Let Down & Hanging Around - Camden Town Brewery sells to AB-InBev

Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis

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2173. That’s the number of investors who decided to put their stock into Camden Town Brewery this year during its Hells Raiser crowdfunding campaign. By now we should be pretty familiar with crowdfunding in the brewing industry. Selling a small portion of your business to its fans so that they feel like they’re a part of something bigger, while using the funding to drive growth. It’s win/win for both business and consumer.

Camden smashed their target of raising £1.5 million, with its two thousand plus new investors raising over £2.75 million. In addition to this an undisclosed Belgian private equity firm invested £10 million at around the same time for an approximate 20% stake in the business.

The primary aim of this campaign was to raise funds to build a brand new, state of the art brewery with greatly increased capacity. Camden’s current 20 hectolitre Brewhouse under the arches beneath Kentish Town West station has long been operating at its maximum. To meet demand some production was outsourced to De Brabandere in Belgium who produce the Bavik and Petrus brands. Quality control remained paramount despite this, with Camden brewing staff making weekly trips to Belgium to check on their beer.

However it turns out that Camden’s ambition far exceeded that of the funds they generated earlier this year. On Monday the 21st of December they announced that they were becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Anheuser Busch-InBev, the largest beverage company in the world, for a reported £85 million.

In a statement released by the brewery, Camden owner and founder Jasper Cuppaidge describes the sale as a ‘strategic partnership’ and assures his customers that nothing will change. A familiar and often repeated line in a post-sale brewery statement. There is little evidence of change happening at AB-InBev’s other recent purchases in the craft sector. The exception perhaps being the upscaling and recipe changes to Goose Island IPA, the Chicago brewery themselves being purchased by AB-InBev in 2011.

The statement also discusses the proposed new brewery in Enfield, North London, requiring an investment of £18 million. Not insignificantly more than the funds raised earlier this year.

Camden Town Brewery was founded in 2010. This was the same year I personally became much more aware of the wider world of beer around me. I was ecstatic to discover that a brewery like Camden were opening less than three miles from my home and that they’d be producing the kind of beers I enjoyed drinking. I keenly followed their progress, attending the launch of the brewery bar when it opened in 2012, which itself became a regular fixture of mine.

Over the past few years I’ve become friends with many of the staff, including Cuppaidge himself. They didn’t really feel like a business to me anymore, they felt like part of the wider brewing fraternity. As a writer I fought Camden’s corner, even when shit got legal, because I believed in what they were doing. I also helped brew a beer there last year, which they let us launch at the brewery bar. It's fair to say I was personally invested in this brewery.

I’ve always tried to keep a level head when a brewery decides to sell their business. As a consumer I prefer to support the small and independent, that’s my prerogative but I have nothing against big business as a general rule. However when the news broke about Camden selling to AB-InBev, it hurt, and for several hours I wasn’t quite sure why.

Camden Town Brewery built their brand on being local and producing a product that was marketed as being by the people, for the people. They deliberately chose to name themselves Camden Town Brewery, after the London borough the brewery is currently based in – this was surely no coincidence. Since their founding five years ago they have become an internationally distributed brand but this was built off the back of a solid local following.

At one time they offered people who were local to the brewery bar discounts, they were one of the first breweries to offer US style growler fills, which encouraged people to visit and take fresh product away with them and they built a reputation for throwing some great parties. The brewery bar itself became a hub for the local community, as have its pubs The Horseshoe in Hampstead and Daughter in Kentish Town. The local community was proud to share its home with Camden Town Brewery.

Perhaps none were prouder than the majority of its 2137 Hells Raisers, individuals who decided to invest anywhere between ten and one hundred thousand pounds in their local brewery this summer. From this equity investors will see an almost instant return of investment thanks to the AB-InBev purchase, but for many of them that’s not the reason why they chose to invest in this brand.

Crowdfunding should be about more than just a financial investment - it’s an emotional one too. The majority of Hells Raisers were surely in this for the long haul. Now these investors have no choice but to relinquish their shares. According to a recent interview with Cuppaidge, in twelve months time their benefits such as brewery discounts, a once-yearly investor only beer and annual investors party will all be revoked.

I thought that the brewery’s decision to publicly celebrate their sale was in poor taste. Several months ago they were more than happy to take money off the people who had supported them from the beginning. On Monday their actions demonstrated to me that they no longer require their support. In my recent interview with the Brewer’s Association’s CEO Bob Pease (of which Camden are a member) we talked about the advantages that multi-national owned breweries have over independents and why as a result those breweries that decide to sell no longer need the support of the craft community.

However it's not just the community that has supported them that should feel disappointed, they’ve also let down their colleagues within the industry. Since May we’ve been waiting for the United Craft Brewers, formed by Camden along with Brewdog, Magic Rock and Beavertown, to get started. By entering into this deal they’ve turned away from the part of the industry they’re closest to and told them they no longer need their support. The waters between these breweries run deep, so I can understand why some reactions were severe.

As a brand, Camden Town Brewery is just five years old. It’s young, changing rapidly and incredibly malleable. I would not have been surprised if they’ve decided to sell in five or ten years time when they’ve achieved a greater deal of size and market stability. I feel that because they’ve sold so soon they will forever remain a brand and not the brewery they were perhaps destined to become. In addition to this they have potentially damaged ties with their original consumer base and the young sector of the industry they were a vocal part of. 

From personal experience I cannot honestly believe, despite reassurances from Cuppaidge himself, that things will remain the same indefinitely. But whatever way you do choose to look at this, one thing is for certain: this has been a masterclass in brand building. To build a brand worth £85 million in just over five years is an impressive feat.

Now I’ve had time to reflect I realise that I’m not sad or angry but I am disappointed. I’m not going to boycott Camden Town Brewery, I’ll still drink and enjoy its beer. It’s just that my relationship with them as a consumer has fundamentally changed. As a beer lover that’s something I’m going to have to come to terms with. As an industry it’s something we have to support while we move forward in our own direction.