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Home | Features | Olympic beer squabble

Olympic beer squabble

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Not everyone is a fan of the official Olympic beer

London 2012's choice of beer has prompted a squabble

A fight has broken out over the choice of Heineken as the official beer for the London Olympics. 

Heineken is an ‘anti-British beer’, according to Greg Mulholland, the Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West. Mulholland tabled an Early Day Motion earlier this month, claiming that the choice of the Dutch brand as the official beer of London 2012 was “a wholly inappropriate decision based purely on the size of Heineken's chequebook”. 

The Early Day Motion (a system allowing British MPs to record their opinions and solicit the support of fellow Parliamentarians) attracted just seven signatories, one of them Mulholland, in its first week. Popular EDMs can prompt anything up to 400-500 supporters. 

Mulholland tabled the motion on July 5th – some 18 months after the brewer’s role was made public and three weeks before the start of the Olympics. He has admitted to Brewers’ Guardian that there was never any likelihood of the decision being changed. 

“There was never any possibility of it changing. This isn’t about changing, it’s about criticising. One of the great things, as a democracy, is that we are allowed to criticise”, he said.

Mulholland’s point, he said, was that a mistake had been made. “It was a big mistake by the Olympics organising team, choosing a foreign beer brand as a sponsor when we are one of the world’s leading brewing nations and our national drink is beer. It just jars – it’s not a good fit at all. It doesn’t boost the image of the games that we are trying to promote. 

“It is a concern that people coming from all around the world to the London Olympics will not be able to get a glass of decent British beer in any of the Olympic venues. It’s important to point that out”.  

Asked what beer he felt would have been a better choice, Mulholland said that almost any British or English bitter would have been acceptable, adding that there were a number of obvious candidates. He went on to say that the Olympic organisers failed in not doing some lateral thinking before making their decision. 

“Why not approach SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) and the family brewers of Britain and find out whether they could sponsor the event and offer a range of beers at the Olympic venues? That would have allowed all of the venues to serve great British beers, including beers local to London”, he said. 

As for Heineken, the brewer is bemused by the timing of the motion. “The announcement was made in January 2011 and we have been working quietly behind the scenes for 18 months now, so it’s slightly odd that someone should come forward at this late stage” said Nigel Pollard, Head of UK External Communications for the Dutch brewer.  

Mulholland objects to the decision to make what he describes as 'a mass produced non-British beer' the only branded beer available in the Olympic venues, but Heineken has been quick to point out that it is the biggest brewer in the UK, with three breweries employing hundreds of people.  

The Heineken on offer to those attending the games will be brewed in the Netherlands, but a number of British-brewed alternatives – all part of Heineken’s portfolio – will be available at the Olympic Park, including, John Smith’s, Strongbow and Bulmers. None of these will be branded – Heineken alone has that right. Deuchars IPA and Theakstons will be available within corporate hospitality facilities at some of the smaller venues. [see below]

Heineken expects to sell two million pints in the Olympic Park alone, but Pollard says that it is harder to predict sales at the smaller venues. 

“The other point to make – and I think this is one that Mr Mulholland has missed – is that it’s not just about the Olympic venues. We supply, on any given day, 40,000 pubs in the UK and we want the pub to be the place to watch the Olympics. People coming into pubs will buy every type of beer available. They’re not going to just buy our brands. They’re going to buy cask ales, they’re going to buy lagers, they’re going to buy ciders. And that’s got to be good for the pubs. So we are working with our trade customers to try to get people to get out there and visit the pub as well”, he added. 

"This is bigger than ‘who’s the official lager’. It’s ‘how can we get the UK pub industry really engaged in the Olympics and how can we get people to come out and watch the athletics or the swimming in the pub with a great pint’. That’s what this is all about. It shouldn’t be about a petty squabble over who’s British and who isn’t. The Olympic ideal is about international co-operation”. 

Heineken has been involved with the Olympics for two decades and has a track record of supplying to big sporting events, said Pollard, who added that, regardless of Mulholland’s comments, the decision was not down to the size of anyone’s chequebook. He also stressed that involvement with the games had required a massive logistical commitment. 

“We’ve had to spend a lot of money to fit out bars, we’ve had to upgrade our depots to make sure they’re secure and compliant with LOGOC’s considerations around security. We’re training bar staff. We have to warehouse and deliver the beer just in time because there’s very little storage. It’s not just about dropping off a couple of cases of beer”, he said. 

Mulholland is scathing of this explanation for Heineken’s involvement, referring to it as ‘disingenuous nonsense”. He argues that the smaller brewers could have met the logistical challenge, saying: “Look at the Great British Beer Festival – it’s happening whilst the Olympics are actually on. It’s at least as big a logistical challenge as serving fizzy lager at a selection of Olympic venues”. 

Last year saw Mulholland hit out - several times - at Carlsberg over the Danish brewer's decision to close the Tetley's brewery in Leeds, calling for pubs in the city to boycott Carlsberg products. He denies that he is targeting the big brewers, however, saying: “I’m targeting the worst corporate behaviour in any shape or form. While Heineken hasn’t done anything wrong, I think the Olympic organisers have, by failing to see that having a sponsor that’s a foreign, mass-produced beer is not synonymous with London 2012”. 

Of Mulholland’s comments, Pollard says: “Our people in the UK are very proud to be involved with the Olympics and we are working with LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) to make sure the games are fantastic. We are not downhearted or dispirited by this. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. We’re just cracking on.” 

Branding at the Olympics - the battle beyond the arena

The London 2012 organisers continue to take flack over the rigidity and confusing nature of their branding regulations. From elderly ladies getting into bother over knitting Olympic dolls to who can – and can’t –serve chips in the Olympic Park, no one is immune. And so it is with beer and cider.

When Heineken bought the right to be the official beer of London 2012, it was literally just that. For while a number of Heineken-owned drinks will be served in the 50 or so bars within the Olympic Park, Heineken alone will be branded.

John Smith’s, Bulmer’s and Strongbow will be on sale, but unbranded. Heineken has stressed that it will be supplying all of these in their usual packaging.

“In terms of how they are displayed and served, that’s a matter for LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic) and their caterers”, said Nigel Pollard, head of external communications for Heineken UK.

So far, so straightforward. It appears, however, that anyone requesting a bottle of ale at the Olympic Park will see staff decant a bottle of John Smith’s into an Olympic-branded glass, somewhat dispelling the unbranded myth. Customers at the smaller bars will be able to buy draft only, and will remain unaware of the beer’s branding.

Other Heineken brands – Theakstons and Deuchars IPA – will be available at corporate hospitality functions in the smaller venues. They will be branded.


Further reading: 

Heineken optimistic after Q1

Heineken USA product recall




The Beer World Cup