Sticking it to the man

Matthew Curtis asks whether independence matters to drinkers, and how we should protect it


You have two cans of beer in your hands: one is independently brewed in small batches, and for the sake of argument it cost you three pounds. The other is manufactured by a much larger brewery which sold out to a multinational conglomerate, which you bought from a supermarket for almost half the price of the other. Both are hoppy, vibrant, electric with flavour, delicious. But only one is independently produced. Which do you value more?

The number of independently owned and operated breweries has surged within the United Kingdom over the course of the past decade. Ten years ago, there were around 700 breweries in operation; now we are closer to 2500. The majority of these are tiny, producing less than 1000 hectolitres (176,000 pints) of beer per year. 

Many breweries that have emerged during the past 10 years have sought growth, much of which has been exponential due to the growing thirst from drinkers for ever more interesting and diverse styles of beer. And that, perhaps, is the crux of what makes the idea of independence so valuable: it gives those that love beer more choice. 

With growth, however, there has also been the inevitable consolidation to accompany it. We’ve witnessed much loved, formerly independent brands such as Magic Rock and Beavertown eschew independence as they pursue the course they feel best fits their breweries, selling stakes to the Kirin-owned Lion and Heineken multinational brands respectively. This gives these breweries a distinct set of advantages over the majority of independents, namely: loads of money. 

If continued growth and expansion is the aim then selling out will get you there quicker, but at what cost? If their beer is as good as an independent brewery’s, and cheaper, is that not great for drinkers also? Indeed it is, but is this also a route to stifling choice? I’m curious to find out what value independence really has for beer drinkers within the UK. 

A quick note

For the sake of this piece, I am loosely using the definition for a small, independent brewer as defined by SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, the largest trade body of its kind in the country. Its definition is simple, characterising an independent brewery as one with an annual volume that is less than 1% of total UK beer production (that’s about 438,000hl, or 77 million pints) and is majority-owned by its founders, without any portion of its business owned by brewing businesses that exceed that definition. 

Many prefer to use the arguably more clearly defined parameters set out by the Brewers Association in the United States. More recently I tend to avoid these parameters, as it defines an independent brewery as one that is more than 75% independently owned, and producing less than about 7 million hectolitres (that’s a ridiculous 1.2 billion pints) a year. No brewery in the UK, even the big guys like Marston’s, Greene King and BrewDog come close to that figure, so it’s pretty useless when analysing British beer. 

So, what does independence really mean to folks like you and me when it comes to beer?

“Independence matters to consumers because if you buy independent, you are supporting a small, often local business,” SIBA’s chief executive, James Calder, tells me. “[Independence] allows a brewery to tell a story that others can’t. It creates a connection between the person enjoying the beer and the people in the brewery. It gives consumers a sense of pride that they’re supporting something better and they’re getting a better beer for it.”

Established in 1980 as the Small Independent Brewers Association the body represents around 830 breweries in the United Kingdom, the majority of which are producing less than 1000hl of beer a year. The organisation has had something of a tumultuous history, and to this day its purpose divides opinion and spurs debate. In 1995 it updated its name to the Society of Independent Brewers, taking out the small to cater for some of its more ambitious members at the time. 

It’s biggest success for both the industry and the drinker was arguably the introduction of Small Brewers Relief (SBR) in 2002. This progressive duty system came about as the result of over two decades of campaigning by the organisation, effectively halving the amount of tax paid by breweries producing less than 5000hl (880,000 pints) a year, and provides a sliding scale of relief up to a maximum of 60,000hl (10.5 million pints) at which point the full rate is paid. 

It’s easy to see what effect this relief had on the UK’s beer landscape, especially when coupled with a new wave of inspiration from the booming American scene. SBR is one of the primary reasons we enjoy the existence of so many breweries today. However, SIBA has also endured criticism, largely due to conflicts of interest with its commercial arm, which includes the ownership of a beer distribution company. It’s also had challenging relationships with some of the largest pub companies in the UK, the reason the distribution arm was set up, in an effort to give its members access to this market. 

When Calder took the helm in 2019, after previously working for the association in a communications and lobbying capacity, he knew turning the organisation around to win back the favour of brewers that had lost faith would be an uphill battle. He also knows it's a worthwhile one, as ultimately, supporting the fortunes of small, independent breweries—and working to ensure they have a fair share of the market—is supporting what goes into a beer lovers glass at the end of the day. 

“People recognise that to taste the best beers in the UK, you have to seek out the independent brewers pushing boundaries,” he says. “Global giants can make good beer, but I think that by definition the beer an independent brewery makes is nearly always better.”

