Crossover Event: Beavertown & Heineken

Heineken sign

Beavertown has sold a substantial stake to Heineken  — they’re not specifying how much but 49 per cent seems a reasonable assumption — and our Twitter mentions have gone a bit mad.

That’s because a few weeks ago, you might recall, we wrote a piece reflecting on signs one might look out for to indicate that a brewery is readying itself for sale, pointing to Beavertown as an example of a firm that seemed to be glowing hot.

Now, let’s be clear: our post was actually pretty tentative — might this, possibly that — and, though we named AB-InBev as a possible suitor in the quick Tweet we fired off before the post, we didn’t specify any names in the post proper because we didn’t have a clue.

Even if we’d guessed Heineken would have been low down the list given its fairly recent acquisition of another London brewery, Brixton.

(Although within minutes of our posting multiple people had messaged us to say, “It’s Heineken”, and proper journalists soon ferreted out the story.)

So, yes, we’re feeling pleased that our logic was tested and seems to have held up but, no, we don’t feel like soothsayers or a pair of Mystic Megs. What we came up with was half educated guess, half luck.

In the PR around today’s news Beavertown has addressed a few important points head on, admitting to having swerved telling the truth because (as we acknowledged in our post) businesses don’t generally talk about deals while they’re being negotiated and, indeed, are usually legally prohibited from doing so:

It’s been an uncomfortable few weeks as speculative rumours have been flying about.  The reality is that sometimes in business you can’t share everything and I’m a true believer in not talking about anything unless it is a done deal, and up until this very day there was no deal.

It’s at this point, though, that we’ll refer to an even older post of ours, from May last year: breweries could avoid a lot of the criticism and high emotion that hits on takeover day, and lingers for months and even years after, if they made a point of saying from much earlier on in the cycle something like, “We sometimes talk to potential investors and would never rule out selling a stake in the company, just so you know.”

People will probably understand if you have to keep the specifics of particular deals quiet, as long as the very idea that you might be talking to whichever global giant isn’t a nasty surprise.

Whatever the logistics behind the decision, however good the news for the company, regardless of whether the beer stays the same, there will always be people who feel stung when a company which was selling a set of values as much as pale ale decides that one of those values doesn’t matter any more.

Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy

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For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?

You might remember, if you’re a long-time reader, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer culture in 2013, but that was a set of bullet points. This post expands on those ideas with another five years’-worth of evidence, experience and thinking.

We should confess that our starting point is one of mild frustration at the pervasive idea that British beer – and beer culture more generally – is ailing. We see various worries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and articles, each one discrete and personal, but adding up to a mass of anxiety. If you’re in this bubble it can feel like the end times.

To provide fuel for this specific blog post we asked our Twitter followers to tell us what, if anything, made them worried for the future of British beer. Some statements echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while others flagged issues we had not considered. Quite a few effectively cancelled each other out, highlighting the absurdity of thinking about British beer as a monolith. There is no single idea of what healthy looks like, and no victory that won’t feel like a defeat to somebody else.

In this post we want to focus on some of the most commonly expressed fears, question whether they have a basis in reality, and consider the the likely impact of those that do.

Let’s begin with a staple of beer commentary for the past 25 years or so: the  perils of the pursuit of novelty.

Continue reading “Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy”

That’s Not a Drink, This is a Drink

Because Jessica has been on call over the weekend (office job, not a surgeon or anything) she couldn’t drink, so we both decided to do the whole thing dry, which got us thinking about what constitutes a Drink, capital D.

On Friday night, needing to put a full stop on the working week somehow, we gathered the makings of ‘mocktails’ from the shops and spent a couple of hours experimenting.

Sourcing or devising recipes was was absorbing; working with ingredients — zesting lemons and limes, pounding mint leaves, crushing ice, salting the rims of glasses — was fun; and there was a real pleasure in beholding the pretty end products, even before we got to taste them.

It was the ginless tonic that really got us thinking, though. What made it look, feel and taste like a real, composed Drink, even though it was mostly just tonic and ice? A big, stemmed glass helped. The twist of lemon peel added some magic, as did the tablespoon of ginger beer, teaspoon of elderflower cordial, and squeeze of lemon juice. But really it was about the fact that we’d taken care and a little time, treating these simple components with a little care, expressly intending to fool ourselves.

Of course this eventually made us think about beer.

Beer, you might think, is a simple drink. You don’t add ice, and the habit of dropping chunks of fruit into wheat beer feels like some relic of the 1990s. But we keep thinking of a phrase Alastair ‘Meantime’ Hook uses when describing how beer is treated in Germany: “universal reverence”.

