Devil’s Peak Tap (Room) Takeover for craft beer domination

Tap Room's current brand portfolio
Tap Room’s current  portfolio

In a remarkable strategic move, Devil’s Peak has acquired all taps by South Africa’s biggest craft beer distributor company “The Tap Room” and immediately began to remove competing breweries from the bar counters of this country, replacing (some, but not all of) them with their own wide range of brands.

After Heineken bought craft breweries like Jack Black, Soweto Gold and Stellenbrau and SAB’s aquisition by AB-InBev and the influx of their international brand portfolio (like Budweiser, Hoegaarden, Corona, etc)  this the next big story, that is going to affect beer lovers in South Africa.

Since opening our doors on Long Street 5 years ago, BEERHOUSE has always owned their own tap equipment to have absolute independence on which beers to put on our 25+ taps and which one to pull at our own discretion. Nearly all other restaurants and bars in South Africa rely on taps being installed and maintained by breweries or distributors and their variety on tap will be seriously affected by this move, while we will proudly continue offering an independent variety of the best beers from all over South Africa and beyond.

Devil's Peak / Signal Hill Products and brands
Some of Devil’s Peak’s brands – soon on every tap.

These Brands are brewed by Devil’s Peak and distributed by their Signal Hill Products umbrella company: Devil’s Peak, Alpha Cider, Mitchell’s, Fokof Lager, Little Wolf,  St Francis Brewing. They are also brewing many house beers like our own LIT Lager, contract-brew for international brands Mikkeler, Fierce Beer and Amundsen Brewery plus own exclusive distribution rights to Guinness(!) and Striped Horse for South Africa, meaning that people will walk into bars seeing a big variety of beers on tap, not understanding, that they all come from Devil’s Peak, squeezing small independent breweries out!

Industry veteran Carl Nienaber broke the news on Facebook, where he explained the significance of The Tap Room’s (aka “The Draught Guys”) asset acquisition by Devil’s Peak (aka “The Pizza Dudes” as they are funded by US money, that also invested into Pizza Hut), which he allowed me to quote in full (scroll down for my own comment):  

“This week, quietly and without fanfare, the landscape of the South African craft beer scene changed radically for the worse when the country’s largest craft beer distributor (who I’ll hereafter refer to as The Draught Guys) sold all their draught dispensing equipment to the country’s largest “craft” brewing group (hereafter The Pizza Dudes). Overnight, many hundreds of taps in scores of restaurants and bars became the property of one brewery.

To put the scope of this development into perspective, let me explain the underlying business model driving draught beer sales in the craft category. Draught dispensing equipment refers to the taps, towers, coolers and other items required to pour beer out of a keg, through a tap into your glass. This equipment is quite expensive to buy, install and maintain which means that the majority of bar and restaurant owners choose not to own their own equipment. Instead, they typically take on the services of a distributor or brewery who will install and maintain the equipment in exchange for sales exclusivity on that equipment. So, if my bar has equipment installed by a particular distributor/brewery, then I undertake only to order products from that distributor/brewery. The cost of the equipment is then amortized over a period through the profit margin generated by the sale of kegs.

This model has proven to be very popular in recent years, resulting in the proliferation of craft beer on tap throughout the country. Over time, a certain amount of consolidation has taken place – we’ve seen the majority of tap space in the trade being dominated by the Big 4 local craft breweries and – significantly – by The Draught Guys. Competition for taps has become fierce recently simply as a function of limited real estate. A bar can only sustainably operate a certain number of taps before they start running into issues of space and stock expiry, meaning that every brewery who wants to grow their market share either must put taps into outlets that don’t currently have taps (a rarity these days) OR they need to convince an outlet to replace their taps. The second option happens quite frequently, particularly when certain of the bigger breweries offer aggressive deals and low pricing.

This is where The Draught Guys have hitherto played a very important role in our industry. As a distributor, they represent a large portfolio of breweries which they can offer to trade customers. However, unlike most distributors, who only offer a delivery service, The Draught Guys also owned a huge stockpile of dispensing equipment that they could install in the trade. What this means is that if I owned a bar and I chose the services of The Draught Guys, they would install a dispensing system at no cost to me and I would then be free to choose whatever products they offered in their basket, whether it was from a big craft brewery or from a tiny micro operation.

