The Shake Out, 1983-84

HEADLINE: 'Small Beer Crash'

We’re intending to spend a bit more time pondering the health of the UK beer industry in 2016 but, for perspective, here’s a bit of history around the first micro-brewery ‘shake out’ which happened back in the 1980s.

Brian Glover wrote for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper for many years providing a running commentary on the rise of the microbrewery which would eventually form the basis of his essential 1988 New Beer Guide. In 1982 he produced a multi-page report on the microbrewery boom cheering on the then 100 or so new breweries that had flowered since the mid-1970s. The tone was triumphant with only one closure to report, though a profile of Bourne Valley Brewery run by James Lynch (former CAMRA chair turned brewer) and John Featherby highlighted some challenges:

Back at the brewery, they are drawing in their horns to weather the recession. ‘We have just withdrawn from supplying London (and the West Country) on a regular basis,’ said John Featherby. ‘We are restricting our trading area… to cut our transport costs.’

Featherby also admitted that the brewery hadn’t made any money in its three years of trading and said, ‘In fact, we would not set up a brewery now. We could not afford to.’

Then, throughout 1983, there were rumblings, such as an article that appeared in What’s Brewing in April that year headlined THE GREAT BEER CRASH. It reported on the collapse of a London-based distributor, Roger Berman’s B&W, taking with it the associated micro-brewery, Union. In December, Brian Glover was observing that Devon’s micro-brewery scene was thriving with five then operating in the county.

But it could soon turn sour if they crowd each other out… ‘It’s certainly getting tight in the free trade around here,’ admitted Paul Bigrig [of the Mill Brewery], ‘especially with the appearance of Summerskills and Bates.’ Already Swimbridge Brewery in North Devon has gone under this year.

Then, in February 1984, in another special supplement, Glover called it: SMALL BEER CRASH.

The expected ‘shakeout’ of new small breweries has finally arrived with 12 having closed since July [1983]… All were free trade brewers, most struggling to sell their beer without the protection of their own pubs… The only surprise is that so many survived for so long, given the harsh recession, stiff competition and dearth of genuine freehouses…

The most famous of the failed breweries was Penrhos, founded by Richard Boston and Monty Python star Terry Jones in 1977 and run by Martin Griffiths. (His computer brain didn’t work out.) Griffiths reckoned he and Jones had lost £70,000 (going on for a quarter of a million quid in today’s money) over the course of the brewery’s life.

Another brewer, Geoff Patton of Swimbridge in Devon, cited aggressive discounting by larger breweries. The owners of Swannells in Hertfordshire acknowledged that poor quality control and marketing had contributed to its failure. Tisbury fell when its sister pub chain, on which it relied for the bulk of its sales, went into receivership.

Brian Glover said, in conclusion, ‘The small brewery boom… looks to be over.’ His final prediction?

The future, it would seem, lies in the consolidation of the surviving free trade brewers; an expanding number of [brew pubs] — and increasing involvement in small-scale brewing by the major brewers… A few new independent free trade brewers will appear in the next couple of years. But sadly, they will almost certainly be outweighed by the number that give up the unequal struggle.

As it happened, the paltry c.100 micro-breweries of 1984 have become c.1,500 in 2016, which just goes to show how difficult it can be to predict anything.

4 thoughts on “The Shake Out, 1983-84”

  1. And 1983-84 was a time of economic expansion, so you can’t directly link the health of the small brewery sector to the wider economy.

    One factor that’s often been cited in the development of new breweries is a wave of redundancy cheques, of course.

    This was also the time when CAMRA membership reached its nadir.

  2. The main reason for the failure of the breweries at the time would appear to be the lack of outlets particularly premises in major urban areas which were not tied either by ownership or loan tie to other producers. From my experience at the time free or untied premises were more common in rural areas which may explain why producers such as Penrhos were set up in remote rural areas,the disadvantage of such a location was increased transport costs and possible difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. Today the situation has changed,in particular changes to licensing legislation have made it considerably easier to obtain premises licences,allowing new entrants a route into the market eg Whetherspoons and the increased variety of packaging options available,eg keg and can have resulted in brewers without their own outlets having a considerably greater potential market for their products. For this reason,I do not believe that breweries will fail for the same reasons as before,however those brewers concentrating on cask beer will probably find that their market is under pressure as it depends solely on the on trade.

  3. I have been in the industry since that time, as a publican and brewer and have recently sold my 14 years established business as the market is well saturated, maybe peaked.
    It strikes me that craft beer (hate that term) is now attracting business opportunists, and the product is merely a commodity, and when it starts to fizzle out, they will move on and latch on to another trend.
    Of course I’m not saying that the Brewers of thirty years ago weren’t businessmen, but they were an eclectic mix of fruitcake and characters, not many had a business plan !
    There are internet trade articles coming from the US which report a decline in the craft beer market. One interesting comment was that there was consumer confusion due to the number of brands and styles available.
    There has also been an increase in corporate takeovers by the big names, well if that isn’t a sign of peaking, I don’t know what is.
    Regarding choice, I would rather go back to the brews of around 1990, there were fewer choices but better quality. I am not impressed with many of the beers today, it’s a bit like free view TV, a huge choice of mostly rubbish !
    Also, there seems to be ‘hop wars’ going on, brewers competing to find the most acidic throat ripping over hopped unbalanced beers possible.

    Now I see the multiple operators rebranding pubs as craft beer houses (with Doom Bar on sale of course ) I’ve had enough, sell up while at the top, there may be breweries for sale for nowt in the next year or two.

    Now, where did I put my glass of Rioja…….

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