A couple of months ago the Morning Advertiser revealed that Carlsberg UK had plans to buyout a British craft brewery to bolster their beery credentials, helping their portfolio make the leap from fickle lagerboys to dedicated followers of the one true beer faith. At the time, it caused a fair bit of mildly fevered speculation as to which schooner-loving beardies it might be. Were Carlsberg waving chequebooks at Cloudwater? Would it be Innis & Gunn receiving a Danish delegation into their
Glasgow Edinburgh Perth offices? Was Logan Plant going to be the one pulling on a green t-shirt and smiling for the camera? Well, no – not as it happened. Yesterday the Morning Advertiser neatly bookended their scoop by revealing the answer – Carlsberg UK are to buy the London Fields Brewery in Hackney. And the response from the beer industry? Errr….what?
Terms of the deal have not been announced, other than the fact that Carlsberg and the Brooklyn Brewery are going to take on London Fields as a joint venture (The Danes having purchased UK distribution rights for Brooklyn last year). The Evening Standard stated that the deal was rumoured to be ‘worth an estimated £4m’ although having read that London Fields were for sale for around a quarter of that amount a while back, I’m not sure if the lager concern would have to fork out quite that much, but you never know. But even if they did pay £4m for London Fields, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the (also estimated) £85m that AB-InBev laid out for Camden Town a few days shy of Christmas 2015. (“Put the turkey back in the freezer Jasper, it’s goose this year!”). But London Fields are not Camden Town. Oh my goodness, they are not even close.
Way back in the day I was actually the first beer writer to visit London Fields, a few weeks after they started brewing and just following the London riots of 2011. I remember been shown around the Hackney archway by co-founders Jules de Vere Whiteway-Wilkinson and Ian Burgess and sampling a few beers, being pretty impressed with what they had put together – and even more impressed with the story of how they created Love Not War – a brown ale brewed with the shutters down whilst the riots were actually taking place outside. Another thing I remember is Jules telling me he came into brewing from a gardening business, and very much not telling me (understandably) that he had in fact done a twelve year stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure for cocaine trafficking.
But, you know, second chances and all that. Except in 2014 the brewery was raided by HMRC who discovered that Jules had allegedly not paid any tax or beer duty for three years and pocketed national insurance and student loan contributions taken from their employees. The court case – scheduled to begin last January but put on hold for reasons of jury selection – is, rather ironically, set to begin again on Monday according to the Guardian.* The actual brewery itself is currently owned on paper by Jules’s father, although you’d expect the Crown to take a rather large interest in what is going down there at the moment. And the beers themselves? Well in March 2015 the brewery staff were made redundant and brewing contracted out to another producer in Lincolnshire.
Anyhow, when the Morning Advertiser first broached the rumours that Carlsberg UK were looking to take over a British craft brewery, I posted about who it might be – full disclosure, I emphatically did not mention London Fields – but also aside from the clickbait pushed a few suggestions as to what the Danes would be looking for in a future ‘partner’. Let’s go back and review those to see exactly how it all shook out. To summarise, at the time the Carlsberg UK CEO Julian Momen stated that the brewery purchased would need to have the right location, a UK craft brand and one that fits with Carlsberg’s existing portfolio.
Well, I did at least say that they wanted something in a major city to push the urban cool bracket. And with that in mind, I was right on the money. From their Hackney base – to which Carlsberg have already been quoted as saying brewing operations will return (which if nothing else is good to see), the Danes will have a London-centric brand to push across the country and beyond. And the fact that it has the city name in the brewery title is an added bonus. The rest of it is less straightforward. London Fields don’t have a standout brand in their lineup (Hackney Hopstar? Shoreditch Triangle?) although again it all dials back to the identity of the east of the capital. There’s no I-must-have-this-IPA in their repertoire.
The other thing that should be discussed, the elephant in the room, is their reputation. Looking at some of the tweets from beer industry people – particularly those based in London – was an almighty WTF moment. Of all the brands to acquire, why pick one with so little public recognition and so much industry resentment? The continual attitude and actions of the founders have blackened the name of London Fields within the beer community – but, as we’ve all seen since time began, the big lager boys don’t really care for that anyway. It’s the bottom line that matters, and in their eyes, picking up London Fields for even £4m is peanuts compared with what they would have to fork out for other alternatives.
Plus they can knock everything down and build it back up from the ground. If they bought Brew By Numbers, say, you’d have the goodwill of the people to get over, the staff to placate, co-founders Dave and Tom to drop off at the nearest Lambourghini dealership and all sorts of other things to consider. The fact that they have bought out the most controversial London brewery is surely because they can have a fire sale and quickly re-shape London Fields into something they want. Look for a quick re-brand, some name changes and a whole new outlook. And to be honest, for everyone associated with London Fields – that can only be a good thing.
* UPDATE 28/07/2017
The jury at Wood Green crown court found Mr. Whiteway-Wilkinson not guilty and cleared him of all charges.