The King is Dead, Long Live the King

George Simonds
Brewery owner George Simonds c.1910

We know that the idea of small vs. big in the world of brewing isn’t new, but it was in the post-war period that brewers in Britain got really big to the point where it began to seem problematic.

They were complacent, arrogant and confident in the belief that consumers wanted consistency and familiarity above all else, and as a result, removed much of the diversity and flavour (for better or worse) from British beer.

It’s too much to say that big beer has been ‘overthrown’ in the last fifty years, but it has certainly been challenged — not only by consumers and small brewers, but also by governments which supported vibrant entrepreneurship over tweedy stolidity.

But none of those Big Six breweries began life as faceless monoliths. They were all small breweries once, founded by plucky individuals who saw an opportunity to challenge the status quo and make some money on the way. Eventually, though, they had to hand over control to sons and grandsons until, hundreds of years later, push-me-pull-you committees of cousins, in-laws and outsiders with no real interest in beer were in charge.

Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.

That doesn’t mean their beer will necessarily become terrible overnight (Watney’s beer was pretty good in the 1920s, it seems) but big breweries with lots at stake take fewer risks, and are more easily tempted into diminishing the beer for the sake of profit.

We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap…”

If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.

This was prompted by a conversation between Alan McLeod and Stan Hieronymus.

5 thoughts on “The King is Dead, Long Live the King”

  1. The odd thing is, Simonds didn’t own any falcons or practise falconing and went to his deathbed wondering why the portraitist had painted him like that.

  2. I can’t really see any of the new breweries we have today ever remotely approaching the size of AB InBev, Molson Coors, Heineken, Carlsberg etc, or even the size of the erstwhile British “Big Six”.

    What is more likely to happen is that, once they reach a size where they start to impinge on the mass market, they will be bought up by their bigger brethren.

    Bear in mind that much of the rise of the current mega-firms has been down to acquisition rather than organic growth.

  3. I read some of the discussion over at Stan’s and now here. My reaction is as follows:

    1) I don’t think there is a significant QC issue today whether at big craft or small level: 20 years ago, it was much more common to encounter infected beer, oxidized beer, beer with heavy diacetyl. That problem is largely licked provided you get the beer fresh, but given most craft beer isn’t pasteurized, we have to accept that keeping it too long usually hurts quality (with exceptions for Impys and other big beers).

    2) While almost all the beer is palatable in this sense, much of it just doesn’t taste great IMO, i.e., within the beer tradition it just isn’t that good, whether because it doesn’t hit the style, or id over-hopped, or some other reason. Of course this is a subjective, but still, the other day I had a mild at a local pub that was nothing like any mild I’ve ever had (current, historical, dark, light). To me it tasted stale and weird. But I’ve had it before and that’s the taste: this kind of thing happens a lot. At least in 1980 with mass market lager, it all tasted uniform (more or less) and the blandness at least wasn’t offensive.

    3) I don’t see the big craft brewers dumbing down any time soon. They are not that established yet and even if that happens, as B&B say plenty other players will take up the cause, which partly helps keep the big crafts honest (e.g. Sierra Nevada, not that one ever had to worry about them, they always delivered great quality and taste, expanded into that range of newer or Belgian style some years ago like Uvila, and surely this was because they saw how the market had evolved since their start up around 1981.

    4) I like to support local small brewers but I have nothing against the more established craft brewers. The beer is the main thing and people that make a high quality product deserve my support. It can Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it can be a black IPA from a newly established brewer. I find if you keep to the more established brands of the big brewers, not their exotic labels which usually come with a big price tag, you get great value. SN’s pale ale is one of the best beer values in the States in terms of the price/quality ratio IMO.

    Gary

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