The post-Camden world

A recent in-depth listicle from Pellicle made us reflect on how Camden Hells was a turning point, though we didn’t recognise the turn while it was taking place.

Back in around 2012, it was easy to over­look: sharp brand­ing aside, it was just anoth­er ‘craft lager’, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Zero Degrees, Mean­time and Free­dom.

We didn’t think it tast­ed espe­cial­ly excit­ing – per­haps a touch more appeal­ing than some main­stream draught lagers.

The com­pa­ny had its fans, but also its detrac­tors, not least those in the indus­try irri­tat­ed by a sense that it was out­right buy­ing cov­er­age, or was over-hyped, or was fail­ing to be trans­par­ent with con­sumers.

What we should have paid more atten­tion to was that our friends who weren’t espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switch­ing from Fos­ter’s, Stel­la, Per­oni, and (per­haps cru­cial­ly) drink­ing Hells just as they’d drunk those oth­er beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

With hind­sight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tast­ing, rea­son­ably strong, clean and clear; usu­al­ly came in smart but chunky glass­ware; and the brand­ing was nice – bold, con­tem­po­rary, declar­ing itself a Lon­don­er.

To reit­er­ate, Hells cer­tain­ly was­n’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influ­en­tial.

It prob­a­bly prompt­ed Fuller’s Fron­tier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guin­ness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three exam­ples.

And we’re cer­tain it’s why brew­eries like Moor have been unable to resist giv­ing lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not some­thing that seemed on the agen­da for them a decade ago.

The recent launch of Carls­berg Dan­ish Pil­sner must also sure­ly be a reac­tion to Hells, or at least indi­rect­ly, via Hop House 13 and the oth­ers.

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 23 April 2016 – Takeovers, Spruce, Helles

Here’s what’s grabbed our attention in beer news and writing in the last week, from spruce beer to brewery takeovers, via brewery takeovers and, er, more brewery takeovers…

→ Let’s get AB-InBev’s acqui­si­tion spree out of the way first: Ital­ian web­site Cronache di Bir­ra broke the news yes­ter­day that the glob­al giant as acquired Bir­ra del Bor­go. Here’s the most inci­sive com­men­tary so far:

→ Relat­ed: remem­ber when we pon­dered what it must feel like to sell your brew­ery? Well, we’ve now been treat­ed to two sub­stan­tial pieces in which the founders of brew­eries absorbed by AB-InBev reflect on the expe­ri­ence. First, Jasper Cup­paidge of Cam­den Town was inter­viewed by Susan­nah But­ter for the Evening Stan­dard, per­haps express­ing more inse­cu­ri­ty than he intend­ed or realised:

Every­one has their opin­ions. We’re more craft than ever because that gives us the abil­i­ty to brew more beer our­selves. The beer tastes as good as last week, if not bet­ter. Some peo­ple want to remain inde­pen­dent but it’s like, Mike there wears Con­verse, I like Vans. Every­one has their cool thing.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 23 April 2016 – Takeovers, Spruce, Helles”

Bar well and truly raised

Ten years ago, with the range of beers they offer today, the Red Lion in Ley­ton­stone or the Bull in High­gate would have been among the best pubs in Lon­don. Now, while cer­tain­ly way bet­ter than run-of-the-mill, they mere­ly count as friend­ly neigh­bour­hood craft beer bars.

That’s right: every neigh­bour­hood in Lon­don now seems to have a craft beer bar and many (like the Bull) are also brew­ing. Every­where you look, there are enam­el signs adver­tis­ing Orval and glow­ing neon Brook­lyn Brew­ery logos. These days, you’re nev­er more than a bus ride from a pint of Dark Star or a Cam­den Helles.

These kinds of places seem (thank God) to be replac­ing the kind of ‘style bars’ or ersatz ‘gas­trop­ubs’ which were every­where until recent­ly and which had snob­bery with­out the sav­ing grace of excit­ing beer. They were the kinds of places where you would be charged a fiv­er for a pint of stale Erdinger wheat beer or four quid for a pint of UK-brewed San Miguel; now, for that mon­ey, you get beers that are (arguably) worth the ask­ing price.

There’s more detail on each of these pubs to fol­low in sub­se­quent posts. Suf­fice to say we liked them all the more for their local­ness: drink­ing in them didn’t feel like a trip to Beer­world, Britain’s newest theme park.