At the start of the week the Morning Advertiser breathlessly revealed that Carlsberg UK had plans to buy a craft brewery based in this country to ‘bolster its growing portfolio with an artisan British beer’, although they tempered this somewhat by going on to state that the Danish behemoths ‘could’ be ready to announce it ‘later this year or early next year’. These thunderous titbits were taken from an interview with Carlsberg UK CEO Julian Momen who blistered with barely-contained levels of aggrieved macro-fury that “there’s no rush about it, we’ve got to make sure it’s the right one.” (somewhere in Copenhagen a viking axe is buried up to the haft in a boardroom table). Are us crafties of the UK going to sit around idly whilst these new Northern hordes plunder our beloved imperial rye banana Kölsch? I think not.
Well Ok, this admission was fairly interesting even if it isn’t exactly a Biblical act of treachery in the making. But the thing with the modern brewing scene is that comments like these – even if they aren’t made with a spinning clacker wheel of brewery names in the background – are going to cause speculation. In fact, the cynic might say that this is exactly the intention of such a statement. To stand there and meet the gaze of everyone from cook to dowager before announcing you know exactly who it will be (as the butler quietly sidles off into a hidden passage). I can’t imagine it will have prospective sellouts looking up the international dialling code for Denmark and flicking through speedboat catalogues, but Carlsberg putting their cards on the table will get people talking.
So let’s do just that. I have zero knowledge of the background to this story or who the potential purchasee might be. But nor do I really believe Mr Momen that they haven’t at least started a spot of due diligence on some potential names in the UK brewing scene. So let’s reach for that clacker wheel.
What exactly did the Carlsberg CEO say? Well very little other than it needed to have the right location, has to be a UK craft brand and one that fits with Carlsberg’s existing portfolio. He also told the team at the Morning Advertiser that they had recently acquired the UK rights to sell Brooklyn lager in UK. Quick! To the hypothesismobile!
1> The Right Location
The Danes aren’t going to pony up a hundred billion for the Swannay Brewery – even if it is nearer to their HQ than the Houses of Parliament. I reckon you can discount Highlands & Islands breweries and those in remote locations. As a big lager brand, Carlsberg are about two things – firstly city lights and glossy PR, and secondly desperately trying to tie that to a sense of place (hence the recent £15m ‘København’ and Carlsberg Expørt branding push). Having a grittily remote brewery can work for the second of these, but not the first. It might look good on posters but distribution, logistics and the arrival of all those green-coated experts from Denmark means that by location, they mean urban.
2> UK craft brand
So not a brewery, then (joke). This is the key statement I think – Carlsberg know the market as they likely have teams of researchers plugging the gaps in supermarket shelves up and down the country. They will know that Tesco recently forged ahead with their craft offering at the expense of the breezeblock-sized crates of macro lager you used to see on offer. Which UK craft breweries have recently been added to this rarefied air? Who is currently canning their beer, or will be about to soon and could use a swanky new filling line? The big boys look for value on single lines, they don’t care if a brewery produces ten different IPAs that people pick and choose from. They want an IPA to sell in Sainsbury’s Local stores from Kent to Hadrian’s Wall. That will do nicely.
3> Carlsberg’s Existing Portfolio
Here’s a quiz question. How many beers and ciders are in Carlsberg’s Portfolio, do you think? Twenty? A hundred? The answer is 484. A few names from the list are Kronenbourg, Mythos, Staropramen, Baltika, Holsten, Grimbergen and the one we all know and love – Sinebrychoff Perinnekalja. But the two key ones here are Brooklyn and Tetley’s (which next year they will have owned for twenty years). For the first of those, see below, but having had Tetley’s under their dragon’s wing for two decades is interesting as it shows they have no problem hoovering up tradition for their purposes. So which UK craft breweries do the modern and the traditional? That would be a neat two-for-one for Carlsberg and we know how much lager producers love their BOGOF deals.
4> Brooklyn Lager
Carlsberg’s craft lager has arrived. With apologies to Staropramen, Apinitis, Pirinsko and the rest by securing the rights to Brooklyn’s flagship the larger concern have found – or rather, paid for – their Lagunitas IPA and Goose Island IPA. Not in terms of the beer style, but in terms of a shelf-leading presence to rival those of (respectively) Heineken and AB-InBev. It’s a great brand, people know it already, and it has the perfect “well I’ll have that as there’s nothing-better” thing going for it – and I don’t mean that as a sleight, it’s a fantastic beer. But it also means – ironically – Carlsberg don’t need a lager to sit front and centre. What they could do with is a UK craft brewer who pushes the hops. An IPA or Pale Ale bedrock.
But all this is mere reasoned argument and thoughtful deliberation. Let’s cut to something juicier than that opaque New England IPA you are cracking the ringpull on and talk turkey. What do all these things mean when combined into a single strategy and which UK brewery might find Carlsberg UK fluttering their lashes at them over a chequebook? Well, if the Danish overlords are after a single-brand, high-potential, well-located beer producer that appeals to millenials then how about this rampant and unfounded speculation? With apologies to the following, here’s a few names that sprung to mind…
Thornbridge Always the first name mentioned, which must piss the guys in Bakewell off no end. I think this is a measure of the respect people have for them; they have been charging along since 2005 and have a huge range of beers – plus they make the best lager in the country in Lukas. Often the subject of takeover rumours I just can’t see them going over to someone like Carlsberg. Likelihood: 1/5
Beavertown On the face of it the Beavers tick all of the boxes – recent rapid ascent, hardcore programme of canning, a great selection of hop-forward market-friendly pale ales. Plus they have great branding and are set to take over the capital and pull the rug from under the feet of Camden Town as they do. The question is, will Logan and Co want the money over the backlash? I’m not so sure. Likelihood: 2/5
Redwell Smaller than Beavertown but another brewery dipping their toes in the world of canning, Redwell have just arrived in Tesco and could be the kind of brewery Carlsberg would subsume and then push to far wider markets. They recently had an issue with their landlord so if someone like the Danish Giants turned up and offered to build them a huge new brewery in East Anglia, would they say no? Likelihood: 3/5
Meantime Another London-based brewery like Beavertown, but one that is very different. This hunch is merely because Meantime have been thrown back and forth like a beachball over recent years, being bought out by SABMiller in 2015 and then sold on to Asahi a year later when the former concern were themselves taken over. Are Asahi confident in their purchase? If Carlsberg offered the right amount, would they pass Meantime on? Likelihood: 3/5
Innis & Gunn Well I have to pick at least one Scottish brewery.
Edinburgh Glasgow Perth’s finest acquired Inveralmond just over a year ago to build their portfolio themselves, if Carlsberg decided to enter as the larger Russian Doll they would have all the pieces in place already. They are move-in-ready, if the Sharp family are looking for a chance to cash out, that is. Carlsberg could well be up for it Likelihood: 4/5
Rampant speculation is all this is however – who (if anyone) will it be? Time will tell…