Chapel Down drops beer brewing business | Leatherhead Food Research

‘Cautionary tale’ as Chapel Down drops beer brewing business

News this week (Tuesday, February 9) that Chapel Down is dropping its beer business Curious Drinks should serve as a cautionary tale to food and beverage manufacturers moving into new product areas. Chapel Down caused somewhat of a stir when its range of craft beers was announced in 2005 and their Curious Brew lager was particularly innovative from a brewing perspective, using a hopping regime combined with a secondary fermentation with Champagne yeast, and the highly sought after Nelson Sauvin hop, to create a light aromatic lager beer. This beer was designed to disrupt the lager and craft beer sub-categories, by providing more interest than the increasingly commoditised lagers and more accessibility and drinkability than craft beers, with their bitterness spiralling out of control.  

They have since released a porter, IPA, and cider without the signature Nelson Sauvin. The Curious Brew Lager also appears to have seen some changes in the brewsheet. The tropical fruit aromas from the Nelson Sauvin are notoriously unstable, with the aromas declining from the beer well before shelf-life expired. Some of this was down to variation in hops, brewing, bottling and varying conditions in the supply chain. Even with more easily sourced hops, the brewing process is complex and production cost high. Bars and venues that did stock their products – which tended to be slightly more upmarket, and predominantly served wine – were perhaps not the ideal forum for their beer, and bar staff may have benefitted from more understanding of the characteristics of the beer.

Product development is a mix of the science of food chemistry (brewing in this case), as well as judging what the consumer – and, importantly retailer – will and won’t buy, and what price they’re prepared to pay. Curious Brew, whilst a great beer, may have missed the mark to a degree on all three fronts, so Chapel Down’s decision to sell-off its brewing business to a private equity firm – to concentrate on its more successful range of wines – is perhaps not all that surprising. It should however serve as an example to others who are interested in expanding or innovating their own product range; communicating how the ingredients and process deliver on the beer’s proposition may have helped Curious Brew in the hands of Chapel Down, and it could well be a beer before it’s time.

  • Mark Butcher, Commercial Director, Leatherhead Food Research
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