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.

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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.

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A Disruptive Influence?

One of the most critical and questioning voices in the world of British beer is not a writer but a brewer: Jon Kyme of Stringers.

When he blogs, it is usually because someone has provoked him by, for example, making a claim in marketing material that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and he often adopts indirectly the persona of ‘The Professor‘ to deliver lectures laced with economics, science and philosophy.

On Twitter, he often posts acidic sub-Tweets picking up on factual errors, grandiose claims, or even just typos. In comments on various blogs, he is similarly sharp, in both senses of the word.

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Why Camden deserve a medal

Camden Town Brewery launched a nitro-keg stout late last year. Although cask-conditioned stout is a great thing, this is a clever move in commercial terms as well as striking a much more effective blow against the ubiquity of Guinness in London’s pubs than cask stout could ever realistically hope to achieve.

First, in commercial terms, like many of Camden’s beers, it sits only just over the conceptual line from the usual suspects. It looks pretty much like Guinness; it feels a bit like Guinness in the mouth; and, although considerably more flavourful than recent pints of Guinness we’ve had, isn’t “imperialised”, flavoured with chocolate/espresso/whisky/etc., or full of flowery US hops. Many people who normally drink Guinness (not beer geeks) will order this and go on to drink more than one pint, probably without grumbling. It’ll sell.

And, secondly, there’s why they deserve a medal: this beer might start to wean people off their automatic, go-to brands. It starts to send the message that there are stouts other than Guinness and that it is possible to stray from your usual brand without being struck down by lightning.

If we want to see choice in pubs, we just can’t have gigantic, monolithic brands stealing all the oxygen in a given space, as Guinness currently does, and Camden are doing something about it.

Fuller’s cask-conditioned Black Cab Stout is a marvellous development, too, but, we suspect, a step too far for many Guinness drinkers, lacking the familiar creamy head. And let’s not forget that Sam Smith’s nitro-keg stout has been around for years…