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Heineken buys out Led Zeppelin son’s craft brewery

Beavertown Logan Plant - Jeff Moore
Beavertown Logan Plant - Jeff Moore

Four years ago, as Logan Plant announced he was selling almost half of Beavertown, he reassured staff and customers that he would "retain full control of our destiny" at the brewery he started in his kitchen with a 20-litre rice pan.

But yesterday, Beavertown joined a long list of mid-sized British breweries falling to a larger predator, as Heineken purchased the remainder of the company it didn’t already own for an undisclosed sum, rumoured to value it at north of £200m.

No longer in control of Beavertown’s destiny, Plant has now been sidelined into an advisory role. The company will be wholly owned by the Dutch giant, added to its roster of over 170 brands like Tiger Beer, Red Stripe, Amstel and Birra Moretti.

Plant, the son of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert, founded the independent brewery in 2011 as part of a wave of craft beer makers that sprung up around the same time.

Beavertown - Beavertown
Beavertown - Beavertown

From brewing in the basement of a restaurant in Hackney, Beavertown expanded first across London and then the UK and became well known for its juicy, hoppy Neck Oil and Gamma Ray pints.

“Compared to some breweries that have sold, I think Beavertown broke a few hearts,” says Jack Hobday, co-founder of fellow London-based independent craft brewery Anspach & Hobday.

Selling the firm “in itself is not necessarily a crime,” he says, but selling out to Heineken ends Beavertown’s status as a homegrown champion.

“I think brewing has a unique place in people's hearts, because it's a very local and community-driven sector. I think the only side where I have more natural sympathy is if people get to the point where they want to retire.”

Even as it grew to be stocked in Tesco and on draft at pubs across the country, Beavertown was able to maintain a sense of its roots. It signed a deal to open a beer bar in the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium after moving its production to the area.

The sale is a stark reversal of plans for Plant. In a long letter when Heineken initially invested in 2018, he said the £40m injection to expand Beavertown’s brewing capacity tenfold would avoid the compromises that a private equity deal would bring.

“Beavertown had to remain its own business and in control of its own destiny, with me remaining in absolute charge and control of the company direction and vision,” he said at the time. “We would only align ourselves with a minority investor who were clear they would not be involved with the management of the brewery.

“We retain full control of our destiny. I continue to be the founder, CEO and visionary leading the Beavertown charge and the people you deal with here at the brewery are and will continue to be the dedicated Team Beaver.”

In a statement this week, Plant, who declined to be interviewed, said a full sale to Heineken was the “natural next step for Beavertown”.

Logan Plant Beavertown - Jeff Moore
Logan Plant Beavertown - Jeff Moore

The context is impossible to ignore. So far this year about 60 to 70 smaller brewers have gone under, buckling under the strain of higher energy bills, higher transport costs and rising grain price, according to estimates from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). These challenges make the safety of the vast balance sheets of a big brewer more attractive.

Nik Antona, CAMRA’s national chairman, said: “A lot of the smaller breweries don't have the reserves that the bigger boys have got, or the access to borrow money to keep the business going. And a lot of them are struggling.”

Beavertown joins a growing list of midsize British brewers that have fallen into foreign ownership in recent years.

Meantime, based in Greenwich, was taken over by SABMiller in 2015 for £120m; Camden Town Brewery was sold later that year to AB Inbev for £85m. Fourpure became part of Japan’s Kirin Holdings in 2018.

While selling can provide the security of a large financial backer, it does now always provide stability. Fourpure was sold again earlier this year to Kent-based Odyssey Inns. Meantime was sold to Asahi breweries in 2016.

Workers at Beavertown's two plants in Tottenham and Enfield would be forgiven for nervously researching Heineken’s recent custody of British brewers.

In May, the company announced the closure of the Calendonian brewery in Edinburgh, which opened in 1869, and transferred the job of making Deuchars IPA to Greene King’s Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar.

Heineken promised that Beavertown will “continue to expand and flourish, while remaining committed to its independent creativity”.

Industry insiders expect the deal will lead to some changes in processes at Beavertown in the quest for profit, as is common when a big brewer takes over a minnow.

The deal leaves BrewDog as the biggest independent UK craft brand standing. Its pugnacious founder James Watt has long vowed not to sell.

"It's obviously disappointing news,” Watt said of the Beavertown sale. “Independence is so important to so many craft beer drinkers. They need to know love, care, and passion have gone into every sip.

“The majors have lots of other priorities, and I’m not sure a real passion for true craft beer is one of them. If we have to fly the flag for craft independence, so be it, we will do so proudly."

Watt’s reputation took a beating among the craft beer faithful after it emerged earlier this year he had bought shares in Heineken.

Hobday has raised much of the cash his business has needed from crowdfunding, selling shares to drinkers. He takes inspiration - and hope - from the beer scene on the other side of the Atlantic, where craft beer controls a bigger share of the market.

“Quite a few American breweries are very successful without needing to sell - it is quite possible,” he says.