Big Beer makes backing craft hard – opinion
While Heineken’s recent 100% buyout of London’s Beavertown Brewery has brought despair from many quarters of the craft brewing scene, many commentators regarded it as inevitable.
The Guardian’s Rob Davies said that, with Heineken owning a 49% stake since 2018, it “was always going to happen”, while beer writer Melissa Cole described it as “no big surprise”.
Clearly they weren’t taking Beavertown owner Logan Plant at his word at the time of the sale of the initial stake in 2018, when he told Good Beer Hunting that “the red line with us is that this is a minority investment”.
As beer sommelier Anthony Gladman pointed out at the time, this was already a shift in stance towards the majors as Plant – son of rock star Robert – had warned a year earlier that “the puppet master that is Big Beer is stirring and starting to swipe its tentacles far and wide across this beer industry”.
Of course, even then the predatory nature of Big Beer was nothing new; Heineken boasts on its own website that it has more than 300 brands in 190-plus countries. Moretti, Red Stripe, Sol, Tiger, Krusovice, Dos Equis, Kingfisher, Windhoek and Sagres are just some of internationally-known lagers that are part of the Heineken family.
What Plant was really referring to in his 2017 prophecy was Big Beer muscling in on the ale-oriented craft brewing community, which through the 2010s threatened the status quo in the UK beer industry built around the majors’ established lager brands such as Budweiser, Stella Artois, Carlsberg, Heineken and Foster’s.
With the 2018 Beavertown deal said to be worth £40 million, and the latest buyout by Heineken of the remaining 51% reported to value the company at £200 million, who among us can say that we wouldn’t perform a similar volte-face to Plant? After all, he is an entrepreneur, not just an altruistic beer geek, despite the backstory of brewing his first beer in a kitchen.
For Heineken – and the likes of AB-Inbev and Carlsberg, which have made their own moves into UK craft with varying degrees of dexterity – such acquisitions allow them to turn the screws on both on-trade and off-trade distribution and prices, intensifying competition and squeezing genuinely independent brewers in the craft ale space.
Though many bloggers and influencers have become animated about the impact of the latest deal, that process began with Beavertown when the 2018 deal was struck. It has long since stopped being a natural partner to the independent craft beer shops and bars that helped make its name, and has instead become a major presence on supermarket shelves and mainstream pub taps, assisted by Heineken’s initial investment in a new high-capacity brewery in north London.
At a time of rising raw material prices and soaring energy costs, independent brewers need support like never before. But retailers and consumers face cost pressures of their own, and acquisitions like Heineken’s of Beavertown make the maths involved for anyone wishing to back small producers harder to swallow than ever.