What Happened to the United Craft Brewers?

United Craft Brewers logo.

United Craft Brewers (UCB) launched in the UK last year and seemed to be a pretty big deal, but has since fizzled out. How come?

Having written about it at some length last summer, and being nosy, we approached one of the founder members, Richard Burhouse of Magic Rock.

Our impression from various interactions over the years — we’ve never met him — is that he’s a relatively straightforward person not prone to spin and we thought we might rely on him to give us a fairly direct answer.

Here’s what we got from a short phone call.

*

So, what happened?

Like I said when we agreed to speak, there’s not a lot to say. I’m conscious of… I don’t want to criticise any individuals.

The main issue was not being able to come to a definition. I thought we were making progress but it sort of slipped away. It kept falling down on technicalities, like, what happens if you’ve outside influences and investors. What percentage? Etcetera. It was all very nebulous, hard to pin down.

We were all very busy and it was hard to get everyone together, pin everyone down… We were all busy growing our businesses but James [Watt, of BrewDog] and Jasper [Cuppaidge, of Camden] especially had a lot of other things going on.

I had no hint, no idea, of what was going on with Camden.

[In December 2015 the London brewery was bought out by global giant AB-InBev.]

I think what happened there shows, in a way, how important what we were trying to achieve was.

I still think it would be nice to have a kind of all-for-one organisation, sharing information in a formal way, suppliers, best practice that kind of thing. It happens a bit, but informally.

When I go to America I come back, well, tired, but also feeling sort of enthused – I just love the attitude the industry has there. I don’t know what it is here – the weather, maybe, or how congested the market place can feel… I think there’s more overt competition in the UK. In the US they’ve got that sort of common enemy they’re all working together to defeat, which is big beer, and I’m not sure it’s quite the same here.

Q: UCB was launched with quite a lot of fanfare – a website, announcements – do you think that was a mistake?

I do, personally, think we jumped the gun.

And I think the news needed to come from a neutral source. It wasn’t supposed to be about the founders promoting themselves. On the other hand, we had all that social media presence between us, and if we didn’t Tweet and blog about it, who’d ever have heard about it? But it just ended up being ammo for naysayers.

I think the intention was honourable – to raise all boats, to help people new to the market to differentiate between faux-craft, big craft and, I suppose, ‘real’ craft. It was never about beer geeks – they know the difference, they know who owns which brands – but customers who are new to the market don’t.

If it was up to me – this is just my personal opinion – we should have done something with SIBA. They approached the group at one point and I think we could have worked with them to help them modernise, bring in some of the US Brewers’ Association stuff – training, best practice, etcetera.

*

So, that’s one version of events, and pretty plausible sounding. We tend to agree with him — joining forces with SIBA probably would have been a good tactic, all the bureaucracy and infrastructure already being in place. Starting an organisation from scratch — getting members, generating publicity — even for driven over-achievers like the founders of UCB, is a big ask.

21 thoughts on “What Happened to the United Craft Brewers?”

  1. Seeing it from here, one of the problems of UCB is its redundancy. Other than louder, perhaps, how are they any different from SIBA. They can say what they want about soul, spirit, philosophy and whatnot, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to size and ownership. I don’t think their cause was helped much by Camden’s being sold soon after, and the less than stellar reputation BrewDog has gained as a company in some circles.

    The result, unsurprisingly, was an organisation seen as not much more than another bullhorn to be used for certain companies to promote themselves with a good dose of populism.

    1. There’s actually a fairly interesting point there. From what I’ve seen, anti-corporate rhetoric is massively less prevalent in new-wave UK craft than in the equivalent US movement – you’ll read a lot of talk about how “passionate” people are about making “awesome beer” but very little about the innate evil of “big beer”. And this is unsurprising given that most of the new-wave UK brewers have come into a landscape where small, independent breweries already have a massive presence.

      The obvious exception to this being – yup – Brewdog. And while there’s almost no limit to my cynicism about any story that the poodles are peddling, it’s only fair to point out that Big Beer remains a lot more ubiquitous in Scotland than it is South of the border, so their perspective will be genuinely different from that of a brewery in, say, Manchester.

  2. I sympathise with Richard’s comments, though – ‘craft beer’ has entered the language, but in itself it means sod-all, and there’s no guarantee that a curious punter is going to end up with the good stuff. So it would have been nice to be able to say The Union Of Craft Brewers Says This Is Craft Beer, or words to that effect. And working with SIBA would probably have been the way to go. Oh well.

  3. While it was well in theory well intentioned I’m not surprised this foundered – not least because it seemed to depend on getting a widely accepted definition for craft beer. As I think I said somewhere at the time, even if they came up with a definition who would enforce it?

