The expression “If you lie down with dogs you will get up with fleas” has been around for a long time. That expression of course is not about canine wellness. The adage means that, to a significant extent, the company one keeps determines one’s reputation, not merely by reflection but also by transfer. That is, those whom we favor with our company, friendship and support may affect our ideas and attitudes and priorities; we might call these the “fleas of friendship.” Another old adage reads: “Birds of feather flock together” implying that people of like mind seek each other’s company.
I ran into this idea recently in an NPR piece that pointed out this political season is a minefield for corporate support of candidates running for office. In such a vociferous and nasty political climate officers of corporations must decide which political dogs and what kind of fleas cause the least itch for their bottom line and for their customers.
This dog/flea issue is not the kind of dilemma we might expect a craft brewer to face. After all, for the most part they are small enterprises that hardly have the financial muscle to move the political needle very far one way or the other. Thus their dog/flea dilemma is unlikely to be one of political association. However, craft breweries are valuable business enterprises that have been sold for high valuations to large corporations making the entrepreneurs who built the company in the first place and their investors (deservedly) wealthy. It’s possible we may see that dynamic change because a high valuation has not always turned out to be justified. Nevertheless, large companies are still on the prowl for desirable craft brewery acquisitions.
One such recent craft brewery purchase has a rather interesting dog/flea consequence. That also of course alsohas a dog/flea consequence for those who drink the beer that brewery makes.
Lion Little World Beverages is buying 100% of the fourth largest craft brewery in the USA: New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins Colorado and Ashville NC. Lion Little is the craft-brewing arm of the giant multi-national Kirin Brewing Company of Japan. That acquisition, in and of itself, might rattle some purists who prize the independence of craft brewers. However, many devotees of e.g. the Fat Tire brand are admirers not only of New Belgium’s beers, but also appreciate the extraordinary range of social commitments of the company under the leadership of Kim Jordan. Kim is a great lady much admired in the industry. New Belgium Brewing is a so-called B Lab Corporation; this certifies that the company, across all its activities, meets certain social, environmental, accountability and transparency standards towards its employees, business partners and customers. New Belgium is also an employee-owned company all of whom will benefit financially from the sale to Kirin.
So far so good. No dogs no fleas.
However, it turns out that Kirin owns a significant stake in Myanmar Brewing Company that is co-owned by the Myanmar military through a company known as Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is primarily a Buddhist country with a small minority of Rohingya Muslims who have been there for a long time though discriminated against and persecuted. The military in recent times have seriously harassed this population; some have called this harassment ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Many Rohingya have died and large numbers have fled to, or been driven into, Bangladesh. The agony of these poor people has made it into our homes via TV news so we are not ignorant of it.
Here we have the dog and the fleas. However remotely, New Belgium is now linked through Lion Little and Kirin to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
I know that corporations make rational business decisions based almost entirely on financial imperatives and that is their business. I also know that the chances are slim that money will leak in any literal way from Fort Collins to the Burmese Army. Nevertheless, I feel just a bit disappointed a bit let down. I guess New Belgium set such a high bar for social conscience that this sale seems to be a fall from grace. Kim Jordan has written an open letter about the sale that brings to mind a line from Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Craft beer drinkers are a well-informed and thoughtful lot and so this dog/flea connection will not go away; they also value the ethics of the craft brewing industry. However, craft beer enthusiasts are generally not very brand loyal and, with plenty of excellent alternative beers available to them, it will be interesting to see if Kirin’s fleas affect sales of New Belgium’s products.
Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.