The Huddersfield brewer’s recent sale to Lion has been the subject of as much criticism as celebration
As one of Yorkshire’s biggest breweries, Magic Rock are Huddersfield’s craft beer flag flyers. From Salty Kiss to Cannonball to High Wire, their beers are available all over the world, with nearly three million pints a year sold in casks, kegs and their distinctive colourful cans, instantly recognisable from almost any distance.
But this week the story isn't of Huddersfield hectolitres. Instead, the headline-grabbers have been Australian. The numbers have been eye-watering in their rumoured size and the public reaction, while perhaps predictable, hasn’t been entirely positive.
In selling 100% of the business to the Lion Group (owned by Kirin Holdings), Magic Rock have ensured that they will continue to grow – but at what cost?
Personally, I see a brewery that has and will continue to be fantastic for Huddersfield and Yorkshire
Flash back to 2011 and Magic Rock founder and MD Richard Burhouse, alongside head brewer Stuart Ross, were setting up a small microbrewery in an unused outhouse owned by Burhouse’s father. The name of the brewery was a nod to the family business – an importer and wholesaler of crystals and precious stones, now run by Jonathan Burhouse (Richard’s brother). It was from his father that Richard got the money to set up the brewery.
They couldn’t have anticipated a better start. Two expansions in the ensuing twelve months and being voted 2nd best new brewery in the world on RateBeer.com gave Burhouse and Ross the impetus to develop their core range, following their “same but different” motto.
Their core range, which started with just a few beers, is now fifteen strong and spans IPA, blonde, porter, stout, gose, German lager and even a gluten-free IPA, Fantasma.
In 2015, they moved to their current Birkby home and expanded dramatically, incorporating increased capacity, a canning facility and, of course, Magic Rock Tap.
And it is from this base that the brewery has promised to expand with the new investment from Lion, with the buyout guaranteeing Burhouse’s involvement for at least the next four years. Burhouse and the other shareholders were anxious to keep the brewery tied to Huddersfield, and not to sacrifice any quality during the expansion.
So, why sell at all? It certainly wasn’t a decision that Burhouse took lightly. Recent precedent has shown that success comes at a price, with Beavertown’s 49% sale to Heineken being the subject of anger and derision in the industry, and a number of fellow UK brewers, including Cloudwater, BrewDog and BBNO deciding to pull out of Beavertown's annual Extravaganza event. And Fourpure, who also sold to Lion in July 2018, were similarly criticised for selling out to giants and sullying the essence of craft beer as many see it. Surely their current success is enough?
It’s not as simple as that. By Burhouse’s own admission, each bank loan that the brewery has taken has been at increased personal risk, and Magic Rock have found themselves at another crucial juncture; the limits of their brewery reached and another costly expansion necessary to maintain their current trajectory.
The decision was taken to seek advice and investment from seasoned industry pros who were used to trading in extremely large volumes, in order to secure the long-term future of the business and its 45-strong workforce. And against the nationwide backdrop of shrinking sales and brewery closures, Burhouse felt the time was right to make the sale.
The expansion plan is exciting; a new tap room, an automated brewhouse, new leases on nearby buildings and even plans to add to their current staff base – the future will almost certainly see more beers in more locations, more frequently.
But will Salty Kiss taste a little sourer now? For some, perhaps. Personally, I see a brewery that has and will continue to be fantastic for Huddersfield and Yorkshire. One that has been successful, innovative and ambitious, run by honest, genuine, down-to-earth people. And the reward for their hard work has been a lucrative sale to a large corporation. They could have walked away. But they didn’t – in fact, they sold on condition that they, and the location of the brewery, remained.
You’ll make up your own minds of course, but when the Magic Rock big top rolls back into Leeds – hopefully at September’s incredible Leeds Beer Festival – I will be at the front of the queue to see what they’ve got in store for the rest of 2019 and beyond.