Whatever your opinions on the numbers of small brewers producing KeyKeg and keg beers, few can deny that the drinker has never had more choice of quality beers on both cask and keg formats. But there is one group who don’t like it – the big brewers who used to have a monopoly on the fonts at your local pubs.
The big national and international producers have found that drinkers are turning away from their heavily promoted brands. Like many other sections of society, beer lovers are increasingly looking at the provenance of what they buy, preferring to give their money to smaller artisan producers over what are perceived as ‘corporations’.
The response from ‘big beer’ has been putting beers on the bars that have the appearance of ‘craft’ brands but are brewed alongside the macro-brands. They’ve also been buying up successful smaller brewers to add flavoursome beers to their ranges.
Drinkers seeking new flavours often look to imported beers on draught and in bottles/cans – but what they are buying is often just a subsidiary of the corporations they are seeking to avoid.
In the United States, a ‘craft brewery’ has a clear definition set by the US Brewers Association. Sadly, the UK has no equivalent definition, and this has left the door open for marketeers at some of the UK’s largest brewers to attempt to hijack the term.
So who is behind the ‘craft’ beers at your local?
The world’s biggest brewer AB InBev, maker of Budweiser and Stella Artois, owns over 140 breweries around the world including Camden Town in the UK, the USA’s Goose Island and Belgium’s Leffe (alongside the once iconic British brands Bass and Boddingtons).
Europe’s largest player Heineken hit the headlines when it purchased a 49% stake in Beavertown in late 2018 but already has a portfolio which includes own label Maltsmiths, Lagunitas IPA, Amstel, Birra Moretti, Zywiec and Irish stouts Beamish and Murphy’s, plus minority stakes in Brixton Brewery and Paulaner.
Japan’s Asahi added Fullers and Dark Star to their portfolio in January, joining their existing brands including Meantime, Pilsner Urquell, Grolsch, Peroni and Polish brand Tyskie.
Another Japanese company is behind many more brands – tech giant Mitsubishi’s finance arm owns the Kirin group which in turn owns Lion – the Australian based company which purchased Huddersfield’s Magic Rock earlier this year. Lion also owns London’s Fourpure and a host of Australian and New Zealand breweries include Little Creatures and Castlemaine XXXX.
Burton based Marston’s are behind Revisionist, Shipyard and Devils Backbone beers in the UK – the latter two under licence from their US originators (Devils Backbone in the US being a subsidiary of AB InBev). They also own a host of cask ale brands including Wainwright, Ringwood, Wychwood, Banks’s, Young’s and Jennings.
Despite boasting a range of 682 beers worldwide, Danish giant Carlsberg has been relatively quiet in the UK ‘craft’ segment. They recently relaunched London Fields brewery which they and Brooklyn Brewery purchased in 2017 so you can expect to see these beers on more bars. Shed Head from Sweden’s Backyard Brew is another common Carlsberg ‘craft’ offering in the UK (the ‘backyard’ in the brewery’s name being that of Carlsberg’s massive plant in Falkenberg, Sweden).
Molson Coors is behind the UK’s most common cask ale brand Sharp’s Doom Bar, but their most significant move into the ‘craft’ segment in Europe was the purchase of Cork’s Franciscan Well Brewery. They are also behind curry house stable Cobra. Guinness is another staple brand in thousands of pubs but seeing its sales fall, parent company Diageo launched Hophouse 13 lager in 2015 and has pushed it out to a wide variety of pubs who also stock its stout.
Even our local family brewers are seeking to appeal to new markets with ‘craft’ brands. Joseph Holt acquired the four-barrel Bootleg Brewery when they bought Chorlton’s Horse & Jockey pub in 2012. Since then ‘Bootleg’ beers brewed at Holt’s Cheetham Hill site have appeared in cask and keg across the Holt’s estate and the free trade. Meanwhile Salford’s Hydes markets beers under brands including The Beer Studio, Kansas Avenue Brewing Co and Provenance.