Monday, 9 July 2018

On acquisitions

[This was written in October 2017 but previously unpublished] 

We’re flying home to London having spent ten days in Southern California. It’s been a pretty eventful day so far. We arrived early for our flight, stood in line at check-in and got to the front a few moments later. Just as we were called forward, we saw the police move in to our left - alerted to a suspicious package. They assessed the risk as our check-in agent processed us and decided to evacuate the terminal. We left calmly and walked outside, the decision to shove a couple of beers we had no checked baggage room for into our hand luggage delivered immediate pay off as we enjoyed more of the endless Los Angeles sunshine. 

Half an hour or so later, we were air-side. Suspect package dispatched with impressive efficiency and TSA in uncharacteristically good spirits as they checked our bags. We rock up the the first bar we find, scan the small beer list and order pints of Golden Road IPA with a side of nachos. The beer is fresh, crisp and delicious with a resinous finish that keeps on delivering. The nachos fill a hungry hole. A second round follows soon after. And there's time for a third before our flight is called. 

I recalled reading how Golden Road sold out to AB-InBev a couple of years ago but at that point I couldn’t care less. I could be facing Bud as my only choice and this is a decent IPA given the context of an airport lounge. 

A few days earlier, I was sat at the bar at Ballast Point. Sculpin was tasting the best I’d ever tasted it in five visits to the brewery in as many years. Their new tap room is positioned to the side of their (huge) new brew house a mile or two away from the original site. Service is efficient and polite. The beer is of exceptional quality, so far showing no signs of billion dollar big business moving in to throw their craft to the wind. 

I cast my mind back to the can of Camden Pale I’d had the night before we departed on this trip - I’ve never tasted it better. It had the same bright freshness as the Golden Road IPA. An incredibly accomplished brew that delivers remarkable consistency these days. 

Around the same time Golden Road were acquired, I decided to invest a few pounds in Camden Town Brewery as they were crowd funding. I had to overcome some internal conflict to make that decision. I had friends who worked there (and still do) and a lot of admiration for what they’d achieved in a few short years but their fierce protection of the "Camden" trademark in one case had come across as over-zealous. 

Despite that initial internal conflict, I was engaged with their brand and even had my Dad trying Hells over his preferred macro lager. A few weeks after deciding to invest, I was handed my money back, with a sizeable percentage return, as Camden Town ditched the crowd funding in favour of being acquired by AB-InBev. In effect, they'd been made an offer they couldn't refuse which made their crowd funding target look like pocket money. 

"Your stake just got a HELLS of a lot bigger!" read the snappy e-mail which was soon followed by legal documents talking about drag along notices - the legalese telling me that Camden had sold my tiny share on. 

I should’ve been happy right? 

But it felt like being unfriended on Facebook. 

I’ve no issue with small breweries (or any business) getting bigger through investment. That's the right of their owners to do what they believe is the best thing for their business and its long-term objectives. I’ve no issue with the staff at Golden Road, Ballast Point or Camden Town Brewery - they’re clearly doing great things as they always have. 

However, what are the intentions of AB-InBev and the other big beer corporations acquiring smaller breweries? Did they purchase these brands as as side-project? Can they be like, "keep on brewing the fantastic beer you’re brewing and let’s see how far we can support you (and maybe distribute it) as we fuel your independent growth with you in full control” whilst they simultaneously continue to aggressively acquire lines and stifle all competition at the volume end of the market? 

I’m not so sure about that. 

They're diversifying their portfolio in an increasingly competitive market. When one global brand in that portfolio starts to decline, another will be thrust forward ready to take its place. That's just business. 


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  3. Good post. Think you get to the crux.

    While can wish no ill to those that get good payback for their hard work, every sale to big beer is part of big beer's master plan to snuff out guys like you.

    So we are conflicted. As lovers of innovation we have to hope big beer fecks up their purchases and leaves market for independent brewers. But that hurts the people that built those companies from nothing.

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