Camden Town Brewery, Goose Island, Lagunitas IPA, Meantime and Blue Moon have two things in common – not only are they widely perceived as “craft beers”, they are also owned by sprawling multinationals.
This week’s announcement by Camden Town that it has succumbed to a takeover by AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, brought home this gap between branding and reality.
Drinkers took to social media to admonish Camden Town’s founder, Jasper Cuppaidge , for selling out – at a price thought to be £85m.
Rival BrewDog, the self-styled “punk” brewer that prides itself on flying the banner for the craft beer ethos, went even further.
The company released a scathing video on social media, showing Camden Hells beer being ceremonially removed from the menu in one of its bars.
BrewDog dished out the same treatment to London brewer Meantime after it was snapped up by SABMiller earlier this year.
Clearly the purists are concerned that – to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron’s famous lyric – their nascent revolution has been televised.
The genesis of craft beer’s journey into the mainstream in Britain was the introduction by Gordon Brown, as chancellor, of Small Brewers’ Relief in 2002. The policy slashed excise duty for brewers making less than 60,000 hectolitres (10.56m pints) a year. It works on a sliding scale, giving a bigger tax break to smaller scale businesses.
It encouraged hundreds of willing amateurs to transform their own combinations of water, hops, yeast and malted barley into money-making enterprises. Where there were only a few hundred craft brewers 20 years ago, the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) now estimates that Britain boasts more than 1,500, with a market share of about 7% and growing.
These include critically acclaimed London brewhouses such as Partizan and The Kernel, who throw open their doors on what is becoming known as the Bermondsey beer mile every Saturday. Further north, Manchester’s Cloudwater and Northern Monk from Leeds – as well as a phalanx of Yorkshire brewhouses – have also made names for themselves.
Inevitably, the success of small players has alerted the likes of AB InBev and SABMiller, which will form one company producing more than 500m hectolitres a year once their £71bn tie-up is finalised.
But SIBA’s managing director, Mike Benner , says that takeovers by brewing multinationals do not necessarily mean the craft beer revolution has been hijacked by the money men. “What we’re looking at is a success story,” he said. “The very fact that global brewers are getting in on the craft beer scene demonstrates they can see that consumers want more diversity, higher quality and a range of different flavours for different occasions.”
Increased diversity at the taps has also widened the love of good-quality beer beyond real ale aficionados, who frown upon anything not kept in wooden casks. Quality beers are now being produced in kegs, bottles and even cans, helping craft brewers offset the rapid decline of high street pubs.
“Increasingly we’re seeing craft-brewed beers in the hospitality environment, casual dining and so on,” said Benner. “The link between quality beer and dining is here to stay.”
It is not just domestic success that has attracted the big names though. Craft beer has gone global in recent years, with brewhouses opening up in all sorts of unexpected places. Whether it’s Great Leap Brewing in Beijing, Yasigi in Kampala, Uganda, or the Louisiane Brewhouse in Nha Trang, Vietnam, good quality beers have global appeal. That means big rewards for brewers that can find ways to tap into those fast-growing markets.
The possibility of international expansion was one reason Cuppaidge gave for his decision to sell Camden Town Brewery.
But even if small brewers are willing to swap their neighbourhood charm for global domination, drinkers do not have to be slaves to the multinationals. Shifting tastes have given rise to businesses that do more than just manufacture, such as London-based U Brew. This company allows customers to brew their own beer on its premises, rather than having to find space for the equipment at home. Thus the ultimate hipster badge of honour – a brew so exclusive it has your own name on it – is within reach.
If that sounds like too much effort, drinkers can also plump for Honest Brew, a company that delivers a variety of bottles direct to the door, depending on customers’ tastes.
The growth of the quality beer industry means that while major brewers are getting their claws into the action, there is still space for smaller companies to benefit from the growing thirst for originality. And for those who would rather have a dry Christmas than put money into the pockets of AB InBev and SABMiller, that choice will still be there.
“Consumers now want beer with a story to tell, local beers that mean something to them,” said Benner. “There will always be a market place for genuine, locally brewed, high-quality beer.”