You can dump warmish beer into the first scratched, half-clean glass you lay your hands on. That’s certainly a beer. Or you can spend a few seconds choosing just the right vessel, cleaning it until it sings, and filling it to achieve the correct degree of clarity, with the perfect head of foam. That is a Beer.

It why sparklers are debated so endlessly — their use, or not, is a choice, and an act of reverence. It’s why, whatever the practicalities, the pint as a measure is so irresistible. It’s why even mediocre Belgian or German beers seem to taste that little bit better than they might in blind tasting — because chalices and doilies announce the arrival of something special. It explains marketing-driven pouring rituals, too: because they make you wait for it, a pint of Guinness retains a certain mystique, even when your head tells you it’s a pointless performance.

A pint of Courage Best served in a pub that has been selling the same beer (or at least the same brand) for 50 years and is proud of it, with spotless branded glassware and tasting as good as it ever can, is a Beer, even if the product and setting are humble and it costs less than £3.

Giving beer the VIP treatment isn’t free — sexy glassware gets stolen, and careful staff ought to cost more — but it is, in the grand scheme of things, cheap, being mostly a state of mind.

* * *

  1. NAIPA — 1 part BrewDog Nanny State NA beer, 1 part apple juice, one slice very finely pureed banana, squeeze of lime juice, ice.
  2. Spicy Thing — one part ginger beer, one part soda water, tablespoon maple syrup, one slice green chilli (crushed), ice.
  3. Ginless Tonic — tonic, ice, twist of lemon peel, squeeze of lemon juice, tablespoon ginger beer, teaspoon elderflower cordial, ice.
  4. Fauxjito — soda water, juice of 1 lime, sugar syrup to taste, crushed mint leaves, crushed ice.

100 Words: In Love With Tripel

Illustration: a Belgian tripel in the glass.

We keep thinking about Belgian Tripels.

We’ve said that Westmalle Tripel is, without doubt or debate, so shut up, the best beer in the world.

But maybe Tripel is the best style.

A good Tripel demonstrates how a beer can be balanced without being bland or paltry. Sweetness reined in by bitterness, richness met by high carbonation, with spice and spicy yeast pulling it all together.

Complex without drama. Subtly luxurious. Affordable art.

Yes, very affordable: you can still buy some of the highest-regarded examples for less than three quid a bottle, and a suitable glass for not much more.

Getting in Shape for Takeover

Reading tea leaves in a cup.

Without insider intelligence it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether a brewery is about to be taken over by a larger national or multi-national but we reckon there are a few things to look out for.

First comes a shift from purism to pragmatism. Smallness, independence and provenance, once both sacred values and selling points, get dropped.

There might be surprising partnerships with ‘evil’ companies; there may be contracts to supply supermarkets; or plans to have beer produced under contract, with more or less transparency.

This kind of thing usually comes with a rush of blurb explaining how, actually, this way is even crafter because it widens access to the product, challenges the status quo, and so on, and so forth. But what it also happens to do is send a signal like animal hormones in mating season: we’ve grown up now; we understand how it works in the real world; we’re people you can do business with.

The tying off of loose ends is another thing to watch out for, e.g. the sudden settling of legal disputes, which few potential buyers will want to acquire as part of any bundle. Camden settled their dispute with Redwell over the trademark for Hells, for example, at around the time of its takeover by AB-InBev. (We understand that reporting of this news came much later than the settlement itself, though it’s possible we’ve got the wrong end of the stick.)

Along the same lines, one might read something into the winding up of fun but marginal parts of the business.

The emergence of a dominant beer in the portfolio might be the biggest red flag of all. (Or green, depending on your point of view.) Big multinational firms are drawn to lagers, pale ales, wheat beers and increasingly, we’ve observed, session IPAs. These are products with mainstream appeal, that people can and will drink for an entire session or buy by the six-pack, and which fill a gap in their portfolios of Craft Brands. If they’re already in supermarkets and chain pubs (see above) all the better.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, thinking back on the trajectories of Meantime, Sharp’s, Camden and others, we’d put money on Beavertown being bought up before too long.

Of course Beavertown says this:

Twitter conversation: a takeover is not going to happen, says Beavertown.

But that doesn’t change our gut instincts. After all, the one indicator of an impending takeover you can guarantee you’ll never get is any explicit announcement of intent before a deal has been finalised.