Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town Brewery

When Camden Town Brewery was acquired by AB-InBev in December last year, I couldn’t hide my disappointment. It’s one thing observing and commenting on the takeovers I see happening on the regular over in the U.S. but a completely different thing entirely when it happens to a brewery you love that’s right on your doorstep.

Or at least it felt that way. Truth is there’s no real difference whatsoever. Sitting on the bus on my way to interview Camden Town Brewery’s founder, Jasper Cuppaidge, I thought about my feelings in relation to the takeover. Over the past few months I had shifted from disappointment to indifference, but now they were someplace else: excitement and trepidation in equal measure. I now want to see this brewery grow and flourish as I always have. I want to hang out in the taproom with a crisp pint of Unfiltered Hells Lager just as I always would on Friday nights.

Cuppaidge’s story is an interesting one. He moved to the UK from his native Australia in the late 1990s, eventually opening his first London pub, The Horseshoe, in Hampstead in 2006. It was in this pub’s basement that he first brewed the beers that would eventually become Camden’s Pale Ale and Hells Lager brands. Backed by a board of directors including Cuppaidge’s father-in-law, advertising mogul Sir John Hegarty, Camden Town Brewery moved into their current location under the arches beneath Kentish Town West Station and officially launched in 2010.

In just five years, Camden Town Brewery grew to become one of the largest craft breweries in the UK. They even had to outsource the production of some beer to their friends at the Da Brabandere brewery in Belgium to meet growing demand—a relationship that continues to this day. In December 2015 Camden was acquired by AB-InBev for a reported £85 million, making them the first-high profile UK acquisition.

Six months later, I met Jasper in the offices above Camden’s recently opened second pub, Daughter, to chat about the acquisition and what’s next for his brewery.

London's beer landscape has changed a lot since you opened five years ago. How do you think Camden Town Brewery has contributed to and influenced this change?

I was thinking about this just the other day. We get really upset when people decide to leave us, but they do. People come to us for a job and eventually they might decide to move on. But the other day, we sat down and looked at all the people who’ve worked for us who are now working at other places within the industry.

It’s a bit like Goose Island where there were loads of brewers and salespeople that went on to work elsewhere in the beer industry. It’s almost like we’ve indirectly created this platform to educate and inform people who are new to the industry. We’ve always been about consistency and quality, and I feel that we’ve instilled that attitude into most of the people who’ve previously worked for us. They’ve then taken this knowledge with them and started to build great things at other places. They’ve taken our level of expertise and our level of devotion to making beer and started to use this elsewhere.

I think we’ve created a lot of people within the beer industry, especially here in London. There’s a lot of people who work hard for us and still do, and a lot who’ve gone on to do great things at other places. It’s awesome to see so many great friends doing this.

How many people have you got working for you now?

One hundred twenty, I think. We’re recruiting like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve got eight contracts out now just awaiting signatures and another round of interviews due soon. It’s wonderful.

Wow, I remember when it was just 10 of you!

Yeah, we were mad back in those days when people like [beer writer] Mark Dredge was still working for us. I remember sitting in meetings with him and people like Joey [Mansbart, who manages the brewery’s taproom and bars] who’s still here and has worked for us for eight years. It’s wild to think how far we’ve come. It’s been a wonderful evolution.  

How's construction going up at the new site? 

Amazing. April 28, 2017 is when we’ll be brewing, and we are 100% set to that date. We’re building a big facility—70,000 square feet. Because we’ve grown so much faster than forecast this year, we’ve actually extended our original planned capacity. So instead of it being 100,000HL, we’re building to start with 200,000HL of total capacity with incredible facilities behind this. This includes a great new packaging facility for canning and bottling as well as an amazing keg line. We’ve always tried to have the best equipment we can afford, but I feel as if we’ve surpassed even ourselves this time.

It’s looking hot. It’s right by the river and it’s going to be a great place to work and socialize. When I was out in the States for CBC last week I spent a lot of time visiting similar facilities and asking myself how do we build a great taproom. So construction is happening onsite now, the brew kit starts being welded in December, and the first brew is happening on April 28, 2017.