Additionally, if I had multiple taps, I could order products from a whole range of different companies, thereby giving the consumer a choice of products from different breweries.

The Draught Guys’ model was hugely beneficial to smaller breweries in particular, who – unlike the Big 4 – can’t afford to buy, install and maintain their own equipment. In fact, this model was so successful the The Draught Guys owned probably as much dispensing equipment in the trade as any one of the Big 4 Breweries. And a large proportion of those taps were pouring beer that was not supplied by one of the Big 4. The Draught Guys were central in providing the craft beer consumer with a diversity of interesting and independent products and this is why the sale of their equipment to The Pizza Dudes can’t be good for the industry.
One of the reasons that the “craft” beer industry came into being in the first place, is that consumers grew weary of being offered only the illusion of choice provided by a handful of macro breweries making light lagers. Craft beer gave people choice again, not only in terms of the beer styles on offer, but also in terms of who produced the beer.

Now, in a tactical master stroke, The Pizza Dudes appear to have taken us closer to the pre-craft era than we’ve been in years. What have they done specifically, you ask?

Step one: create the illusion of consumer choice. The Pizza Dudes set up various in-house brands in addition to their core brand; they quietly acquired several small independent breweries; they secured distribution rights for some big international brands. They were now able to offer a product basket appeared diverse and interesting to the consumer, even thought the vast majority of those products were produced in the same factory.
Step two: hit the market HARD. Armed with their lovely product basket, The Pizza Dudes’ sale force began aggressively targeting beer tap market share. By leveraging economies of scale, and by not shying away from loss leaders, they were able to offer keg prices and incentive deals that no other brewery in the country could match. This proved immensely successful and soon the Pizza Dudes had the largest market share of any individual craft beer supplier.
Notwithstanding this success, The Draught Guys remained an obstacle to the Pizza Dudes’ market domination. Unlike their other 3 main competitors, The Draught Guys could also make a compelling case to customers in terms of the variety of their offering.

So they implemented Step three: buy out your competition.
Effective this week, all of The Draught Guys’ dispensing equipment has become the property of the Pizza Dudes. That means that the Pizza Dudes now own taps in the trade that are pouring their competitors’ products. And in light of their historical marketplace tactics, is it likely that the Pizza Dudes will abide this? I think not.

Over the next few weeks we are likely to see dozens, if not hundreds of taps that had been pouring beers from small independent breweries being replaced with products from the basket of one company – the biggest, least independent craft brewery in South Africa. And if that’s not a loss for the craft beer consumer and the small producers in South Africa, then I don’t know what is.

My own comment and Beerhouse perspective is: We are not here to badmouth Devil’s Peak, Tap Room or any other market player. I got mad respect for Devil’s Peak beer quality, innovation and their pioneering work and we proudly work with and sell their products, but it is important for us to educate our customers on the source of the beloved product and make sure they can make informed decisions. I do believe, that Devil’s Peak is helping grow “craft” beer, by lowering the price point and making it more accessible, but I also believe, that we will need real and authentic variety to convince these customers to drink craft forever. Craft beer is not a winner-takes-it-all market, but can only thrive, if the ecosystem, the craft beer community is functional.

Old Taproom customers have already lost taps in the few days since the change was announced and there’s now a distribution gap in the market. I do hope, that breweries, that lose their taps will find new independent outlets and distribution partners. My Beer Revolution group of companies happens to have a dormant nationwide distribution license and licensed warehouse in Paarden Island, which I’m happy to utilize, if required for such an undertaking…

Cheers,
Randolf Jorberg (BEERHOUSE founder & Head Dreamer of the Beer Revolution (Pty) Ltd.)

P.S. after publishing this article an intense debate erupted on social media, some even questioning, if Devil’s Peak is still craft
P.P.S. Devil’s Peak finally released an official statement on Monday emphasizing, that they are going to continue sharing a lot of their lines with small brewers as they always did…
P.P.P.S. I was sent this copy of The Tap Rooms email to their brewer-customers:

We wish to advise you that the Board of Shareholders at The Tap Room has taken a decision to sell its assets in trade to Signal Hill Products. We have until now been unable to inform any our stakeholders of these happenings as we have been bound by confidentiality.
This decision has not been taken lightly and was motivated by the consolidation in the industry. In addition to experiencing substantial pressure by large players targeting our outlet space we have also seen a significant drop in volume of product sold. As a result, the sale of our assets was a strategic imperative that we believe will enable the Tap Room to go on from strength to strength.
Pursuant to the sale we are changing our business model to be one that focuses on distribution and dispensing services. Should you be interested in us doing installs on your behalf, we will gladly assist where possible. We would also like to continue distributing your products going forward.
We can advise that it is not in SHP’s interest to remove all competitor lines, and they have intimated that they want to work with you guys going forward as they do with all other breweries. The Tap Room will continue to service and maintain these lines and will continue to collect line rentals.


