The collapse of a pioneering craft brewery has left a sour taste among investors who bankrolled almost £1.8m for a state-of-the-art venue that was never built.
Wild Beer Co, based in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, attracted nearly 2,000 shareholders in 2017 with a proposal promising a destination brewery, restaurant and “brewing school” at the nearby Bath & West showground.
But five years after raising £1.76m through crowdfunding (ECF) platform Crowdcube, that dream has come undone for the company. to blame for his disappearance about the pandemic, spiraling production costs and declining export sales.
Wild Beer fans have greeted the news with a mixture of heartbreak and dismay, with some saying they’ve been tricked into supporting the company.
Julia Gray, who runs craft beer shop Hop Hideout in Sheffield, and invested £500. “Part of me feels a little stupid about it all,” he said. “The whole pitch was based on that brewery being built and I thought they would be good at their word.”
“I’ve re-read it several times since this all happened, and every time I still come to the same conclusion: that they’ve screwed people over with this investment,” Gray added.
Wild Beer Co was founded in 2012 by Andrew Cooper, a former publican, and Brett Ellis, a former chef from California.
In a craft beer landscape saturated with hop forward pale ales and IPAs, Wild stood out with sour, barrel-aged beers made with exotic ingredients like seaweed, pink pepper and yeast harvested from abandoned wasp nests.
Its eccentric style found favor with craft beer fans and the mass market, selling in Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.
When Wild launched its Crowdcube campaign, the company was exporting to 22 countries and valued at £25m with a forecast turnover of £4.5m, which was expected to reach £20m by 2020.
Appearing in an introductory video, Cooper promised, “This is not a vaguely labeled investment to grow our business,” before adding that the company’s No. 1 goal was to build a new brewery.
The campaign surpassed its £1m target to raise £1,769,340 from 1,937 investors, with an average pledge of around £900.
Seven months later, Mendip Council gave the green light to Wild’s plans for a new production facility capable of producing 12 million liters a year and incorporating a ticket office, visitor center and exhibition space.
But in 2019, the grass was still uncut at the Bath and West site and there were rumors that the company was in trouble.
Rupert Cox, a former chief executive of the Royal Bath & West Society, said the lack of progress during his tenure had been “absolutely exasperating”.
“I think the reality is that the budget for this build looked like £9 million at one point,” he said. “Even if you go to the crowdfunding market to raise £2m, where do you get the other £7m from? I left on the 21st of January and probably hadn’t heard anything [Wild] for almost a year before leaving.”
Wild tried to reassure backers in 2020 that the project was still “on track”, but admitted to local media that he had spent the funded money on equipment to increase capacity and was looking for a “big investment partner”.
David Lee, 47, from Bristol, backed Wild Beer Co to the tune of £1,000 but felt he and other investors were being left in the dark.
“The communication that was sent had no details, no transparency, no financial information,” said Lee, an IT director. “When contacted directly, by myself and another shareholder, on several occasions, it was just a litany of excuses about lack of communications, every excuse under the sun.”
“It’s not about the money, it’s being treated like a fool,” he added. “They’ve taken the money, the goodwill of the people and trashed it.”
Rob Murray Brown, an equity crowdfunding expert who runs the ecf.buzz website, said any investor who felt misled could complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). A decision in their favor could mean that Crowdcube has to issue refunds.
He also questioned the ethics of Crowdcube COO Bill Simmons, who remained on Wild’s board throughout the funding round.
Crowdcube takes a 7% commission, putting its share of the money raised by Wildat over £120,000. Simmons was with the brewery almost from its inception, but stepped down in 2020.
“There he is raising over £1.7m in a company he actually works for, and suddenly three years later, when things obviously started to go a bit pear-shaped, he’s gone . It’s a huge conflict of interest,” Murray Brown said.
The Financial Ombudsman Service said it examined crowdfunding arguments when investigating complaints and also looked into claims companies made to investors.
A spokesman for the watchdog said: “We have to be satisfied that the promotion or launch is fair, clear and not misleading.”
Wild Beer Co said in a statement posted on social media 12 days ago that it was “heartbroken” by the collapse and hoped administrators could find a buyer for the company.
Crowdcube said in a statement that Wild’s launch had undergone due diligence and been approved as a financial promotion.
The ECF platform added: “Crowdcube manages any potential conflicts of interest when working with a company connected to an employee or director, ensuring that that person has no involvement and is completely segregated from the engagement and has no involvement in the decision making”.
Cooper was contacted by the Guardian but declined to comment.