How's the stress level?

I was speaking to my wife about this yesterday. She said to me “you promised me it was going to be different” [after the acquisition], but actually I feel even more driven now and I’m working even harder. We’ve also hired some great new people, like Managing Director Mark Turner from Innocent [a soft drinks producer who themselves are 90% owned by Coca-Cola]. He’s exceptional. He’s really helping us by setting development and career plans for our team.

We used to just work on grit and determination, but now we’re working on getting stuff right, putting structures in place, getting development right from a HR perspective, and getting to know our new partners.  I’m getting used to travelling to America regularly at the moment. But like I said before, I’m even more driven now. Stress levels are high, but I know what we’ve done is absolutely right and I want to work just as hard, if not harder, to make sure it’s absolutely right for the people that love our beer, and most importantly for the team. It’s a good level of stress!

The taproom and event space you're building is a ways out of central London. Why do you think a venue like this will be a draw to your customers? 

I think we’re going to see two things: I think we’ll get people who love us already and we’ll get people who want to explore. The new taproom isn’t going to be open every day. The whole concept of the taproom is to be the company canteen—a bit like what we already have here in Camden. There’ll be staff everywhere, and if there’s a tasting, we might encourage you to join in; you’ll be able to have a pint with the people who work for us.

It is quite cut off and there’s no shops or cafes around the corner, so we’ll have a chef out there to make sure we can offer great food. We want everyone there to be well looked after, whether they work for us or whether they’re just visiting. But I think because it’s going to be such an incredible facility that people will want to go and see it. We’ll be open on Friday and Saturday nights until about 9pm.

We’re still going to be brewing at our original site. The brewery and bar are getting completely renovated to be even more dedicated to great service and quality beer. Now it’s just a bar. We want it to be a dedicated space where you can learn and understand the culture of Camden Town Brewery. 

How’re you splitting your time between what’s happening here and what’s happening up in Enfield?

We’ve got a really good project team working up there, and I’m part of the steer team so I still sign off on everything that’s happening. We’ve got a project manager and an engineer on the new brewery project full time, no distractions, just that. I’m probably spending 10% of my working week up at the new site. I’m up there weekly for meetings, plus I’m on Skype a lot talking to the people from Krones, who are building our new brewhouse.

So far it’s pretty manageable. It’ll heat up between now and Christmas that’s for sure, but we’re hiring in front of the curve. So new brewmasters, brewers—putting people in to try and train them up and get them into the ethos of Camden before we move up there. When we move up there we’re shutting down the old brewery for eight weeks while we renovate things. We’re going to move our existing brewhouse and implement a better brewing program down here. Still a similar amount of brewing, we’ll take it down from 24 brews a week at the old site to 14, but much more focus on R&D, collaboration, and fun. 

So the old brewery will essentially become your pilot system?

Yeah, and it’ll be a pilot system for everyone. That’s the one thing that’s really apparent as Camden’s grown up is that we’ve been stuck on making Hells [Lager], and we want to get back to being able to collaborate and develop some new and exciting stuff. We want friends of the brewery to be able to come in and use the kit and see what we can come up with. It’ll be nice to get that freedom again. 

Now that the dust seems to have settled a little after your acquisition, what are the next few steps you see Camden Town taking?

I think our aim has always been pretty clear. We wanted to be the craft category market leader in lager, and that’s still the same today. With the relationship now with ABI, it’s going to support us financially so that we can hopefully deliver on that. Since their investment, the budget for our new project up the road has gone up dramatically, as you can imagine.

They’re investing the best part of £25 million up there; they’re as focused on this project as we are. The next five years are heavily focused on the UK for us because that’s the market that we know really well. Pioneer, who works with Goose Island, are over here in the UK, and we’re very close with them but we work separately. But when it comes to going international, we’ll definitely be leaning on the ABI network. They’ve got some really cool plans for us and where they see us in the market, which I never saw before. And they’ve got some trend planning that they’re looking at so that they can say, “we’d really like you to go into this market with this beer”, which I never would have thought of.

