Collaboration is now the name of the brewery game, as American and British micro-breweries team up to expand their reach worldwide. Taste takes a look at the big UK names forging trans-Atlantic ties.
Craft beer breweries can be notoriously territorial, with countless trademark-infringement lawsuits taken in the US over branding rights to labels in recent years. Each new small brewery is keen to establish its unique identity and target audience in their home markets, making competition fierce. In contrast, relationships between American and British micro-breweries have never been more cordial. The past couple of years have seen an increasing number of UK distributors and breweries forge strong bonds with some of the stalwarts of their American scene.
In January of this year, craft beer powerhouse BrewDog announced a deal with their US peer Stone Brewing Co that secures them sole UK import and distribution rights to their popular ales. Co-founder of Stone Brewing Co described it as a great day for UK craft enthusiasts.
BrewDog expects to announce more deals with US craft breweries later this year: “We already source exciting craft beers for our own bars, and this new distribution division is the opportunity to take that to the next level," said James Watt, BrewDog's Co-founder.
Fuller's Brewery, a family company founded in Chiswick, London in 1845, doesn't have the edgy reputation that BrewDog enjoys but has also been quietly staking out its own claims overseas. In 2013, Fuller's premium drinks arm, Westside Drinks, confirmed that it had sealed a deal making them the sole importer of popular US craft beer Sierra Nevada in the UK. Set up in September 2013, Westside Drinks was established solely to focus on the ever-expanding craft beer scene.
The collaboration is an inspired one, with Fuller's shipping their kegs to the US and filling them with Sierra Nevada for the return journey. Sierra Nevada's easily recognisable green label and impeccable craft credentials may prove to be the perfect ally for Fuller's in a rapidly evolving UK market.
“Companies like Sierra Nevada are producing really good beer and we're catching on to that over here," says Charlie McVeigh, founder of the Draft House craft beer pubs. “The craft breweries in the States have become really big business. I was in the town of Mezula, Montana last summer which has four breweries in a town of 70,000 people. When I went into a gas station that had an off licence, there were entire fridges full of craft beer, with Budweiser visible only on the bottom. We're nowhere near that here in the UK."
We already source exciting craft beers for our own bars, and this new distribution division is the opportunity to take that to the next level.
-James Watt, Co-founder of BrewDog
In a similar move, Adnams recently purchased the sole UK distribution rights for Lagunitas, a California-based brewery known for punchy, high volume IPAs.
Even Wetherspoon (Britain's much-maligned pub chain with over 900 outlets) wants an invite to the American craft beer party. They cemented a deal last year with US brewery Sixpoint that has seen 335ml cans of the craft beer sold for 99p in every one of their outlets.
Nottingham-based craft beer importer Left Coast recently introduced a saison beer from San Francisco's Pine Street Brewery to the UK, the 35th beer to join the growing US portfolio over here (which also includes Californian brewers like Heretic, North Coast, Ruhstaller and Uncommon).
Co-founder Nigel Garlick is more aware than most of the appeal of US craft beers to Brits: “Everyone is eager to try new American craft beers. We now have US brewers coming over to do takeovers in bars in London and Bristol, because we're seeing a big increase in the demand to meet the people that make the beers."
He and his partners Tom Merriman and Sam Dean founded Left Coast in 2013, initially to source American craft beer for Boilermaker, a Nottingham craft beer pub and cocktail bar. “We were looking for interesting American craft beers at the time but couldn't find them at the right price from suppliers over here. I'd been over a few times and I was very aware of some of the pioneering US craft beer brands that were cropping up, because British breweries had started copying them and doing similar things over here."
Importing directly from the US breweries, Nigel found, was the best way of ensuring that not only Boilermaker had a reliable source of great craft beer but that other UK pubs could meet that demand too. 'We've recently imported 26 of California's most exciting craft beers, and there are more on their way," he says.
With their US collaborations, BrewDog, Fuller's and Adnams have tapped into an appetite that isn't going away. They know that dated UK brands won't pull in younger craft enthusiasts with an eye for edgy design and modern IPAs.
However, rather than plugging all their time and money into new in-house brands, they're content to ride the wave of the popularity of American brands with exclusive distribution rights.
It's a great time for the craft beer aficionados of Britain. Drink your Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPAs and 6.2 percent Lagunitas to your hearts' content, but consider raising a glass or two to the clever import strategies of the UK companies that brought them here.
We've recently imported 26 of California's most exciting craft beers, and there are more on their way.
-Nigel Garlic, Co-founder of Left Coast
Left Coast MD Nigel Garlick's trend forecast: Acme
“Acme from North Coast has beautiful branding and a great story. It's an entry-level introduction to the craft beer world – their pale ale isn't overly hoppy or aggressive. It's my wife's favourite craft beer and one that's attractive to lager drinkers.
It will be interesting to see where we'll position the brand in the market, because I think it'll be one of our most popular ones, particularly for people coming from lager.
You don't always need to drink a 10 percent beer, where you don't taste anything but hops and that's where Acme comes in. If you see the Acme brand, you'll think it's cool and you'll want it."
Draft House founder Charlie McVeigh's trend forecast: Sour beer
“It's already a big trend in the States, but sour beer is gaining traction here too. Based loosely on a traditional Belgian style called lambic, typically low in ABV, it's made with wild yeast, rather than brewer's yeast, and the result is a light, sour-tasting beer, a bit like scrumpy. It's incredibly fashionable in the US and they're selling a lot of it.
It's beginning to take off here. Although it's an acquired taste, it's absolutely delicious on a hot day, and it's only 2.5 or 3.5%. The first time you taste it, you get this puckering effect, and some of the original Belgian ones can be pretty extreme and really hard work.
Then something like Kernel London Sour is just delicious, and really good to pair with a sweet spirit or a milky cheese, that cuts straight through it. Probably 99 per cent of people in London haven't even tasted sour beer yet, but brewers are already working on them. They'll never challenge lager styles, but they may one day rival the pale ale or IPA sales as a specialist style."