection. If the message given from sectoral organisations is that setting up a microbrewery is like building a technological start-up, waiting for a GAFA to buy it and become the new rich, we will quickly lose the values ​​that have made us be here today.


'Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach'

The majority stake of Heineken is, no doubt, a great opportunity for La Cibeles to grow in size and reach. With a much greater financial and business structure, it will be easier for more consumers to get their beers. In addition, in the short term we will doubtless see an important quality leap in their products, just like what we have witnessed with Nómada, La Virgen or La Sagra.

It is also true that, from now on, the 'management independence' that has been highlighted in every press release will be governed by the strict monitoring of the return on the investment that the Heineken Group has made.

The story of David Castro is a successful one, being an entrepreneur during the hardest moments of the economic crisis in Spain. Not only has he managed to make his business viable, but he now also has an ambitious growth plan, thanks to the recognition brought in by the giant Dutch brewing multinational. All this would be perfectly understandable, if it were not for the multiple inconsistencies in which he incurs.

The ownership and independence of a company are secondary to a fundamental value such as consistency.

Salut i birra!


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