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.

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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 April 2018: Beer Duty, Beavertown, Baudelaire

Here’s all the writing about beer from the past week that most engaged, informed or entertained us, from the Fall of the Craft Beer Empire to Gamma Ray in Waitrose.

Well, most of the past week — we wrote this post at breakfast time on Friday and scheduled it to post, so if anything exciting happened on Friday afternoon, we probably missed it. We are now on holiday for a week and a bit which means no round-up next weekend. If you want a fix of links in the meantime check out Stan Hieronymus’s Monday post and Alan McLeod’s on Thursday.


Adapted from ‘The End is Nigh’ by Jason Cartwright on FLICKR, CC BY 2.0

We’ll start with a piece by Pete Brown which prods at the kind of would-be sensational news story based on a piece of research you have to pay to read in full:

“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty…. The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy

Here’s everything beer- and pub-related that caught our eye in the last week, from viking funerals to mysterious pressure groups.

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Infantile?

Label for Partizan X ale w. crossed dinosaurs.
Art by Alec Doherty. SOURCE: Partizan Brewing Archive.

We’re working on an article about mild in the 21st century, research for which prompted this statement in an email from Andy Smith at Partizan:

The beer was originally simply called mild… We then decided to rebrand as X… This worked OK but not as well as we’d hoped. It was at this stage we put dinosaurs on the label and sales rocketed! I kid you not. It sells as well if not better now as our other dark beers. Dinosaurs! Now we spend our weekends hearing how cute the dinosaurs are (recently changed) and  answering the question what is X?

That’s funny, of course, but also made us think, ‘Huh. So craft beer drinkers are like children?’

We’ve observed before, as has almost everyone else who’s written a tedious think-piece on the subject, that craft beer in cans has been successful partly because they are tactile and colourful, bright and toy-like. Beavertown Brewery’s cartoon-laden designs in particular suggest material for an (admittedly slightly weird) animated series and also make them look like a bit like soft drinks. (Gamma Ray more so than this example we have at hand.)

Beavertown Smog Rocket design.
Art by Nick Dwyer. Source: Beavertown Brewery.

And sometimes, with fruit and residual sweetness and novelty flavourings and higher carbonation, the hippest beers can taste a bit like soft drinks too.

Of course we checked ourselves fairly promptly: one person’s infantile is, of course, another person’s fun, and we understand that you humans enjoy this emotion fun is good.

And even if it is infantile, is that a bad thing? One key reason people drink is to reduce the pressures of adult life and the pub is where grown-ups go to play.

This is a question we’re going to have in mind from now on, though, especially when we find ourselves considering the generation gap between real ale culture and craft beer. (Def 2.)

Magical Mystery Pour #4: Blubus Maximus

Magical Mystery Pour logo.This sour blueberry beer is the fourth and final beer suggested to us by Dina (@msswiggy) and is the result of a collaboration between London’s Beavertown and Somerset’s Wild Beer Co.

Dina says:

I’m convinced this is a medicinal tonic, may its healing powers grant you great health. It’s the bay leaf that really makes this beer. It’s a bit like a carbonated smoothie, but not as sweet. I couldn’t decide if I wanted a bit more blueberry from it, or if it was perfect as it is. I’m no brewer – I trust Wild Beer with my life.

Blubus Maxiumus: cap wax.We paid £11.50 for a 750ml bottle from Beer Gonzo. The packaging is more Wild Beer Co than Beavertown being screen-printed and sealed with bright blue wax. Its ABV is 5.5% and there is no foundation style, as such, as their website explains:

We made a base beer out of spelt and buckwheat and infused bay leaves to give some gentle spice, the beer has been fermented with the Wild Beer Co’s own strain of wild yeasts. After fermentation we have added more than a ton of Blueberries.

We really didn’t know what to expect other than that, foolishly, we thought it might be blue, and were also bracing ourselves for some extreme funky sourness.