SIBA’s American equivalent, the Brewers Association (BA) is far larger, which should come as no surprise considering the nation is home to over 8000 breweries—more than any other nation (with the UK coming in second place.) It has over 5000 members, and this gives it a huge amount of reach and resources when it comes to its own lobbying. 

“Independent craft brewers are a success story for the American industry, and increasingly so in beer markets around the world,” the BA’s European ambassador, Lotte Peplow, tells me. “Large multinational brewing companies have taken note of this consumer demand and are starting to acquire formerly small and independent American craft breweries and pass them off as their own.”

Peplow says that because of the way multinationals have muscled their way into the craft beer world, through either acquisitions or developing “faux” craft brands (Blue Moon, from Coors, is a progenitor in this regard) it has instilled confusion in the marketplace, with consumers being unable to tell a brand that is truly independent from one that isn’t. 

If a consumer wants to buy a pint of Heineken then that's up to them

“When a beer drinker walks into a bar and sees an array of tap handles it is not obvious which beers are truly independent. This reduction in choice is bad for the beer industry and bad for the consumer,” she says. 

In order to combat this confusion the Brewers Association released its “independence seal” in 2017, an official mark that its members can place on their packaging to confirm that their beer is independent. According to data compiled by Neilsen, 55% of people in the US who drink craft beer on a weekly basis would either be “much more likely” or “somewhat more likely” to purchase beer from a brand that indicated its independence through use of the seal. 

SIBA also released a mark for its members to use, although it hasn’t seen the same uptake in the UK as its US equivalent. This is perhaps because the US market is far bigger and more complex, adding to this confusion; if a supermarket is selling quite literally hundreds of brands, then suddenly an independence seal becomes a more relevant proposition. 

However, with the explosion of new breweries in the UK, coupled with the increasing existence of ‘faux craft’ brands and acquisitions by multinationals, could SIBA’s own seal eventually find a purpose among British drinkers who want to be sure they’re enjoying independently produced beer?

“If a consumer wants to buy a pint of Heineken then that's up to them, but if they're buying a pint of Maltsmiths IPA because they think it's made by a small independent brewery and not Heineken, then clearly people are being misled,” Calder says. “We want more brewers to adopt the Assured Independent British Craft Brewer seal, which clearly demonstrates that the beer in that glass, bottle or can you are enjoying is made by a small, independent brewer.”

Andy Parker, who founded Elusive Brewing in Finchampstead, Berkshire in 2016, recently became a SIBA member. He’s added to the growing number of British brewers under the 1000hl per year threshold. 

“Independent businesses directly support the local economy,” Parker tells me. “They're not solely profit driven, reporting into a board of directors and returning maximum value to shareholders.”

Asking him what he thinks SIBA’s role is in expressing the importance of independence to the consumer at large, he reminds me that the association's responsibility is to the industry and its members. He points at CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale (and the largest consumer group in the world) as being better positioned to inform the consumer about what they’re actually buying, but admits that it’s a huge challenge. He thinks that much of the responsibility in advocating the importance of independence to consumers is the responsibility of breweries like his, and within independent retailers. 

But what do consumers really think about independence? I decided to poll my Twitter followers, starting with a simple yes/no question, asking if buying from an independent brewery was important to them. Of almost 1600 respondents, a whopping 69.2% of them said that knowing the beer they’re purchasing was produced by an independent brewery mattered to them, while it did not for the remaining 30.8%.

What do consumers really think about independence?

Drilling down into that a little bit more I decided to ask how important independence is to them, and just 17.5% of respondents admitted that they only buy beer from independent breweries, while the vast majority at 61.7% said it was somewhat important. The general consensus being that, as beer lovers, there was an acknowledgement that buying independent was a big desire, with the biggest obstacles to this being both price and availability locally. Many admitted to topping up their beer hauls at the supermarket. A minority of 6.7% declared that buying independent beer wasn’t important to them at all. 

My takeaway from this small data set is that, largely, beer drinkers are mostly interested in supporting beer produced by independent breweries, and the main reason for this is that they enjoy having such a wide range to choose from. In a way, this echoes industry sentiment somewhat, in that the smaller, independent breweries are battling against much bigger brands, often disguised in packaging that denotes that it has been made by a small brewery. Finding a way to cut through this is challenging, especially when former peers decide to sell up, essentially becoming part of the problem they face. 

This also demonstrates the importance of organisations like SIBA and the Brewers Association. They may mean little to the drinker at large due to their industry focus, but the work they do is crucial in ensuring that the independents have a fair bite of the pie to enjoy, and the drinker, with an increased choice of a wide range of exciting beers to try, is the ultimate benefactor. 

“Independence brings innovation, agility and the ability to focus on producing the best product possible,” Parker tells me. “If it wasn't for this rise of independently owned breweries, the product choice available to consumers today would be much reduced.”

Share this article