On the August 8, 2022, Lion, the Australia-based global beverage company, announced the sale of multiple assets located within the United Kingdom. This included London’s Fourpure Brewing Company, which it acquired in July 2018, and Yorkshire-based Magic Rock Brewing, which joined the portfolio in March 2019. The deal — the value of which was not disclosed — also included a brewpub in London’s Kings Cross neighbourhood operated by its flagship brand Little Creatures, which opened in May 2019.
The acquisition was made by a newly-formed company called Odyssey Inns, which according to its Companies House filing was established on the 19th of November 2021. Among its list of directors is Stephen Cox, an investor and key partner in Devon-based Utopian Brewery, itself established in 2017. Shortly after the sale to Lion was announced, Utopian Brewery published a statement saying that Cox would be stepping down from his role as non-executive director at Utopian in order to take up the role of CEO at Odyssey Inns.
“I believe I can bring much to this enterprise alongside the team and I know that Utopian will continue to thrive under its current leadership,” Cox said in a statement published by Utopian Brewing.
Lion, a subsidiary of Japanese beverage giant Kirin (itself a part of the Mitsubishi Corporation) had not been coy about the intention to relinquish its UK investments. In an article published by The Grocer in January 2022, the firm’s UK managing director Gordon Treanor revealed that the assets were being placed on the market, citing “difficult trading conditions over the past two years.”
The article revealed that Fourpure’s off-trade volumes were down 28.5% in the 52-week period ending on December 18, 2021 [according to data firm Neilsen]. However, the same data states that Magic Rock’s off-trade volumes had increased by 125.4% during this time. Despite this, the latter’s growth within the supermarket sector was not enough to encourage Lion to invest further in the brand it acquired just two and a half years ago.
Lion is not the only multinational brewery operator that has divested UK acquisitions in recent months. In November 2021 Molson Coors sold a brewing facility and two taprooms formerly under the now defunct Hop Stuff brand, which it had only acquired 18 months previously, to Yorkshire based Salt Beer Factory. London Fields Brewery, which was sold to Danish giant Carlsberg in July 2017, has been on the market since February 2022. However, a buyer is yet to be confirmed.
This is evidence of tough trading conditions within the UK, a market that saw its number of breweries more than double from around 800 in 2010, to almost 2000 a decade later. Within the industry there was a widely perceived lack of government support during Covid-19 lockdowns. This sentiment has continued now that the country faces an urgent cost of living crisis, largely driven by the surging prices of gas and electricity.
Lion’s decision to sell Magic Rock and Fourpure, as well as its Little Creatures brewpub, seems to have been made before the cost of living crisis reared its head, however. The firm, which trades internationally as Lion Little World Beverages, has also recently invested heavily in the US market, including the acquisition of Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing in November 2019, followed by the takeover of Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery two years later.
In the US, New Belgium has seen huge success with its Voodoo Ranger family of brands, growing to become one of the best selling IPA brands in the country. The same success, however, can’t be said for its flagship, Little Creatures. In September 2021 its brewpub in Mission Bay, San Francisco was rebranded under the New Belgium name.
In the UK, the Little Creatures seems to have struggled in a similar fashion, perhaps arriving a decade-or-so too late to establish itself within what was — until very recently — a surging market. Anecdotally, the venue seemed to be relatively quiet, despite its central London location, and on my visits there were never any beers available that had been brewed in-house, with Little Creatures pale ale, along with Fourpure and Magic Rock core beers occupying the draught lines.
Magic Rock and Fourpure have also experienced their own brand faux pas since their acquisition by Lion. During lockdown Magic Rock came under intense local scrutiny when taproom staff were left without pay after Lion reportedly refused to accept support funds from the UK Government. Somewhat ironically, after former chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a radical overhaul of the UK’s alcohol taxation system in October 2021, he and the soon to be former Prime Minister Boris Johnson headed to Fourpure’s South London taproom for a photoshoot.
Unsurprisingly, Twitter saw this as an opportunity for much ridicule. “I genuinely can’t figure out what you were expecting to gain from this lads,” read one tweet.
Although, perhaps Lion’s biggest failure within its failed UK experiment was its inability to hang on to the talent that made Fourpure and Magic Rock such viable acquisition targets in the first place. When I interviewed Fourpure founder Dan Lowe for Brews News in November 2018 — just four months after its acquisition — Lowe seemed excited, and was working towards opening a UK taproom for another Lion brand, New Zealand’s Panhead. His departure from the company was announced just 10 months’ later. Magic Rock’s founding head brewer, Stuart Ross, also left the company to join Leeds-based Kirkstall Brewery in late 2021, while the employment status of the brewery’s founder, Richard Burhouse, is currently unknown.
With Lion having now unceremoniously made their exit from the UK beer market, it feels like a very different story for the two brands it sought to make its name with over here. If Magic Rock is able to regain its credentials within the craft beer fraternity — one that values independence and integrity as much as it does good beer — it may yet have a future. Fourpure however, after what I personally considered to be a comically disastrous rebrand, and its now permanently burned-into-the-consciousness association with two very unpopular politicians, feels all at sea. It will be fascinating to see what Stephen Cox, and its new owners at Odyssey Inns can do to salvage these once exciting prospects.