‘Treated like a chump’: Wild Beer Co’s collapse leaves bitter taste for backers

Five years on from £1.76m crowdfunding, some feel misled after plans for destination venue unravelled along with the firm itself

The collapse of a pioneering craft brewery has left a bitter taste among investors who crowdfunded almost £1.8m for a state-of-the-art venue that was never built.

Wild Beer Co, based in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, wooed nearly 2,000 shareholders in 2017 with a pitch that promised a destination brewery, restaurant and “school of fermentation” on the nearby Bath & West showground.

But five years after securing £1.76m through the equity crowdfunding (ECF) platform Crowdcube, that dream has unravelled with the company blaming its demise on the pandemic, spiralling production costs and dwindling export sales.

The news has been met with a mixture of heartbreak and dismay by Wild Beer fans, with some saying they felt misled into backing the firm.

Julia Gray, who runs Hop Hideout craft beer shop in Sheffield, invested £500. “Part of me feels a bit stupid about it all,” she said. “The whole pitch was on the premise that that brewery was getting built, and I believed they’d be good to their word.”

“I’ve reread it a number of times since all of this happened, and every time I still come to the same conclusion – that they have misled people on that 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 brewing landscape saturated with hop forward pale ales and IPAs, Wild stood out with sour and barrel-aged beers made from exotic ingredients including seaweed, pink peppercorn and yeast harvested from abandoned wasp nests.

Its eccentric flair found favour among craft beer aficionados and the mass market alike, being sold in Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

By the time Wild launched its Crowdcube campaign, the company was exporting to 22 countries and valued itself at £25m on a projected turnover of £4.5m, which was forecasted to hit £20m by 2020.

Appearing in a pitch video, Cooper promised: “This isn’t an investment vaguely labelled to grow our business,” before adding that the firm’s No 1 goal was to build a new brewery.

The campaign smashed its £1m target to raise £1,769,340 from 1,937 investors, with an average pledge of about £900.

Wild’s plans for a new production facility capable of brewing 12m litres a year and incorporating a taproom, visitor centre and exhibition space, were given the green light by Mendip district council seven months later.

But by 2019 the turf still lay uncut at the Bath and West showground and rumours were circulating that the firm was in difficulty.

Rupert Cox, a former chief executive of the Royal Bath & West Society, said the lack of progress during his tenure had been “absolutely infuriating”.

“I think the reality is the budget for this build looked about £9m at one point,” he said. “Even if you go out to the crowdfunding market to raise £2m, where do you get the other £7m? I left in January 21 and I probably hadn’t heard from [Wild] for nearly a year before I left.”

Wild sought to reassure backers in 2020 that the project was still “on the cards”, but admitted to local media it had spent the crowdfunded money on equipment to boost capacity and was searching for a “large investment partner”.

David Lee, 47, from Bristol, backed Wild Beer Co to the tune of £1,000 but felt he and other investors were kept in the dark.

“What communication was sent had no detail, no transparency, no financial information,” Lee, an IT director, said. “When contacted directly, by myself and another shareholder, on various occasions, it was just a litany of excuses as to the lack of communications, all the excuses under the sun.”

“It’s not about the money, it’s being treated like a chump,” he added. “They have taken people’s money, good will, and trashed it.”

Rob Murray Brown, an expert on equity crowdfunding who runs the website ecf.buzz, said any investors who felt misled could complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). A ruling in their favour could mean Crowdcube having to issue refunds.

He also questioned the ethics of Bill Simmons, Crowdcube’s chief operating officer, remaining on Wild’s board of directors throughout the funding round.

Crowdcube charges 7% commission, putting its share of the money raised by Wildat more than £120,000. Simmons was with the brewery almost from its inception but resigned in 2020.

“There he is raising over £1.7m on a company that he actually works for, then all of a sudden, three years later, when things obviously started to go a bit pear-shaped, he’s off. It’s a huge conflict of interest,” said Murray Brown.

The Financial Ombudsman Service said it examined crowdfunding pitches when investigating complaints and also scrutinised the claims businesses made to investors.

A spokesperson for the watchdog said: “We need to be satisfied that the promotion or pitch was fair, clear and not misleading.”

Wild Beer Co said in a statement released on social media 12 days ago that it was “heartbroken” by the collapse and hoped administrators could find a buyer for the firm.

Crowdcube said in a statement that Wild’s pitch had been subjected to due diligence and approved as a financial promotion.

The ECF platform added: “Crowdcube manages any potential conflict of interest where it works with a company connected to an employee or director, by ensuring that person has no involvement and is completely segregated from the engagement and has no involvement in any decision making.”

Cooper was contacted by the Guardian but declined to comment.


Robin Eveleigh

The GuardianTramp

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