‘I’m never drinking their beer again’
A phrase I have seen banded about a lot in the last twenty four hours since the news that Camden Town Brewery has been sold to international brewing giant AB InBev.
To publicly state that you’ll never let a drop of beer pass your lips that they have brewed smacks of cutting of your nose to spite your face. In many pubs (Youngs, M&B, Nicholsons and Spirit spring to mind) Meantime and Camden still make up the only quality offerings on the bar. Will I still drink their beer? Absolutely. Will I call them out if quality slips or the quality of ingredients changes? Absolutely. It is fine to have mixed feelings about the sale of a brewery. The craft brewing industry is an odd one in that there is lots of dialogue between punter and brewer. People feel loyalty and identity with a brand and the way that they are perceived for liking those brands.
I feel uniquely placed to comment on the round of sales that have happened recently in the UK. I was at Meantime while the SAB buyout happened, before Meantime I worked at Camden Town Brewery. I know people at both breweries and the fact that they have sold isn’t really a surprise. Meantime nailed their colours to the mast that they would be growing the brand to sell the moment that Nick Miller was made CEO. He was the guy they needed with the experience of big beer to get the infrastructure in place to grow the brand. And expand they have, in 2009 they brewed 14,000hl in total, I believe the target volume for this year was around 100,000hl. Bear in mind 70% of what they brew stays inside the M25. Camden similarly have grown hugely. In five years they have grown from nothing to producing around 35,000hl at their London facility and contracting further volume out in Belgium. It was reported that AB were sniffing round Camden six months ago and the buyout will allow Camden to buy a huge production facility and make the jump to the size they want rather than the size that crowdfunding and bank loans would have permitted.
None of that growth comes easily. There are people at both breweries who have worked twelve hour night shifts, cursed at slow filtration runs, sweated buckets filling kegs and stacking them on pallets, battled through shitty London traffic in vans to deliver beer, replace cooling systems and walked hundreds of miles with heavy bags full of POS and samples for bars, cafes and pubs. To tell those people who have worked so hard that you aren’t drinking their beer anymore after a decision that was beyond their power to do anything about is a real slap in the face. Both Camden and Meantime employ brilliant, hardworking, passionate people who, for the most part, will benefit from the company having deeper pockets and a more secure backer.
For those who were senior enough to make the decision to sell, consider them. They too have worked incredibly hard. This is their reward. If their aspirations are for a truly global brand then I very much doubt that without a big brewery backer that would ever become a feasible reality. I can’t see any evidence from any of the buyouts that have happened that big beer is looking to strip craft breweries of quality and hike up profit. As I have said before, big beer can’t do craft, so acquisition is the only way they can have a slice of that market. They still don’t fully get it, Budweiser had a fairly spectacular marketing gaffe at the Superbowl this year. Most big brewer’s brands are in decline in the domestic market and the only real areas of growth for them are South America, China and Africa. AB InBev bought SAB to have a slice of those markets. It makes sense that it will snap up craft brewers to increase it’s domestic share. Both big beer and craft have put their hands up at the point where their knowledge ends to ask for help.
As for the ‘I don’t drink macro beer’. Don’t tell me you haven’t ever eaten at Pizza Express, Byron, or, in fact any chain restaurant, drunk a macro lager at party or pub where nothing else was on offer. Drunk just about any spirit owned by Diagio or Pernod Ricard, which is pretty much all of them, including some of the very best Scottish whisky distillers (that nobody ever seems to fuss about the ownership of), drunk Coca Cola or one of it’s subsidiaries, used one of Kraft’s food products in the kitchen, filled up your car with petrol at Esso, shopped at Tesco etc, etc because you have, unless of course you are Swampy. You’ll probably keep on drinking Camden and Meantime’s beer too.