The giant multinational brewers
Many of the most well-recognised brands are brewed by just six giant companies, which have been linked to multiple abuses.
AB InBev is the largest beer company in the world, with sales of over $52 billion. Its brands include Corona which has, strangely, seen growing sales during the pandemic.
The company has received several criticisms in recent years for its violation of workers' rights, in particular for violation of union rights. In 2018, in Peru, it was accused of unilaterally discarding parts of a collective bargaining agreement with the workers’ union for its brewery, and in 2019, in India, it was accused of harassing, intimidating and sacking union members. In 2020, a subsidiary of the company was also accused of funding paramilitary groups in Colombia – a claim which it denies.
Heineken is the second largest beer company in the world with sales of $26 billion. It has been repeatedly accused of discrimination. See the company profile below for more details.
Polish and Myanmar boycotts
Asahi is next largest ($19.2 billion) and faces a social media boycott of its Tyskie brand in Poland after its subsidiary Kompania Piwowarska sponsored an event by Poland’s right-wing magazine Gazeta Polska in 2020. The magazine is known for its homophobic views: in 2019, it was prevented by Polish courts from handing out ‘LGBTQ-Free Zone’ stickers, instead distributing ones that read ‘LGBTQ Ideology-Free Zone’.
Its event awarded ‘man of the year’ to Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, under which Poland is the least LBGTQ-friendly country in the EU. Kaczyński is known for his Islamophobic and homophobic views.
Kirin is next ($17.8 billion) and has recently ended ties to the Burmese military, following a military coup in the country in February 2021, and after a boycott call was made against the company in August 2020.
Kirin previously ran a joint venture with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEH), a company controlled by the Burmese military. In September 2020, Amnesty International published a report which found that around £12 billion in dividend payments had been transferred from MEH to military units over the 20 years since it was founded.
Shareholders in the company included Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief who has been instated as leader following the coup, and military battalions that Amnesty has linked to crimes against humanity against Rohingya populations, as well as war crimes in Kachin and northern Shan state. In early February 2021, Kirin announced that it would sever ties with MEH.
Kirin also previously admitted that its subsidiary made three donations to the military and authorities in 2017, while they were involved in the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. The donations totalled USD$30,000, and Min Aung Hlaing received the first in person, stating that it would in part fund “security personnel and state service personnel”.
For some reason, the big brewers also are often big donors to political parties. For example, Molson Coors Brewing Company was listed as being linked to donations of $330,000 to the Republicans and $106,000 to the Democrats in the 2020 US election cycle. AB InBev was said to be linked to donations totalling $857,000 to Republican Party candidates and $504,000 to Democratic Party candidates.
Who owns the main UK beer brands?
The table below shows the dominance of these companies over the UK market. Brands are often owned by one company but either distributed or licensed out to and brewed by another.
Sometimes a brand is even owned by one company but brewed by a partnership of others, as is the case with Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company.
We’ve ranked the beer based 50% on the brand owner and 50% on the licensed distributor or brewer(s) in these cases.
|The Big Multinationals
||Beck’s, Budweiser, Camden Town, Corona, Goose Island, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Stella Artois
|Asahi Group Holdings
||Asahi, Dark Star, Grolsch, Meantime, Peroni Nastro Azzuro, Pilsner Urquell, Fuller’s (50%, brand owned by Fuller, Smith and Turner)
|Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company
||61 Deep, Carlsberg, Holsten Pils, Hobgoblin, Owd Roger, Pearl Jet, Pedigree, Resolution, Special Brew, Tetley’s, Tuborg, Wainwright, Brooklyn (50%, brand owned by Brooklyn Brewery), Kirin Ichiban (50%, brand owned by Kirin), Mahou (50%, brand owned by Mahou), San Miguel (50%, brand owned by Mahou)
||Beerlao, CELIA (50%, distributed by Empress Ale)
||Amstel, Birra Moretti, Desperados, Foster’s, Heineken, John Smith’s, Kronenbourg 1664, Murphy’s
||Fourpure, Little Creatures, Kirin Ichiban (50%, brewed by Carlsberg Marston’s)
Carling, Coors, Miller, Sharp’s, Staropramen, Cobra (50%, 50% owned by Balimoria Holdings)
Smaller ethical breweries
Luckily, ethical, local breweries have popped up all over the UK during recent years, making it easier than ever to minimise the impact of your pint.
Organic and Fairtrade breweries
Organic beer is pretty easy to get hold of, with many of the smaller breweries on our table either doing all or some organic beers. Organic products are labelled [O] on the table and receive a positive Product Sustainability mark. You can look up Soil Association-certified Organic companies on their website.
We only found one Fairtrade beer – Little Valley Brewery’s Radical Roots pale ale. The beer is also vegan and organic, and scores an impressive 17 on our table.
Other standout companies
One company in our guide is showing the role that the brewing industry could play in reducing food waste and moving towards a circular economy.
Toast uses surplus bread in its beer to replace some of the barley, using less land, water and energy and reducing carbon emissions. We also spoke to Feedback, an organisation working to change food systems around the world, to hear what else brewers could do. Brewing produces lots of food waste, primarily in the form of ‘brewers spent grain’(or BSG), usually a mixture of barley, wheat and oats that is boiled up to make ‘wort’ and then discarded. Spent grain accounts for 85% of total by-products generated during production.
Lots of the brewers we looked at for this guide were already using spent grain as feed for local livestock, usually cattle. But Feedback says: “as there is a significant nutritional benefit to using BSG, even in relatively small quantities, the better outcome would surely be to introduce it into the food chain directly.”
It has piloted a spent grain granola “that used the peel from surplus citrus fruit, pumpkins that we roasted and made a caramel with and the seeds that we dried for additional texture,” and is looking at using it in flour. We hope any home (or commercial) brewers reading this might be inspired to do something creative! Read our full interview with Feedback for more on this topic.
As well as brewing using surplus bread, Toast donates all profits to charities changing the food system, with the majority going to Feedback. Feedback campaigns on areas including food waste, industrial agriculture, and food citizenship. It runs a gleaning network across the UK, rescuing fresh, surplus fruit and veg from farms where it would otherwise be wasted. Toast is also a certified B-Corp.
World's first beer-source heat pump
Hepworth Brewery is a really impressive example of a small company taking significant steps towards sustainable production. It is a vegan, organic company, using solar panels and, it claims, the world’s first beer-source heat pump at its brewery! It has created reed beds to deal with its least harmful liquid waste naturally, and is hoping soon to install a system that would recapture the CO2 that escapes during fermentation to use to keep oxygen away from its beer (rather than having to buy it in liquid form). Hepworth is hoping to get its site to carbon neutral within just five years.
Transparency and smaller companies
When we last updated this guide in 2017, we found that transparency wasn’t strong amongst the small breweries we reviewed. Since then, there has been some improvement, with several releasing Impact Reports and publishing some information about sustainable brewing or their suppliers on their websites. Even where transparency was weak, most were spared a worst rating for Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management by virtue of being small (turnover below £10.2 million) and having their entire product range certified organic (which contains some protections for workers’ rights), as well as brewing and/or sourcing in the UK.
The majority of the small breweries on our table also received positive Company Ethos marks for having entirely vegan or organic ranges, as well as Product Sustainability marks for vegan and organic products.
There are also a handful of cooperative breweries in the UK: breweries owned by and brewing for the local community.