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Takeovers of up-and-coming craft breweries by international brewers have now become so commonplace that they no longer produce the gasps of amazement that they once did. The latest is Magic Rock of Huddersfield, where ironically we were only three weeks ago. They have been bought by antipodean firm Lion Global Markets, who up to now had no foothold in the UK.
Co-founder and managing director Richard Burhouse insists that he intends to remain with the firm indefinitely, and says “I’m here for the long term, as far is I’m concerned, at least four years, but hopefully many years afterwards.” However, I can’t help being reminded of the words of Anthony Avis, author of The Brewing Industry 1950-1990, on this subject, in a section entitled “Some thoughts on the quest for personal advancement.”
Sadly, individual freedom and expansion do not live together, and this is abundantly clear to anybody who had created success by his own efforts and who sells out that success, reaping the financial benefit, and then stays on to manage for his purchaser. It never works out, and if there is apparent harmony it is because he has surrendered his freedom in deference to the advantage to be gained from being part of a huge organisation, and he will fade.
I once saw Richard Burhouse speak in a “Beer Debate” at the Manchester Beer & Cider Festival, and nobody seems to have a bad word to say about him. I’m certainly not one to be crying “betrayal” over this news, and my reaction is more one of congratulating him on having grown his company to the point where he can enjoy a lucrative payday from a multinational company. But surely the time will come when he decides that he would prefer to exercise his freedom in pastures new, or when he has had to endure one corporate instruction too many. And, after he has gone, who will be there to replace him with the same spirit of adventure and innovation?
In the 1950s and 60s, the period Avis was describing, unsuccessful or stagnant breweries were taken over for their tied estates. In the 2010s, in complete contrast, successful breweries are taken over for their brands. But, at the end of the day, are the international brewers essentially acquiring a wasting asset? Breweries like Magic Rock have no tied pubs, no widely-recognised brands, simply a reputation for being cool and cutting-edge. And that is something unlikely to thrive for long in a corporate culture.