For now the focus is on really getting our team right. We’re very, very people light at the moment. We lost a few people on announcement, which was really sad but understandable. We were busy hiring at the same time and this made things doubly bad. Now we’ve got to replace as well as build, so we’re hiring and putting in great HR so that our people have got development plans. 

And how is AB supporting or challenging your ideas?

It’s been incredible. We’re part of this amazing 17 brewery portfolio that includes South American breweries from Brazil to Argentina to Patagonia to guys like Devil’s Backbone and Golden Road and Elysian. This isn’t bullshit: I couldn’t be happier, I really couldn’t be. And these guys [ABI] have made mistakes before with brands like Goose [Island], right? And they’ve recognised that.

They’ve been brilliant, helping us where they can really help us and giving us an immense amount of support. Say I’ve got a brewing problem? I’ve now got a network of people I can dial into. We lose some brewing personnel? They’ve got post-grads in brewing, people like brewers at Elysian who want to come and work with us. It’s brilliant. If anything, it’s actually lonelier than it was when I had my board [of directors]. I used to be questioned by the guys on my board every day. People like John [Hegarty] would always be around, asking me something. Now, without that, it’s more hands on. I just get on with it and if I need the support I ask for it.

It’s the same for my team, if they need help they can speak to me, and I can connect them with whoever they want within the company. So yeah, so far it’s brilliant. 

You’ve got significantly more tap space now that you have access to AB-InBev’s marketplace. What pressure is this putting on the brewery?

Not really. We’re still standalone and working on our own in this respect. We don’t pitch with ABI unless they’ve got an account group that really fits with where we are. We’re still Camden Town Brewery, we’ve still got the same plan, we’ve still got the same forecast for this year and next year. We’ve got a little bit of extra volume added to it because of their [ABI’s] international expansion plan, which we didn’t have in our forecast. That’s where we’ll do more with them.

But locally, we haven’t aligned on those sorts of things. We haven’t had the time, and we haven’t really needed to. We’re a position that they don’t have. They’ve got lagers, but they don’t have a great London-brewed craft lager. I’m hoping in time, if there’s some accounts that they’ve got, that we’ll be able to have the conversation about us being there.

At the moment we’re still pitching for taps on our own, as Camden Town Brewery. For example we just pitched to Mitchell & Butler [a UK pub chain]. We gave them a whole study of what they currently do in their venues and then gave them a whole pitch on how we fit into them. And that’s not with ABI, that’s with Camden. So at the moment that’s the benefit, if we want to stretch into the UK with ABI we can, and if we don’t feel like the brand’s right for it, then we don’t. We follow our same plans.

You outsource some of your brewing to Da Brabandere (owners of the Bavik and Petrus brands) in Belgium. Do you expect that the new site will be able to bring all brewing back in house for Camden as originally proposed? 

Yes. We do currently still brew there. We’ve got a really good relationship with those guys and ABI really respects that. Compared to what they do in total, it’s such a small amount of volume, so for now it makes a huge amount of sense for us to maintain that. And obviously once we’ve finished building our new brewery everything comes back in house.

At the moment we’ve got the forecast for the next five to ten years with the new brewery. So all local and export beer will come out of our position up the road and then, fuck, if we get that big, Jesus. I don’t want to even think about that right now! 

On the day you announced the sale to AB-InBev you drove home the fact that nothing would change. But you built your business on change, like changing consumer focus to quality lager and paying the London living wage. Why would you come out with a line like that?

I think nothing’s going to change in terms of our culture at Camden Town. Of course things are going to change. People always come out with the line “nothing’s gonna change,” but it is going to change.

When I was asked by some of my staff at the company meeting on the day of the sale, if we’re going to change or if we’re going to stay the same I told them that we were going to change. Like any company, we’re going to grow up. There’ll be bumps, dips, we’ll get a bit stronger, a bit weaker but categorically, we’re going to grow up.

