Sussex-based South Downs Cellars – which was named 2016 Independent Drinks Retailer of the Year in OLN’s Drinks Retailing Awards last week – has axed Camden Town beers from its range.
Favourite Beers, a finalist in the Independent Beer Retailer category of the awards and a former winner of the prize, said it would not list Camden’s brands in future.
The retailers follow Brewdog – owner of the Bottledog beer shop in London and several craft beer bars in major UK cities – which announced it would delist Camden products when the takeover was announced in December 2015.
South Downs Cellars business development manager James Halliday told OLN: “Because it’s associated with Stella Artois we’ve delisted it, for the same reason we don’t stock branded wines or put Stella, Foster’s or Heineken on the shelf.”
Favourite beers owner Leigh Norwood said that he would think twice before listing Camden beers again.
“We have done in the past and we probably wouldn’t again,” he said. “It taints the brand in the mind of customers.
“The beers might not become any worse – and they may even get better – but there is a concern among consumers about what is happening in the market.”
Camden founder Jasper Cuppaidge said the AB-Inbev would be “helping us maintain the character and quality of our beers, while giving us access to the investment we need to drive Camden to being more successful at home and abroad”.
He added: “Opportunities like this come rarely. We believe we must have the ambition to grab this opportunity and turn Camden, and the quality it stands for, from being an outstanding London brewer to being a world famous one.”
The decision to sell to AB-Inbev came under close scrutiny on social media and from beer writers.
Tony Naylor, writing for the Guardian, said: “Why does Camden need to be ubiquitous in Britain, much less internationally?”
He added: “Beyond a certain point growth is all about profit and not exciting beer.”
In announcing its own delisting on a blog post, Brewdog said: “We believe the lack of [an] overbearing parent company is key to being able to make fantastic beer.
“The evidence massively shows mega corporations taking over former craft brewers is horrifically bad for the beer, for the consumer, and for the industry overall.”
But some retailers are more supportive of Camden. Zeph King, general manager at award-winning Real Ale in Twickenham, told OLN: “Camden runs in Jasper’s blood. He’s definitely all about quality beer.
“We haven’t taken Camden out. If it’s not going to affect the beer quality and more people can get to taste great beer it’s not a bad thing.”
Ab-Inbev reportedly paid £85 million to buy Camden in a deal which the Stella producer’s European director of specialities and craft Iain Newell said “will support their ambitious plans for the future, using our expertise and global distribution network to help them get their great beer to more people”.
Camden was started by publican Cuppaidge, a publican, in 2010 and has grown to employ nearly 100 people and sell 12 million pints of beer a year. Its turnover grew by a multiple of 10 in the past three years.
Over that time, it increasingly looked like one of the more business-led and ambitious craft brewers, and few in the craft beer community seem surprised that it was top of AB-Inbev’s shopping list.
This time last year, its bottles were plastered all over poster sites on the London Underground when it launched a £1.5 million crowdfunding appeal on Crowdcube, an offer that eventually exceeded its target by more than 80%.
Camden wasn’t the first craft brewer to – as some critics would have it – sell out, but the big business takeover of one of the UK brewing scene’s shining stars has focused attention on the phenomenon of what is becoming known as “corporate craft” beer.
Chicago’s Goose Island was swallowed up by AB-Inbev in 2011, the same year Carling owner Molson Coors paid £20 million for Sharp’s, the Cornish brewer of Doom Bar.
In 2013, a majority stake in highly-rated Norwegian craft brewer Nøgne Ø was sold to the country’s second-largest brewer, Hansa Borg.
AB-Inbev also bought the Seattle craft brewer Elysian in January 2015, while Heineken took a 50% stake in California brewer Lagunitas last September, four months after another global operator, SAB Miller, acquired London’s Meantime.
By the end of the year, Meantime’s microbrewery in Greenwich was earmarked for closure and the company as a whole was up for sale again after SAB Miller itself was downed by AB-Inbev.
All this has left some in the craft beer community – attached to the idea of small scale and independence as an ideology, or at least a lifestyle choice – feeling cheated.
Norwood at Favourite Beers said craft brewers falling into the hands of majors is “a real shame”.
He added: “You look at some of them and they have clearly been set up to be bought.”
Norwood cites Goose Island IPA as an example of a brand that was once lionised in specialist beer shops but which has now been lost to the multiples. “As soon as something’s in the supermarkets we don’t sell it because we can’t compete on price,” he says.
Other Goose Island beers have moved into the shadows. “We used to sell its Bourbon County Stout, which was a favourite, and it did a brilliant cherry beer called Madame Rose,” says Norwood. “It was stunning but you can’t get those beers in this country any more.”
Toni Skinner, director of specialist wholesaler Pig’s Ears, believes a big offer from a major brewer would understandably be hard for most micros to turn down, but adds such deals inspire people to start up breweries for the wrong reasons.
“A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon without understanding that you can’t make lots of money from just selling beer,” she said. “The quality of beer [from brewer to brewer] is less consistent than it was.
“That’s definitely brought more of a push towards breweries people are familiar with rather than anyone who’s just coming on to the market.”
There are also concerns that beer quality suffers when craft players are taken over by the big boys because the easiest way to improve margins is to cut corners on costs.
David Jones, at the Bier Huis shop in Ossett, West Yorkshire, said quality issues would take precedence in future buying decisions rather than any ideological stance over a producer’s ownership.
“The best example is Doom Bar which, before Molson Coors had it, was a cracking pint,” he says. “It’s still pretty good but it’s nowhere near as good as it used to be. You can tell that it’s been tweaked around with.”
When the next reputable name in craft beer falls by the wayside he says: “We’d have to look at how our sales were performing and the quality of the beer, but we would keep something if sales kept up.”