Saturday, 14 September was a particularly interesting day in London’s craft beer scene. In the afternoon the London Brewers Alliance (LBA) beer festival was held at Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick, while in the evening The Kernel Brewery was celebrating its tenth anniversary in a couple of railway arches in Bermondsey.
It was also exactly ten years since I wrote a piece for the Financial Times suggesting we were on the cusp of a renaissance in brewing in the capital. My article was a bit of a flyer, to be honest, as it was based on scant hard evidence beyond the fact Sambrook’s Brewery had recently opened and Redemption Brewing Company was a few months away from producing its first beers.
What we witnessed on 14 September encapsulated the good and the bad of what has happened in the craft beer industry in the intervening decade. The LBA event highlighted how the capital has become awash with brewers. I admit many that presented their beer on the day were unknown to me – and I write about beer and live in London!
It’s great so many enthusiastic people have entered the industry but the reality is many of them have jumped on the brewing bandwagon as a lifestyle choice. It’s the new rock ‘n’ roll, right? The problem is many of the beers produced are of questionable quality and, as we all know, if you don’t produce a decent product you’ve got no future. On that basis it’s fair to say the business models of many of these operators are precarious to say the least.
Even brewers that have been in the game for some time and produced super beers of consistent quality are struggling to create equally super economically viable businesses. When two brewers I massively respect – Brew By Numbers and Five Points – recently announced plans to crowdfund and disclosed a few figures, it highlighted how tough it is out there. If these two quality players are selling only relatively modest volumes, what does that say about the market as a whole?
Brew By Numbers and Five Points join a raft of brewers that have gone to the crowdfunding well. Far too many have raised cash to fund grand-sounding schemes only to see the money dwindle having been used for working capital to sustain what has been nothing more than pie-in-the-sky expectations.
The situation is hardly helped by fans of these breweries, who have collectively put millions of pounds into their coffers as a way of showing support. While this is laudable, the reality is they are contributing to a situation of increasing overcapacity in the industry and sustaining the life of businesses that struggle to justify their hard-earned money.
This might seem harsh but the incredible amount of breweries in the capital – about 130 at present – is creating an environment where it’s tough for any brewer to survive. There simply aren’t enough bars to take the mass of beer being produced, which is why we’re seeing more brewers looking to open their own bars and taprooms as primary channels to market.
Even the historically significant Fuller’s was unable to justify retaining its brewery and the LBA festival only took place in Chiswick after new owners, Japan-based Asahi, gave the go-ahead.
However, it’s not all bad news in London’s craft beer scene because The Kernel Brewery’s anniversary event that night celebrated one of the great success stories.
Unlike many other breweries, Kernel has never sought to produce outlandish, “here today, gone tomorrow” styles of beer, preferring instead to focus on pale ale, IPA and stout. The company has also kept its growth aspirations low key, while founder Evin O’Riordain has maintained the quality of its output and never sought to support grandiose ideas through ill-conceived crowdfunding initiatives.
On the basis of what we’ve seen in the past ten years, it’s anybody’s guess what the craft beer scene will look like in another decade’s time. I certainly hope there will be more good news than bad.
Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.