The control stays here, though. Mark [Turner, Camden's new Managing Director] is now here with me which is a blessing. Through him, and not through ABI, staff are seeing career progression and development that they wouldn’t have had before. They get a 6% pension scheme now. That’s a pretty fucking good change! I’d never have been able to offer that in my whole life.

But you know what isn’t going to change? We’re going to continue to do things that we do today—the small things. We’re going to get bigger, but we’re going to keep thinking small. That’s the mantra of Camden. I think you see that in everything we do.

For example, our Strawberry Hells Forever Day. We’ve got 250 people coming to Kent to pick strawberries for our summer seasonal strawberry lager. Last year there were ten people, this year it’s 250. We’re putting on live bands and food, there’ll be some live brewing, and we’re taking the entire company down with us for the day. I think the terminology used when people say “things aren’t gonna change” isn’t quite right. A better way of putting it is that we’re going to evolve as we grow up. We’re still gonna throw high fives, still make mistakes and be just as passionate today as we were last week or six months ago.

The modern beer industry is built on change. Why do you think it is that brewers are so quick to suggest the opposite after an acquisition?

I remember when I stood up in front of the team when we told them the news. I was shaking. I had people crying in front of me. I thought, “Shit, I’ve created this?” It was a moment where I felt like I’d done something equally amazing as I did terrible.

It’s a bit like a ship going down or a car crash and people can be quick to report that everything’s ok. It’s not ok, right? And I think it’s a case of trying to calm the waters when something like this happens. I know what we’ve done, and what we’ve done is absolutely, categorically right. I really feel like I’ve got my decisions right so far. With Camden we came from nothing, built a brewery and made a success story out of it. We’ve picked up a lot of fantastic people to work with us on the way; we’ve won a crazy amount of awards for our beer, which is listed in some incredible accounts.

I thought long and hard about the sale. It’s not something we thought of last night down the pub. I’ve got, we’ve got, the company’s got and the staff has got security. And that’s not going to change. We keep thinking small and by doing so we get a whole lot bigger.

They really dig British beers in the U.S. right now, especially on the East Coast. How do you feel your brand would fare in the States against serious competition such as Firestone Walker's Pivo Pils? 

The strategy is to eventually take Hells to America. I think there’s something about Camden and our culture that really resonates with people. At the moment we’re trying to understand what part of that would resonate in America. And would it be different on the East Coast than it would on the West Coast for example?

I was desperate to drink lager when I was over there [for CBC]. As lovely as it is to drink fantastic IPAs, it’s also something to drink a lot of pretty terrible IPAs.

We’ve got the beer, so I think if we get the story right, if we get the personality and the positioning right, then it might go crazy! Or it might not work at all, because like you said there are great products like Pivo Pils out there. But is Pivo Pils the focus of Firestone Walker? I think they love being known for great pale ale and IPA like Easy Jack and Double Jack. It’s a gear change for them to be known universally for a European style lager beer.

There’s a lot of space out there. To come out there with a craft lager that has maturity and a product that hasn’t just been invented for that market, it might work. I mean, I hope so, because I’m gonna spend a hell of a lot of time out there trying to make it happen!

With your relationship with sister brand Goose Island already blossoming would you aim to target its Chicago marketplace in the same way it has targeted London and the UK? 

Not right now. I don’t know what our current plan is for America. I know it makes sense to be in New York and LA because they’re very connected with London. We work pretty closely with a members club here in London who’ve got bases in NY and LA and they want to list us. I mean, it’s just two taps, but it’s fantastic.

But no, the decision-making hasn’t got that far yet. We’re not looking to export to the US for at least another 18 months to two years. So there’s little point in thinking about it until we get the new brewery up and running.

The ABI model for America is called the High End Team, which looks after its craft brands. So Goose, Elysian, us etc. It also looks after big European brands like Hoegaarden and Stella Artois because these are well-respected imports.

