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.

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.

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.

QUICK POST: Same Old Song

"Are All Beers The Same?"

The other day we encountered a hazy pale-n-hoppy beer from a local brewery that was decent in its own right, and certainly well on trend, but something about it bothered us: it simply seemed indistinguishable to quite a lot of other beers from quite a lot of other breweries.

Maybe this has been on our minds because our attempt to pin down the definition(s)  of ‘craft beer’ resurfaced again lately. The first definition we provide there, with reference to Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, includes the word ‘distinctive’ as a key characteristic — a sense that an experienced palate could not easily mistake that beer for any other.

Now, there aren’t many beers that really fit that criterion, and we’d probably struggle to tell, say, Bass from St Austell Cornish Bitter tasted blind on most occasions, but, still, perhaps it has got harder still in recent years. When there were a few hundred breweries in the UK, each making a handful of beers, there were plenty of unique selling points to go around: this one does lager, that one uses Cascade, there’s one down the road making an imperial stout that smells of puke to a sort-of-historic recipe, and so on. Now, with going on for a couple of thousand, it’s obviously harder to come up with anything completely new that is also likely to sell in any volume in pubs, i.e. that is not completely bonkers.

Even so, we do wonder if the tendency to rely on the same handful of commercial yeast strains, the same broad families of hops, and to look to the same few highly-rated beers for inspiration, isn’t leading into a cul-de-sac.

What is your thing? What makes your beer different, and better, than Bloggs’s? If you can’t answer that then you probably won’t convince a pub or shop to take your beer over one that’s 85 per cent identical but twopence cheaper, or with nicer packaging. You probably won’t convince drinkers to develop any particular loyalty to your brand either.

If you’re not distinctive, aren’t you… generic?

Gold or Pale or Mancunian?

Thornbridge Made North.

We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.

First, there’s what we think of as ‘honeyish’ golden ales. Exmoor Gold, reckoned by some to be the first golden ale of the modern era, is one example; Timothy Taylor Golden Best might be considered another. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s really a light mild. And you’re on to something there, because mild is a much better word than bland, which we used to dismiss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some residual sweetness, ending up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ really works, suggesting as it does richness and a certain weight.

Then there’s the pale-n-hoppies. These descend from Hopback Summer Lightning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pallor and high perfume. They’re usually light-bodied, too — spritzy. Oakham Citra is a good example, or Hawkshead Windermere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all quinine and air freshener, but tastes change.

Finally, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the austerely bitter Manchester pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ancestor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last weekend all abuzz about Thornbridge Made North; Northern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was another excellent example. English or other restrained European hops, used primarily to create bitterness, are a defining feature, as is a certain dryness, and evident wholemeal maltiness.

So where does Summer Lightning sit? We reckon these days it’s got more in common with the Manchester sub-style (German hops, not hugely aromatic, but by no means honeyish) than the pale-n-hoppy revolution it inspired, via Rooster’s Yankee. Young’s Bitter AKA Ordinary, depending on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Certainly when those northern lads who founded CAMRA ended up in London, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Boddies.

The problem is for the consumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know people less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some combination of colour and ABV. If you like Golden Best and end up with Oakham Citra  because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice versa, you might feel disappointed. And without knowing the context it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hoppy from a noted producer of aromatic beers is a bit dull.

Perhaps what we’re hoping for is some sort of convention in naming and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: honeyish beers are often called Something Gold or Golden Something, and Boddington’s clones seem invariably to have ‘Manchester’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that middle lot… They always specify which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?

If a lesson in hops, malt and yeast is Module One in learning about beer, then perhaps tasting these three sub-styles could be one branch to follow for Module Two.