Another day, another craft beer buyout. This time, it’s much-loved Sussex brewery Dark Star’s turn to face cries of “selling out”, thanks to its purchase by longstanding London brewery Fuller’s.
Cue the righteous outrage of the beer community and the usual hyperbole from the newly bought brewery about “partnership” and “investment”. Bring on the think-pieces and thinly veiled contempt for the fact more Brits have access to craft than ever before thanks to the supermarkets.
But casting Fuller’s as a faceless predator, its eyes set solely on margins and shareholders, is lazy, inaccurate and unfair to both it and Dark Star. So let’s pause the cycle of outrage for a second.
It’s easy to see why many were angered by, say, Camden Town’s sale to AB InBev, or Lagunitas’ to Heineken: both buyers are legitimate global behemoths. For better or worse, it’s possible to understand why Camden’s and Lagunitas’ ardent fans reacted with such dismay.
But those buyouts are ancient history now. They’re done and dusted. Many more trendy brands have been bought since, and each time the debate flares up again. The same righteous anger. The same think-pieces. The churn.
It’s like groundhog day, and with each repetition it gets duller and duller, pointlessly reinforcing craft beer’s image as the bevvy of the bourgeois, appreciable only by an enlightened elite for whom “authenticity” trumps all else (even taste).
Beer is a commodity. It has always been a commodity. Since the days of ancient Mesopotamia it has been brewed and traded, its value used to fund diplomacy and war alike, from the state-owned breweries of the Soviet Union to the corporate bombast of Budweiser and the Super Bowl, all the way to the brutally gentrified ex-slums of London and New York.
A brand’s ‘ethos’ or ‘attitude’ does not change the fact it is a product designed to be sold. A product’s ‘artisan’ or ‘small batch’ credentials do not de-commodify it. In fact, in some cases, those terms are used by marketers to con drinkers into feeling they are not buying a commodity, as The Grocer’s recent investigation into craft gins examined.
That doesn’t mean independence doesn’t matter. It is brilliant that there is such a vast ocean of delicious, experimental beers out there and a community so passionately engaged with them. And there will always be a market for those who champion that independence – especially with the boom in specialist bottle shop openings and online craft retailers of late.
But beer is, as a rule, not a massively profitable business, and for smaller businesses that want to grow, crowdfunding and traditional borrowing come with their own pitfalls. If a prospective buyer is truly keen to ensure the quality of what they’re buying – or indeed, make it better – the attraction is clear.
And Fuller’s is a far cry from the ‘purveyors of bland, corporate beer’ the craft world so loves to ridicule. Indeed, it has spent the past decade modernising its beers and investing heavily in the craft movement. It is widely respected among brewers for its products, is family-owned and operates as independently as a brewery that size can.
Obviously the profit motive is at play – it would be naïve to suggest otherwise. At this point in time, there’s far more money to be made in craft than there is in traditional ales, supermarket sales of which are plummeting.
But that some of the same drinkers who turned up to Waitrose in droves to buy Fuller’s & Friends, its six-beer tie-up with the likes of Cloudwater, Fourpure and Thornbridge, would treat the fact Dark Star will now be able to brew a bit more and get their beer to more people with disdain is, frankly, ridiculous.
Like it or not, craft is big business now. I for one won’t stop drinking Hophead any time soon.