The craft-beer operation has been swallowed up by global giant AB InBev. Why do big brewers buy up smaller outfits – and is it a good or bad thing for drinkers?

By Tony Naylor

Assuming that the deal completes as expected, today is the day that, for some people, a little bit of the craft-beer dream will die. In a reported £85m deal, AB InBev will take over Camden Town Brewery (CTB), and one of the UK’s leading craft breweries will henceforth be run by the global giant that makes Budweiser.

This sale has, not unexpectedly, caused much angst among the craft cognoscenti, many of whom (particularly those who last year helped CTB crowdfund £2.75m) felt emotionally invested in the company’s David-and-Goliath-type struggle. That struggle ended, amid the usual PR spin about “partnership” and acting in the company’s long-term interests, with Goliath getting his wallet out and making David and his backers very rich.
Is this surprising? No. With its slick branding, rapid expansion and flexible attitude to local provenance (its “Camden” beers are regularly brewed in Belgium), CTB always had the feel of a brewery that was shaping up to sell out. It is not the first; it will not be the last. A significant minority of new-wave British breweries are run, not by hapless beer enthusiasts, but by ambitious business people.

Despite the more hysterical online reactions, no one knows whether or not this will signal a dive in the quality of CTB’s beers. In the face of stagnant sales in established markets, the global brewing behemoths are buying into craft breweries (see also: Meantime, Goose Island, Ballast Point, Lagunitas) as bridgeheads into a booming sector they barely understand. Around 1,500 small breweries are now said to account for 7% of UK beer sales and the big brewers know these drinkers want flavourful, high-quality beers, meaning that, short-term, they may leave their new acquisitions alone. But, for me, the idea that this corporate interference is benign, welcome or necessary, is naive.

Some optimistic supporters argue that AB InBev’s investment will simply provide the company with a new, high-spec brewery and a wealth of technical expertise (which is true), while enabling it to penetrate new markets nationally and internationally. At the announcement of the CTB buyout, its founder, Jasper Cuppaidge, talked of making it “world famous”.

But, why? Why does CTB need to be ubiquitous in Britain, much less internationally? In any serious expansion of a brewery’s capacity, growth is talked about as if it is a self-justifying rationale. But – and this goes to the nub of the ethics around craft beer – beyond a certain point, growth is all about profit, not exciting beer.