We did a tasting for them when we got introduced and they were blown away. We poured Flue Faker [a Smoked Lager], IHL [India Hells Lager, an IPL], our new prototype lager Inner City Green, as well as our Hells and Pils. When it came to our smaller brands they were like, “Wow these are incredible,” but then they asked “can we have some more Hells?” And this was in Chicago with Brett Porter who leads the craft section for ABI. To have those guys give our beers that amount of respect was just incredible.

How will you prevent stepping on each other's toes?

I think ABI knows what they want for each brand. They have lanes for all of these wonderful breweries like Elysian, 10 Barrel, and Golden Road, and they each have their home market where they can do what they want.

What ABI does is look at the best beer brewed by, for example, Elysian and they look at how to grow that beer country-wide or even further afield. IPA is Goose’s national beer, where their Pils is a local beer for them. So I think they’ll choose a specific lane for us.

That area is where we are going to work with ABI really closely. When we spoke to people like Joe [Bisacca] and Dave [Buhler] at Elysian, we realized that their home market is still all theirs and when they have a product that they want to work nationally, that’s when they work with the High End team.

So we have Britain, but then outside of that apart from travelling and standing on bars in these countries and telling them about Camden, that’s when we’ll lean on ABI and they’ll tell us what they think is the best beer for that market.

You were originally intending to form a consumer group with a few other independent breweries. What happened to the United Craft Brewers? 

As far as I’m aware it’s still in planning. I mean obviously I’m not involved in it anymore and when we were about two weeks away from announcing [the acquisition] I said to the others I’d step down.

I think it’s always going to be difficult to get something like this going. The reason it took us so long in the first place is that we were struggling to get to a definition for craft beer, which is something everyone struggles with. I think without that definition in place it’ll be difficult to continue to the next step.

I think there is a definition for craft beer, we all know what it is when we taste it, we’re all craftsmen. But should we fall outside of this because of our ownership? I don’t know if that’s fair or not. It’s a pretty contentious point.

It’s good to have these allegiances. The BA [Brewers Association] is great for example. I think for the UK to have something on the level of the Brewers Association is really important. Whether it’s a reincarnation of SIBA [The Society for Independent Brewers] or something new entirely, there needs to be something. It might be Logan [Plant, Beavertown], Rich [Burhouse, Magic Rock] and James [Watt, Brewdog] helping to update SIBA or getting their heads together and coming up with something more modern. 

Do you have any regrets in leaving that behind?

I mean I still speak to those guys. James [Watt] and I have spoken since he lambasted me on Twitter on the day we announced the sale, which was pretty disappointing. I’m still really good friends with Logan [Plant] and we had dinner out in the States last week. We’re all good friends, and we’re all still trying to do the same thing. We’re all still making great beer even if we’re not as tight as we were before. I’m sure they were all a bit nervous about what we were doing and if we were changing. But I hope we can get closer, I hope we can still help each other; I hope we can collaborate again.

You still see Goose Island and Firestone Walker at events even though they’ve both been acquired right? They’re all still sitting in the same tents and sharing the same spaces. There seems to be a different attitude to Firestone Walker because they’re owned by Duvel Moortgat, compared to Goose Island being owned by AB-InBev. But in America it feels like they’ve moved on and worked around it.

Hopefully in time things will change. We’re the first European acquisition and there’s going to be some more, but people can trust us. It’s up to us to prove that to everyone. And we will. In time I think we’ll all be around the same table again, talking about the same stuff and doing the same stuff as we’ve always done before. 

You nurtured Camden Town Brewery from a seed. Where do you see yourself in five years time after your relationship with ABI ends?

I don’t know. I’m definitely here for more than five years. I love it here. I love Camden, I love the brewery, and I love the people that work here. I hope that I work here for a long time. I’m not interested in retiring; I’m not interested in stopping. I talk to my wife about it often and she says, “Well, what else will you do? I don’t want you coming home!”

If the horizon is the same in six or seven years time as it is now then I hope that I’m still good enough to be here. If you look at Goose Island, Greg and John Hall and Tony Bowker are still there. Hopefully we’ll do a good enough job and they’ll want us to stay.


Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis