Camden Town Brewery’s Jasper Cuppaidge has just solved a very big size problem after struggling with a brewhouse that is currently too small to cope with demand.
The beer’s birthplace was at a major disadvantage when the popularity of the brews it became famous for were outselling the original Kentish Town brewery’s capacity. So big is the issue that Cuppaidge currently has to send 100,000 hectolitres (hl) of brewing out to Europe to keep up with demand. Soon, though, this will be a thing of the past and all brewing will take place under one UK roof. Yet, this big news comes in the wake of one life-changing move for Cuppaidge in 2015.
- Mid-1990s: Gets a job glass collecting in Notting Hill’s the Westbourne and works up to management across other venues
- 2000s: Buys and opens the Horseshoe pub
- 2007: Brews first beer called Mac’s
- 2007: Brews second, third and fourth batches of beer
- 2009: Expands brewing equipment
- 2010: Launches Camden Town Brewery
- 2011: Buys more tanks for the Kentish Town brewery
- 2015: Bought out by AB InBev
- 2016: Secures Enfield site
Just over a year ago, the founder and CEO of Camden Town Brewery was at the receiving end of severe criticism from craft beer fanatics, bloggers and writers when he supposedly ‘sold out’ to the global beer giant AB InBev (ABI) for c£85m at the end of 2015.
As a result of this, there are many questions those concerned parties believe Cuppaidge must answer, involving the level of control he has over his beers, whether there any regrets after selling to ABI and how long he will remain at the head of Camden Town Brewery.
All of these questions Cuppaidge calmly and concisely answers in his soft Australian accent, which is littered with the colourful expletives one would expect from a down-to-earth Aussie.
We met at his new headquarters in Enfield, north London, about 10 miles from the existing Kentish Town brewery. It is vast in comparison with Camden’s birthplace and arguably corporate, yet terrifically impressive despite it still being under construction.
The drinks boss isn’t the person most would expect to see running an ABI operation – he is very much the archetypal craft brewer and does look a little out of place in his new clinical surroundings.
In the sleek new glass-walled boardroom, Cuppaidge is wearing a Camden Town Brewery red beanie hat, high-tops, black chinos and a jumper adorned with Camden Town badges. It is the hipster uniform commonly associated with the now trendy parts of London where his business grew up.
Cuppaidge’s story and how Camden came about spans two decades. In short, though, it begins in mid-1990s London when, on his way home to Australia after an around-the-world surfing holiday, he missed a flight and ended up getting a job collecting glasses in Notting Hill pub the Westbourne. About 10 years later, Cuppaidge spots a site he wants to buy and does so a little later on, where he opens the Horseshoe pub – a venture that focuses on food and drink.
Beer brewing comes along in 2007 and professional kit comes in 2009. A year later, Camden Town Brewery officially starts brewing. Fast forward a few years through to the launch of Hells lager and a smattering of beer awards and we arrive at the building of the new £30m Enfield brewery site, which is due to start production this spring.
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“Did I think we would be this strong and this big when we started out? No bloody way,” he admits. “I thought what we were doing in Kentish Town was huge.”
The fact of the matter is the Kentish Town operation is not huge, but minute in comparison with Enfield. The size of the new brewery is something Cuppaidge is adamant to talk down and says: “You know, it is bigger and it looks bigger, but it’s not that big compared with other craft breweries in the world.
“You know, Sierra Nevada has two breweries five times bigger than this one, so my build is very small. We still think very small and I am so happy and just excited for the guys who will work here because they can have proper career development.”
To put it into perspective, the current brewhouse has a 19,500hl capacity, but the new site can produce 400,000hl – so it’s a vast difference.
But, to be fair to the Cuppaidge, he doesn’t take offence when quizzed on the subjects others in his position may deem an attack on their agenda, morals and whether their business is still true to its roots – craft beer.
“For us, the way of thinking about craft is looking at everything from the material we use in the packaging to the hops we use in the beer,” he explains. “We are more focused on those elements now than we have been before – we’re dedicated to it.
“One of my favourite craft breweries in the world is Sierra Nevada and they’ve got two breweries bigger than ours, yet they are the pinnacle of craft in my eyes. We’re continuing to focus on everything that matters to beer and I believe that makes us craft.”
The size of the brewery will allow the now 110-strong team to be more “craft”, he claims. It will become a “playground” for the brewers.
To allow more creativity within the business, Cuppaidge has also invested in five 200hl ceramic eggs, something he believes only one other brewery in the world uses on such a scale.
The eggs are, as expected egg-shaped, but made from concrete and not ceramic. Beer will be finished in them and will be affected by different levels of oxygen and the minerals from the concrete.
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“From an innovation perspective, I’m really leaning on the team to come up with something – I’ve led this for a long time, but there are more people here who have much better beer ideas than me now,” he says graciously.
“The eggs are an inspiration we have gained from another brewery in the US. It might turn out to be a massive failure, but we’re going to see what we can do with them.”
This all sounds suspiciously like the spending power of a multibillion-pound beer conglomerate, but Cuppaidge gives assurances that the building of the new brewery, and the eggs for that matter, were all part of his plan before ABI bought Camden. There was enough money in the kitty to build the new site after crowd funding activity raised £1.5m just months before ABI came in.
He maintains he has full control over the business and that it is his life for the foreseeable future. The day-to-day running of Camden Town Brewery hasn’t changed much and has, he claims, got a lot easier since the new owners bought it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed for the worst, I would actually say it’s better since we joined ABI. We’ve got a real plan, a strategy and support. Because of that we’re in a wonderful place today and set up for a wonderful future,” adds Cuppaidge.
There was an element of nervousness in the lead up to and during the takeover, he admits, “but there’s always nervousness when you do things – I’m nervous launching a beer.”
‘Oh God, I shouldn’t be doing this’
He adds: “No, I was very open to what happened and it was never a case of ‘oh God, I shouldn’t be doing this’. I was just excited.
“With ABI coming in, it’s better and more organised. It is the brewery we were building for Camden before ABI, but now it’s got more bells and whistles on it because of ABI’s thoughts. Also, it wouldn’t have come on as fast if I had done it myself.”
To further allay any ‘theories’ that he isn’t in charge of the beer coming from the current brewery and his new brewery, Cuppaidge says: “We are more distinct now, we’re honing what we do every day. I have complete control over the beer.
“We’re boiling it (the concept) down and getting more disciplined and have a better sense about what we’re doing. In fact, I feel like I’m more true to the brand now. We really understand our reverence and we know our traits.
“When I first started Camden, I was like ‘what the f**k is this brand for?’. But now we know exactly what it is.”
So, Cuppaidge has a firm footing on the business and is confident he is in control just as much, if not more, than before ABI. But what’s coming once the Enfield site is up and running later this year?
The craft lager boss maintains there will be no brand extensions – hospitality venues or otherwise – and he won’t be producing new product after new product for the sake of it.
My favourite pub:
"It has to be the Westbourne and the Cow in Notting Hill, which is where I worked after I missed my flight.
I was educated through these two places, collecting glasses. Because this is an industry that you can go from the bottom to the top in, that’s where I cut my teeth from glass collecting to becoming a manager."
“There are some great brewers that do that really well (produce lots of stock keeping units (SKUs)), who I am always blown away by, but at Camden, we hone before we grow,” he says and maintains they will continue to look at making new and maintaining their existing sessionable craft lagers.
“You know, we do a lot of beers, but we don’t release them to the market, we might just put them in the tap room or they just don’t come out of the lab. I don’t see we will be releasing loads of SKUs, but I definitely see us releasing more than we have done, that’s for sure.”
Another thing Cuppaidge is planning to do more of is collaborate with brewers in ABI’s Agora Project – a knowledge-sharing group. There is also a desire to work with smaller London-based breweries.
When Camden Town Brewery was an up-start, it wasn’t unusual for the business to partner with other small and independent breweries. So, Cuppaidge is keen to work with some members from the London Brewers’ Alliance, especially as he believes Camden Town Brewery now has more of a responsibility to help the smaller guys.
“We still like the education piece,” he explains. “We want this to happen. When we started it was pretty lonely, but now there are lots of breweries. It is definitely up to us to help inspire the industry and keep things exciting.”
Some may view Cuppaidge’s sentiment as nothing other than lip-service to a segment he towers above in terms of market share and cash flow. He does, after all, have a long future at the new brewery and there really is no need for him to work with anyone.
But, he is genuine and careful about what he says, so there is little doubt he means it. And I think he’s spot on when he says: “I’m still the big friendly bloke who likes everybody.”