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SABMiller Has Me Worried About My Favorite Beer

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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When I fancy a refreshing pint of beer that's less metallic than a lager but has more bite than a bitter, I reach for a Yakima. It's produced by the Meantime Brewing Company in Greenwich, east of where the Thames River makes a loop as it passes through London. It is by far my favorite tipple, and I'm scared for its future.

SABMiller, which is responsible for such tasteless brews as Coors Light, Fosters and Peroni, is buying Meantime, the purveyor of delightful sups including London Pale Ale, Chocolate Porter and the aforementioned Yakima Red, for an undisclosed sum. It sets a dangerous precedent for the future of independent craft brewers.

Astonishingly, Britain now has more breweries per person than any other country in the world, according to the "Good Beer Guide." That's great news for us British beer fans (and yes, worldwide drinkers of fizzy-water-masquerading-as-light-beer, sometimes a warm, flattish pint of ale in a heavy dimpled jug is just what a body needs). But such abundance also presents an irresistible target for the big players seeking to bring cachet to dull global brands by adding the pizazz of small-batch beverages.

London is particularly blessed as a center of alcoholic excellence. The M25 motorway that girdles the capital encompasses more than 40 microbrewers. We can thank tax incentives, which sparked a 13-fold expansion of small producers in less than 10 years, Bloomberg reporters Matthew Boyle and Thomas Buckley write today. The question is how many will be seduced by the wider distribution networks available from the industry's biggest players.

Camden Town Brewery is following a different path. From 20,000 pints in 2010, the Camden company has expanded to sell 7.6 million pints last year; its target is 40 million pints by 2020. The maker of Hells Lager tapped the crowdfunding wave to raise 1.5 million pounds ($2.4 million) to finance a new brewery. Its delivery vans, emblazoned with ads offering donor inducements that ranged from discounts on lager to brewery tours in Bavaria, whizzed around London. The company exceeded its goal: More than 2,340 people have invested almost 2.8 million pounds since February, with everyone getting a sliver of equity in the company.

Here's hoping more of Britain's small, innovative brewers can find ways to stay independent. Yakima might be in safe hands with SABMiller, but beer is far too important to take risks with.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net