Are London brewpubs the latest battleground for 'big craft' and multinationals?

Will Hawkes

Will Hawkes

22 November 2018

With Goose Island's new London brewpub soon to be followed by openings from Little Creatures, Panhead and, possibly, Sierra Nevada, Will Hawkes asks if 'big craft' is staking its claim on the capital

‘Established Chicago 1988,’ it says above the door of Goose Island’s new brewpub in Shoreditch. What it doesn’t say – and space is admittedly rather limited – is how detached this beer company has become from its origins... how it’s owned by the world’s biggest brewing company... and how beer branded as ‘Goose Island’ is now made in a surprising variety of places, from mega-breweries in the US to brewpubs around the globe.

AB InBev-owned Goose Island is leading the way in a new global era of ‘big-craft’ brewpubs, with venues situated in Philadelphia, Monterrey, Seoul, Shanghai, São Paulo, Toronto, and now London.

London, with its expanding market and global punch, is a crucial battleground. Little Creatures, founded in 2000 in Western Australia and now owned by Kirin, is preparing to open in King’s Cross, and Panhead, a Kiwi brand also owned by Kirin, is set for Bermondsey. There are also persistent rumours that Sierra Nevada, which is independently-owned but still huge, has similar plans. Brewdog, Britain’s only representative in the big-craft league, opened a brewpub in Tower Bridge earlier this year.

The value of brewpubs to big brands is simple: provenance is important to craft-beer drinkers, so it pays to muddy the water. The Shoreditch site is a valuable local anchor for Goose Island given that the vast majority of the beer sold under that name in the UK is made overseas. Goose Island cans available in British supermarkets, for example, state that the beer is ‘Brewed and Packed in [the] USA’.

Does it matter? After all, only a fool would be over-sentimental about ‘local beer’, especially when so much of it is made in the global, hop-forward style. Companies like Fourpure, bought by Kirin earlier this year, and London's fastest growing brewery Hop Stuff were not founded out of love for London’s brewing heritage, but a solid understanding of good beer’s burgeoning financial possibilities. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes it harder to be sanctimonious about the likes of Goose Island.

Nonetheless, consumers should be wary. Despite hop-mania, London’s drinkers have been well-served by the brewing renaissance, with a wide variety of excellent beer – from bitter to lager to barrel-aged brut brown ale – now available in the city’s pubs, bars and taprooms. This diversity on the bar is a direct result of diversity of ownership, a diversity that mega brands and international drinks companies perhaps threaten.

AB InBev, remember, also owns Camden Town, while Heineken has recently taken big chunks of Beavertown and Brixton Brewery. It’s not impossible to envisage a future where the craft-beer options in most pubs around the country consist of beers made by two or three multinational companies. That’s what happened with pale lager, after all.

Plenty of drinkers will scoff. 'I don’t care who makes my beer, as long as it’s good,' is a popular refrain. This is understandable, but short-sighted. London’s beer crowd – with the notable exception of Forest Road’s Pete Brown, who put a few noses out of joint with his attacks on Beavertown this summer – has become complacent. Big companies didn’t get big by playing nice; they seek to dominate. Brewers looking for an exit route won’t mind that, but drinkers should.

The Goose Island brewpub officially opened this week. It will probably do well, and certainly no worse than its last effort in Balham. AB InBev is not taking too many risks. The presence of Fuller’s ESB on the bar for the original soft opening was a smart nod to Goose Island’s Anglophile origins, and the Brewdog-lite decor won’t scare the horses. It’s in the heart of teeming east London, on a prime site on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Great Eastern Street. The beer, brewed by ex-Fourpure man Andrew Walton, will be good.

But if you’re looking for an authentic taste of London – or even Chicago – it’s best to look elsewhere.

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