    I also thought it could be a rather divisive organisation – not helped by the Scottish Brewery’s tweet when UCB was announced – “a call to arms”. Really?

  4. “… ammo for naysayers… “?

    Dealing often with a wide variety, you come to recognize a variety of disfunctions. I don’t know this gou from a hole in the wall but he decided to align himself with the obviously big craft intentioned BrewDog to somehow overcome… big craft. He failed to spot Camden’s candidacy for a AB buyout (not a fault of his) but then kicks at naysayers? It was a badly planned amateur botch with no real point. And if he had been following the BA in the USA he should have noticed the trade association losing its grip, people mocking the definition, small brewers not interested in the old guard’s lock step, the botch of craft v crafty.

    I appreciate his honesty and no one likes to be associated with a failure so good on him for picking up the phone but the take away is the ideas like the UCB are about a decade too late.

    1. Hi Alan, just to respond to a couple of points here, I was asked by the others to be involved in the discussion and thought that it would be a good idea to be party to and help influence the direction from a smaller breweries point of view.

      If that’s seen as ‘choosing to align myself’ so be it. I’d also take issue with ‘failing to spot Camden’s candidacy for a buyout’ I was well aware of their potential attractiveness but that still doesn’t mean I had any inside track on it happening.

      The sale surprised a lot in the industry but apparently didn’t surprise all the vocal bloggers who I presume all got nice and rich from the windfall they could all see coming a mile off?

      Likewise I’m well aware of the BA’s troubles but I would still maintain they do a better job of representing their members than the equivalent UK organisation. The amount of UK brewers heading over to CBC in a few weeks is testament to that.

      I think the overall tone of your comments hear goes some way to addressing the point I was making on ‘naysayers’. Cheers

      1. Don’t be silly. You’ve taken something I note is not your fault and turned it around 180 degrees. As I said and you confirmed, it wasn’t seen coming. Good for you being so honest in the phone call – it’s a great thing for you to do. But save me the naysayer blog-slagging. That’s a particular knee jerk seen too often in the “under attack” vision craft beer can often work within – just undermines your other good works like participating in this interview.

  5. It would be intresting to know why thornbridge didn’t get involved? Maybe they thought it was all a bit embarrassing ?

  6. Not seen it coming ?!?!? Two brands, very middle of the road and inoffensive.

    Cuppidage’s father in law a marketing guru.

    Camden going for volume volume volume especially in the smoke…

  7. err let’s make it clear that Magic Rock is obviously based in Huddersfield. The pull Camden have in Huddesrfield is a lot less than their London scope (obvious). Also Richard is genuine and the owner of one of the leading craft brewers in the UK and probably doesn’t have the time to go through all the online blogs regarding Camden Town.

    Also I don’t recall any writers tweeting about Camden Town going to sell out either. Infact two of them brewed at Camden Town, Chris Hall and Matthew Curtis. Matt lives very close to Camden and actually said he was surprised at how soon they sold out.

    Additionally isn’t it a business model to take the money if that’s amount? That’s the modern financial wold which live in. ABINBEV have overpaid considerably for Camden and that shows how envious they are of the market in London and they’re trying to get distribution channels here. It’ll be a very expensive game for them and hopefully others won’t sell out but there’s plenty of awesome small breweries to visit.

    1. You don’t have to trawl through blogs to relalise this, it was the same model for meantime.

      Like I say the signs are beer being sold cheap to get as much distribution as possible, impeccable branding and marketing, streamlining the number of brands. Dumbing down of those brands as Th ey are wanting to make attractive to potential buyers who will have to sell craft beer to the masses.

      Now think about it, Camden had all of those things from the word go.

      Overpaid? In who’s eyes? 85million is small change to the big boys. precisely it was good business to sell out, but it was most likely their game plan all along !

  8. It’s a bit like knowing an earthquake is inevitable — that doesn’t mean you know when it’s going to strike.

    Assuming the people at Camden were discreet (i.e. avoided turning up to UCB meetings in AB T-shirts or having comically loud whispered phone calls — “No, we want at least £90m, but for that we’ll throw in my executive desk toys.”) then we’re not surprised Richard was, er, surprised.

    We didn’t expect it at any rate — we had them on the radar as a possibility but rated them as less likely than some others.

  9. I can only speak for ourselves but I do wonder if having a distributor that represents 3 of the 4 other founders as a founding member of the UCB might have alienated other smaller breweries. I felt at the time that it might due to a perception of vested interests and also a lack of representation of smaller/less established breweries and did write to the 4 brewery founders with these concerns. Of course reasons for this could have all been covered and explained but things never got that far.

Comments are closed.