THE news that Scottish craft beer giants Brewdog have sold a 22 per cent stake in their business to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners was undoubtedly the biggest story in craft beer for some time, not just in Scotland but globally.
The deal, which valued the brewers at roughly £1 billion, sees Brewdog partner up with the same company that owns the decidedly non-craft Pabst Blue Ribbon.
It’s not that the deal is particularly surprising – many in the Scottish craft beer community have seen it on the horizon for some time – but now the moment has come it has left many wondering what will happen to the industry next.
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But before we look ahead, first some context. It’s clear that Brewdog’s brand of brash and often tasteless marketing combined with some undeniably excellent beers forcefully grabbed the attention of an unsuspecting public and introduced them to myriad styles of beer that they would otherwise likely never have encountered.
I include myself in that. My first exposure to beer beyond Tennent’s, Carlsberg, Stella and so on was Brewdog’s flagship beer Punk IPA. From there it was a matter of trying everything I could, discovering my own tastes and exploring the work of the hundreds of talented brewers working throughout the world.
Brewdog bars used to be hubs for doing just that. Their bottle selection rotated regularly, their draft beers struck an excellent balance between their own brews and guest beers, and there was always a sense walking into one of their establishments that you would leave having tried something new.
Slowly but surely that started to change. The bottle lists were standardised throughout their chain of bars. The space dedicated to guest beers shrank while the permanent Brewdog fixtures expanded. Meanwhile Brewdog’s own releases became markedly less adventurous, at least within the confines of the world they created. Many even remarked that quality had started to dip.
Having built themselves an empire it was clear that pushing the boundaries was no longer the order of the day, and protecting their hard-won gains was now their primary duty.
Their decision to sell a significant part of their company to a multinational private equity firm should at least disabuse anyone who still clings to the notion that Brewdog are anything other than a business, but they are certainly a business who’ve had an enormous impact across their industry.
If their now well-established protectionist instinct is calcified by their new corporate partners it’s unlikely to be good news for the Scottish brewers who found that Brewdog’s chain of bars granted them access to a market previously shut off to them.
The sheer number of bars operated by the company, only in its eleventh year of existence, is dizzying. Near enough every city in the UK has at least one. Aberdeen has two, Glasgow will soon have three. The value of that market for a small brewery trying to get its beers to the general public simply cannot be overstated. If Brewdog decides to cut ties with some or all of them, the impact could be felt severely.
However, there is much room for optimism. Those who came to craft beer through Brewdog are aware that a world beyond them exists. The strength of the scene lies in its diversity. In that sense the craft beer genie is out the bottle. Where once Brewdog held a monopoly on craft beer in many parts of the country, there are now countless bottle shops and tap rooms boasting a range that either exceeds or matches Brewdog in its heyday.
The industry continues to expand and evolve and while Brewdog were undoubtedly the instigators of the so-called craft beer revolution, they are no longer the sole proprietors of it.
Stewart Brewing, Ka Pai
The tasting notes provided by the brewers for this IPA make much of how well-balanced a beer it is. However, someone at Stewart must have a sweet tooth. While there is a pleasant resonating bitterness, reminiscent of lime pith, at the finish the flavour profile here is overwhelmingly tropical stone fruits, mango in particular. But there are other sweetnesses here lurking in the background and there is the faintest hint of strawberries and cracked black pepper bringing a welcome kick to proceedings. Try it with a spicy vegetable stir fry or pistachio kulfi.
Cross Borders, Pale Ale
This is neither an ambitious nor an original ale, but that’s OK. It ticks all the boxes one would expect of a sub-4% pale ale and thus marks itself out by being a fine contribution to the pantheon of one of the most enduringly popular beer styles. It has a fresh summer aroma of cut grass and grapefruit. The grapefruit in particular follows onto the palate with some light tangerine flavours providing relief from the more acidic flavours.