The high price of buying craft beer makers
“Would you pay £4 million for this crap?” That was the question posed by the front over of the NME in February 1986, a reference to the over-hyped electro sci-fi punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the fee allegedly paid by record company EMI for their services.
If there were a modern day craft beer enthusiasts’ equivalent of what was then an intelligent, energetic and angry NME – rather than the Bella-Lite free sheet it has become – it might well use a similar headline today, because that’s the figure the rumour mill is churning out as the one Carlsberg has allegedly paid for the dubious pleasure of taking over craft beer maker London Fields.
One informed and credible member of the London beer community told me shortly after the acquisition that he thought London Fields was a “mess of a business”, though cheerily added that “there isn’t much that could be worse than London Fields is now so it’s not all bad news”.
The deal rattled the cage of the small brewers’ organisation SIBA so much that it was driven to re-open the long-running, on-off debate about the essence of craft brewing.
“London’s thriving independent craft beer scene has been built on the passion, investment, sweat and tears of genuine independent brewers and we know that beer drinkers care about the provenance of their beer," said its chief executive Mike Benner, adding: “The purchase of the London Fields brand by Carlsberg raises a number of questions about genuine independence and ethics in the brewing industry.”
Certainly the deal raises concerns about the credibility of both the craft brewing sector and the big players who are picking off its tastiest morsels, with London as their main focus. In London Fields, you could even say with some certainty that Carlsberg hasn’t come close to getting that.
I’ve had decent beers with the London Fields name on, but for a brewer of Carlsberg’s scale the likes of Hackney Hopster and Shoreditch Triangle are no match commercially for craft beer heavyweight Punk IPA, let alone Fuller’s London Pride, the UK capital’s best-known self-referencing beer.
London Fields was founded in 2011 by Jules de Vere Whiteway-Wilkinson, released from prison after serving half of a 12-year sentence for being found guilty in 2004 of heading a drugs ring that supplied over £7 million of cocaine to City businessmen.
Whiteway-Wilkinson was in court again last month, and cleared over charges of alleged tax evasion relating to London Fields’ finances amounting to £700,000.
After the 2014 raids which ultimately resulted in this year’s trial, the brewery closed and production was farmed out to two contract brewers, with its Taproom venue remaining open to host events. Its Facebook page has been heavily pushing Saturday morning “yoga and beer” sessions.
Carlsberg has pledged to bring production back to the brewery but, all added up, for a base in the capital and a yoga space in which to work up some craft beer collaborations with Brooklyn, £4 million starts to look like a lot of money.
Following on from the SAB Miller acquisition of Meantime – since passsed on to Asahi – and AB-Inbev’s takeover of Camden Town it seems entirely plausible that the over-arching criterion of acquisitive multinationals shopping in the fashionable but uncertain world of British craft beer is whether a brewery has some historical or geographic tourist-cred reference to London in its name. There’s a big payday in-store for the next one in line that fits the profile.