I couldn’t hide my disappointment when Camden Town Brewery was acquired by Anheuser Busch-InBev in 2015. Its taproom was, seldom without fail, my Friday night hangout. Its employees were people I considered good friends. I once got so drunk I fell asleep on its then-head brewer's couch until I was awakened and politely asked to leave—they'd even called me a cab, which was ready and waiting to take me home. It was, and still is, a good brewery—one that makes great beer and is run by good people.
But as a fan it took me time to come to terms with this. Despite my personal aspirations of becoming a professional beer writer, there was little professional reasoning in my head at the time. I felt let down. Thankfully, all it took to redeem my opinion of Camden was a couple crispy pints of its Hells Lager. In fact, I’d say it’s currently tasting crispier than ever. An investment into a purpose-built £30 million brewery will do that for your beer.
Although I wouldn’t say a couple of years of reporting on the beer industry has made me numb to news of mergers and acquisitions, I have certainly become desensitized toward them. Beer, as in any other industry, is business, and large players within that industry investing in small ones is par for the course. But when I found out that Beavertown had sold a minority stake to Heineken, I once again found myself trying to balance fan-felt disappointment with a positive, almost wholesome, professional attitude. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
I spent the entirety of the following day writing up my report, playing out each and every possible scenario that may arise once it was published. I had previously been a defender of Beavertown’s independence, going so far as attempting to squash what I perceived as harmful rumour. And in the heat of that process, I tweeted a few things that were perhaps a little heavy-handed. I was trying to find the balance between the beer fan I will always be and the professional writer I am becoming. Mea culpa—I called this one wrong.
Unlike Camden, however, this fresh disappointment was fleeting. Perhaps due to my perspective on what Camden had become since its acquisition and how, with any major acquisition or investment, it takes a good amount of time to truly determine the possible outcomes. With Beavertown, the route to finding comfort after this shift within the UK industry was much shorter. In fact, it wasn’t long before it turned to excitement at the potential that could perhaps be unlocked, and what benefits that could bring for smaller breweries trying to find their way. Beaverworld could bring something truly remarkable—not just to London as a bonafide destination beer city, but to the UK beer industry as a whole.
The news of Fourpure's acquisition by Lion that happened just three weeks after Beavertown's sale didn't leave me reeling in quite the same way. Here is a brewery that—for me at least—has always played it straight down the line. It wasn't shocking, but it was fascinating to see the Australasian firm Lion take such an interest in the UK beer market. It got me thinking about where breweries like Camden, Beavertown, and Fourpure will be in a few years' time. Will they open new markets? Will they eventually fade into obscurity?
It made me think of Pilsner Urquell a bit, too. It's a brand that's respected by many, produces a very high quality product, and is more-or-less left to its own devices by current owners Asahi. Perhaps this is a golden example of what can be achieved through acquisition, and why smaller independents needn't fear the threat of "big beer" as much as they're told.
I will always remain wary, though—as should you. And you can bet if I see activity that undermines small and independent brewers, or if I get a dud pint of Gamma, I’ll loudly question it. And, while I'll still enjoy beers like Camden Hells and Fourpure Shapeshifter IPA, it's unlikely I'll be falling asleep on their head brewer's couch again anytime soon.