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.

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.

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