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.