There have – and will continue to be – many different facets to the ‘big breweries buying out smaller breweries’ story. There are those that are more evident, such as the inevitable tirades on social media from aggrieved ex-lovers of said brewery (or even in person – I think it was the Elysian taproom who I once read suffered a discontented fan ordering a beer and then pouring it on the floor before storming out). Other noticeable commonly-held reactions to brewery takeovers have been craft beers appearing where previously there were none, and of course the escalation of the debate as to what is craft anyway and whether it all matters. Oh, plus a small section of the beer community starts flicking through Lamborghini catalogues.
But there are other, more subtle, consequences of this not-so-recent flood of consolidation and big over small economics (anyone who thinks this is a modern curse could do worse than scan the old map of Edinburgh on the wall of Cloisters Bar, with a carefully annotated brewery every fifty feet in the city). And maybe one of the more indirect outcomes of brewery takeovers is simple, good old fashioned suspicion. How long before fingers are pointed electronically with crafty tweets about So and So Brewing Co who have ramped up production recently or invested in twenty fermentors for their 5BBL kit. Is this simple jealousy? Or do those narrowed eyes at bulk malt deliveries hide accusations at the real reason why these breweries are rapidly expanding?
It could be that one of the outcomes of Big Beers’ desperation chequebook tactics is a wealth of behind the back comments whispered at trade fairs and CAMRA festivals about other breweries who are growing that little bit too quickly, setting out their stall for the inevitable time the phone rings and features an American voice on the other end. After all, few brewery owners talk openly about their exit plan – it’s as if us drinkers expect them to work their entire careers on the same industrial estate before keeling over at the mash tun aged 90, their last wish to have brewery operations continue in perpetuity and their body added to that day’s spent mash delivery to the local dairy farmer.
The simple problem is that from the outside, we have no way of knowing. When Camden Town were acquired by AB-InBev and made everyone’s pre-Christmas wind-down much more exciting, there were plenty of people to whom this wasn’t a surprise. So why was this? Well, Camden are based in the new centre of the brewing world, where a craft producer opens every weekend. They have clean, shelf-friendly design and they were owned largely by collected members of a single family (aside from that recent crowdfunding offer). Plus they had to outsource production to the continent after sales grew to such a scale their home-town brewery couldn’t cope.*
* You can just imagine the AB-InBev rep idly playing with the end of their tie and saying “Well, y’know Jasper, we have a few breweries that could be used. If it came to it…”
This of course puts breweries in a difficult bind – particularly those that a) give a shit what others think and b) grow in the sometimes-mentioned ‘US-model’. What this means, in a nutshell, is the frightfully un-British method of collating heaps of cash and going big right from the off, as opposed to the tried and tested method of starting a commercial brewery with a 1BBL kit in an abandoned external toilet. When these breweries use the capitol they have scraped together (from small investment, enormous loans, wealthy relatives, or whatever) it’s apparently unseemly and when some of them eventually – many years down the line – accept a takeover offer (presumably in part to pay back these debts) there are those who claim to have seen it coming all along.
So if your favoured brewer suddenly swaps their malt-crusted greying overalls for a business suit and a furtive expression, don’t worry. Sure, they may be days away from being subsumed into the AB-InBev bottomless pit of craft, but maybe there’s a more logical explanation. It could be they are seeking to grow their business organically, heading to the bank to re-invest some of the sales of that black pomegranate gose into a single extra fermentor, or meeting that young fella they met on the internet who knows how to draw good labels. It doesn’t mean they have set out from their first brewday to destroy everything you thought you believed in and stood for. Well, unless the offer is seven-figures, that is…