Goodbye to the Brixton Sun

On Heineken's Purchase of Brixton Brewery

Firstly, a brief apology to all those who subscribed in the expectation of regular content. A longer, more personal piece explaining my absence and the lack of posts is forthcoming.

For now though, I have written the first in a two part blog on the recent news of Heineken’s conclusion of its full purchase of South London based Brixton Brewery.

Part I:

In news that surprised very few, Brixton Brewery announced that they have sold the remainder of their majority controlling stake (51%) to Heineken in a move that would ‘secure the future of Brixton Brewery for our team, our families, our community and fans of our beers’. Beyond the corporate-speak of ‘partnerships’ and beginning ‘new chapters’, what this really means is that Heineken has now secured a further monopolisation of its supply chain to its almost 2,900 strong Star Pubs and Bars estate (the UK’s third largest pubco) as well as other pubs who make use of its distribution portfolio.

I’m not going to wade too far into the debate around independence, what counts as ‘craft’ and the ethics of the ownership and modalities of beer production or its related consumption now; it’s something I and a multitude of others have written any number of takes of varying temperatures about over and over many times before. Best saved for another day. . .

Generally speaking, I think that large multi-billion pound multinational corporations with bad records on workers’ rights, flouting competition laws and even violations of human rights hoovering up smaller, once independent producers means different things for different people. Certainly, there are quite a few benefits if you are said multinational corporation looking to diversify, or a small business owner who has just sold their business and is now a weathy millionaire. Equally there are often (eventually) some portentious drawbacks if you are a non-shareholding worker who originally joined the company because you were willing to sell your labour to a capitalist enterprise whose environment promised to stifle your soul and creativity a little less than other more overtly bottom-line oriented businesses.

What does interest me however, is the nexus of phenomena where Brixton as a brewery, Brixton as a place, and Heineken as a multibillion pound corporate megabrewer all meet. In this first part then, I look at what I think made Brixton so attractive to Heineken in the first place, how localism becomes a commodity and how this news affects our wider beer economies. The second part will consist of an examination of Brixton’s position in its local community and the impact it has had there.

When the initial announcement of their minority stake was announced in 2017, it wasn’t one that many had seen coming. At the time, Brixton were a 3000HL brewery, broadly focused on producing and selling a solid core range of classic craft beer styles within both their hyper-local market of premium food outlets, bars, restaurants and shops within the M25. Hardly a prime target for massive scale-up, or a brewery with a lot of hype. After scratching the surface though, I think the reasons become rather obvious.

Put simply: to Heineken, what Brixton represented was a brand that was literally representative of a specific location, which came with all of the esteemed historical attachments and cultural signifiers of its namesake in both the local and national British psyche. A piece of London that they could buy.

The brewery’s claims to its being firmly situated in Brixton as a place is obvious from its branding. Each bottle and can bears ‘LDN SW9’, while the brewery’s logo, which takes inspiration from the local arcades’ art-deco style is emblazoned with the words ‘SOUTH LONDON’. And, while the main brewery is now technically inside neighbouring postcode SE24, the business’ branding aims to retain its authentic Brixton identity through the more recognizable postcode maintained by its commitment to its original location maintained by its SW9 railway arch taproom.

The power of locality as a brand, unique selling point and marketizable orientation then, and of neolocalism’s particular economics cannot be underestimated when considering the success and profile of breweries and companies like Brixton Brewery. The turn to this localism by breweries partly represents a rejection of what urban geographers Steven Schnell and Joseph Reese referred to as the ‘smothering homogeneity’ from multinational, macro-brewed ‘corporate’ beer. Artisanal producers tap into the specific resentment of ‘the relentless steamroller of bland, uniform mediocrity that our consumer society foists on us’. These ostensibly local breweries and taprooms become places where people can establish connections and maintain community networks, rooted in the cultural markers of their distinctly personal and communal yet sometimes invisible territorial boundaries.

Brixton is no different — the brewery’s own range serves as a perfect example of how successful utilisation of local cultural topography builds a brand, naming their produce after famous cultural landmarks within the area. To name but a few: Electric IPA named after the world famous street market (as well as a nod to the Eddy Grant song) Electric Avenue; Atlantic Pale after the road which hosts more of the local markets, already hollowed out by a spate of evictions of long-standing local businesses; and their Windrush Stout after Windrush Square which commemorates the vessel which transported the first arrivals of a generation of Afro-Caribbeans, then British citizens to the UK from 1948, whose recent and still ongoing plight under the British government’s neocolonial hostile environment policies has been well-documented.

By now, I hope I’ve proved that such beers, brewed both as homage and cannily marketizable produce through their being anchored into a locality which the producers found themselves, enshrine Brixton brewery’s status through their connection to the iconic name and place, Brixton, as both commodity producer and as a valuable commodity as a producer in their own right. In effect, by purchasing Brixton Brewery, originally with a minority stake and now wholesale, Heineken have attempted to purchase a part of Brixton itself and its rich cultural heritage.

So then, what does this purchase really achieve for Heineken and what does it mean for Brixton? As mentioned at the beginning, the megabrewer’s UK pub and bar estate numbers close to 2,9000 sites. As consumers’ habits change and craft beer along with other artisanal-style produce has become a staple in the majority of pubs. What Heineken have achieved at least in part then through their now entire ownership of Brixton, is to have diversified and monopolized their own craft product range.

From 2015-2019, craft beer saw rising sales in the on-trade:

For an operator and brewer like Heineken, in addition to profiting from produce sold through supermarkets and off-trade venues, owning what’s sold through their own on-trade estate makes sense. Now, along with Caledonian Brewery who produce Maltsmiths IPA, Brixton’s range now complements the offering on taps alongside beers from Beavertown, in which Heineken also currently hold a 49% minority stake. While not all customers would turn up their nose at Heineken’s standard 5% lager on tap, those interested in a wider variety of styles are greeted by an array of beers from what appears to be a broad range of producers, both large and small, when in fact most are owned by the same multinational.

Through monopolizing its supply chain and reducing the space for other, smaller and independent producers on the bar, this diverse range’s presentation might also mislead consumers into thinking they are supporting more local or smaller businesses rather than a behemoth multinational corporation with an annual turnover of almost €24 billion in 2019.

For now, 25 jobs in the Brixton area remain safe and the four original co-owners of Brixton Brewery are quids in. Meanwhile for other smaller, independent producers, not least in the wake of a still ongoing pandemic with the on-trade still firmly shut, the squeeze has never been tighter.

I’ll leave you with some words from The Clash:

The money feels good
And your life you like it well
But surely your time will come
As in heaven, as in hell

If you made it this far, cheers! And, if you’re coming across my work for the first time and like what you’ve read, please do share and subscribe.