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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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Under-Promise, Over-Deliver

That was an idle Tweet from the pub (Wetherspoon’s) where we’d just had a pint of real ale billed as ‘rum and raisin’ from a brewery we’d never heard of.

We didn’t expect much but it was actually pretty tasty — a solid, fairly dark best bitter. Based on how we codified our thoughts on expectations back in January, it was merely enjoyable but unexpectedly so, and therefore a pleasant surprise.

As for the mention of hype, we did, unfortunately, have in mind Siren/Magic Rock/Beavertown Rule of Thirds. (We say ‘unfortunately’ because it has become the centre of some fractious debate between brewers and drinkers.) Back in October, it was trailed thus:

The Rule of Thirds takes 1/3 of each of our individual recipes and process’ & promises to bring together the best of each of our flagships and come up with something greater than the sum of the parts. Which is no small boast.

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Tasting: Black Ales and IPAs

Point Black Ale

What connects the three beers we tasted this week is that they are all black ales of one sort or another.

Point Black Ale (5.2% ABV) was a pleasant surprise. Launching straight in without reading the blurb or doing any research which might prejudice our taste buds, we expected a rather mediocre British-style beer with veritable hops. Instead, we got an extremely convincing German-style Schwarzbier. (And Ratebeer concurs.)

Under a sandy-coloured head, a light but oily body offered caramel and notes of cocoa powder, made crisp by lager-level carbonation. By the end, as it warmed up, some suggestion of orange zest emerged, justifying the ‘ale’ tag somewhat, and adding a welcome layer of complexity. Ultimately, it’s an uncomplicated, satisfying and tasty beer, and our pleasure in drinking it perhaps highlights a gap in the UK market.

Next up were two black IPAs — a style about which we remain sceptical. We’re not offended by the name or the concept — we just don’t think that many of the beers sailing under that flag are anything other than either (a) IPAs with cosmetic Just For Men colouring or (b) stouts/porters/dark milds.

Otley Oxymoron

Otley Oxymoron (5.5%) has a name which references the issue many people have with the contradiction inherent in the term ‘black India pale ale’. The bottle label bears next to no information and the Otley ‘O’ logo is embossed in black, on black. Very stylish, but not much help to we poor consumers.

In the glass, it looked… black. What was interesting was the aroma: manure with a hint of bile.

Now, that doesn’t sound good, does it? But one of our favourite stouts is Harvey’s Imperial Russian which some find undrinkable because of it’s challenging ‘farmyard’ character, and Oxymoron might be its little sister — more sessionable but only slightly less mad. Beyond that, we detected an alluring hint of smokiness and a clanging grapefruit acid note. Much as we enjoyed it, we’re not sure the effect was deliberate, or that it is really an IPA in any meaningful sense.

Beavertown Black Betty.

Finally, there was Beavertown Black Betty (7.4%). We’ve drunk this beer several times, with pleasure, but with our brows furrowed. What makes it taste so distinctly London-y? And what is that elusive aroma we recognise but can’t name? This time, we think we managed to answer that second question: tobacco. Not posh pipe tobacco or cigars, but the slightly sweet, autumnal, dusty whiff of student roll-up baccy. There is also something savoury and wholesome — sunflower seed rye bread with caraway baking in the oven — in both the aroma and flavour.

Complex and interesting, then, and exhibiting a distinctive brewery character. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but beers that aren’t to everyone’s taste are what we’d like to see more of.

It is also a fairly convincing argument for the existence of black IPA — both stout and hoppy pale ale at the same time, depending on which angle you approach it from.

DISCLOSURE (more)

We bought the bottle of Black Betty ourselves from Ales by Mail (330ml at £2.30). Point Black Ale was supplied to us by Beer52.com as part of a sample of their beer subscription service; Otley Oxymoron came from a selection case sent to us by Eebria. For what it’s worth, Eebria’s selection seemed thoughtful and well-chosen, while Beer52’s did little to excite us.