7 Comments On “Devil’s Peak Tap (Room) Takeover for craft beer domination”

  1. Jan | On August 11, 2018

    Thanks beerhouse for keeping the tap lines independent. A blue ocean turns red. Stay yellow please!

  2. Jan | On August 11, 2018

    Thanks for keeping your tap lines independent beerhouse. A blue ocean turns red – stay yellow!

  3. Nico Pieterse | On August 11, 2018

    Good afternoon,

    Please note that Devils peak is not the brewer nor the owner of Sir Thomas Brewing co, we also have no current affiliation with Signal Hill products. Sir Thomas Brewing Co is independently owned and managed, its situated at Sir Thomas Brewing Co. Summer Hill Wine farm. R44
    Stellenbosch.
    Our craft beer is absolutely independent, home made with lots of love and distributed by ourselves.

    Regards

  4. Randolf | On August 11, 2018

    Dear Nico: apologies for the mix-up. I meant to say St Francis Brewing, not Sir Thomas. The picture above did show St. Francis, but I mixed it up, was actually notified of it soon after publishing around 4am, but was already on my way to lala-land… Corrected now, no offence intended.

  5. HvR | On August 11, 2018

    Boohoo bad capitalism.

    This is how markets work in a free market, we have come to end of the craft beer bubble where every Johnny Brewboy with a garage and homebrewing kit can push his brew unto the market.

    It was evident in the last couple of years especially at festivals where there was some truely horrible offerings on tap.

    These guys trying to cash in on the wave will now fold which is a good thing since craft beers are still judged as a single entity by Castle drinkers splurging try this new craft beer thing and a bad 1 out of 100 choice is a consumer lost to the whole market.

    Any new entry will now be forced to put their money where hops is and deliver qaulity product.

    End of the day, if there are truely hundred of qaulity small breweries out there a HUGE market opertunity just opened for somebodt to step into the gap you mentioned.

  6. Dyllan Roach | On August 16, 2018

    The Tap room will continue to distribute products for all its breweries and is open to continue growing its basket of brands. We are not going anywhere and will continue to help small and big brands get to market. To quote that they are our “previous” customers is untrue they will all continue to work with us and be distributed by us!

  7. CraftBeerVarietyFan | On August 17, 2018

    To HvR:

    This is primarily a distribution problem, not a quality of product problem. The market will not embrace a bad product and a bad brewer cannot survive with a bad product for long. On the other hand a good product cannot survive either if the lines of distribution are controlled by only a few, or even one competing brewer. If distribution lines were kept independent of the product sources, then free market forces can decide who survives, and who doesn’t based on product quality.

    This same problem happened for decades in the music industry. The 4 big publishing houses in the States and UK controlled just about every radio station in the country and they decided whose music got played, whether they were good or not. If you didn’t hear the song on the radio, you were unlikely to hear it at all. These 4 companies controlled the means of distribution of music, so good independent music had no way of reaching the market. That all changed with the internet: Suddenly small players could share their music to anyone, completely bypassing the big 4 publishing houses, creating a far more free market. Songs could be consumed heard and consumed based on the song quality, instead of what was pushed down the listeners throats by a handful of publishing houses.

    Taps are the distribution means for beer. If you control the taps, you control the market’s exposure to beer and thus you control the market. You have more power to keep out smaller players. Unlike with music, though, the internet does not solve this since you cannot digitise beer (imagine that!).

    In the end, this is anti-competitive, because market domination is not based on the quality of the product but on the control of distribution of product to the market. This means that the consumers will lose because of reduced variety.

    Personally, I think this is tragic because I have loved the craft beer explosion. The variety available makes the trying of new beers a great experience and when I find that beer that I particularly enjoy, then I can go back to it over and over again. Yes, you will taste some duds along the way from poor brewers, but duds won’t survive because nobody will enjoy drinking it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *