Has craft beer lost its flavour to globalisation?
It's 2001, it’s a Friday night, and I’m enjoying a well-earned sip or two of a raspberry-flavoured wheat beer after a hard week of college.
The pub in question was the Greenwich Union, in southeast London. Only just opened in 2001, it housed some of the finest offerings from the local Meantime Brewing Company.
These beers were unpasteurised and brewed in small batches, they offered taste and flavour, and they swiftly became a way of Greenwich life. This was our beer.
Fast forward to 2016 and the brewery is on the cusp of changing hands for the second time in quick succession. Amid surging demand for craft beer in general, these beverages are gaining in popularity all over the world.
A funding package from HSBC last year is helping it to sell to the US and double its beer production. The company then admitted that its London Lager is sometimes brewed in the Netherlands. This is not our beer, purists complained. This is a sell-out.
SABMiller became the new owner of Meantime in May 2015. At the time, Meantime's chief executive said the world’s second-largest brewing company believed in the longevity of modern craft beer in the UK. Eleven months later, the firm was sold to Japan’s Asahi Group Holdings, although the deal is still subject to the completion of the “megabrew” between SABMiller and its Belgian rival AB Inbev.
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SABMiller has stressed to CNBC it has a “business-as-usual” approach to the craft brewer it bought. Allowing it to keep its creative juices brimming over, it oversaw the launch of a “pilot series” last month which Meantime hopes will allow it to innovate with “limited edition small-batch beers.”
While Meantime’s Old Brewery restaurant in Greenwich was sold off, a spokesperson from SABMiller told CNBC via telephone that the decision was made to help focus on other opportunities. This sale, and the decision to shift some of its brewing to the Netherlands, was made before the SABMiller acquisition, the spokesperson added.
Furthermore, it seems it’s business as usual for the Greenwich Union pub.
“The pub has not changed much at all. We’ve still got a great mix of regulars and tourists,” a worker at the Union, who preferred to remain anonymous, told CNBC.
“We’ve still got the same manager, he has kept the same balance and cares about the pub… I certainly don’t want to leave the pub.”
Meantime and its north London contemporary Camden Town Brewery have both been accused of selling out after their high-profile acquisitions. Rival BrewDog claimed, in a venomous tirade in December, that smaller brewers end up paying more duty to the UK government if they are taken over by larger fish and suggested that it’s the quality that would suffer.
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SABMiller dismissed this as “speculation” when asked by CNBC, but there’s no denying that the bigger boys of brewing have upset the apple cart in the burgeoning world of craft beer.
Will Meantime’s brand suffer after the upheaval it’s been through? Will sales be affected? Probably not. Increased sales worldwide will drown out any grumbles from southeast London. Will I induce a blanket ban on all their beverages in disgust? Of course not, it’s great tasting beer – at least for now.