Gauging the Mood of the British Beer Scene

Twitter polls are ‘garbage’ as we were repeatedly reminded throughout the US election but, still, this might tell us something:

Twitter poll screengrab (link above).

Despite the pervading sense of gloom, perhaps the result of ennui on the part of hyper-vocal, deep-insiders who spend too much time thinking about all this stuff, the majority of the 502 respondents don’t seem to think a disaster is looming.

Now, it is worth considering the following points:

  1. Our followers are into beer which might translate into being blindly positive about its fortunes. Although, equally, it probably means they’re more aware of the bad news too.
  2. Some people might think a shake-out which sees, say, 10 per cent of breweries cease trading is good news. Equally, some people might feel pessimistic precisely because they think brewery numbers are going to continue increasing.
  3. The 8 per cent who think it’s about to go pear-shaped nonetheless represent a good old chunk. Inside information, or just miserable devils? We wish we’d done this last year, and will definitely do it next year, to monitor the change.
  4. Some of the reasons people gave for being anxious are interesting and, again, subjective: by far the most common concern is that American-influenced styles are pushing out traditional British ones; others were concerned about pubs which remain in trouble despite the brewery boom.
  5. Historian David Turner doesn’t think we’ll get a shake-out and instead predicts a plateau.

For our part, that poll and the rest of this week’s discussion is enough for now to confirm our gut feeling that, though 2017 is going to be bumpier than 2016, it’s not going to see some kind of beerpocalypse.

Breweries and bars will close, certainly, and we’ll keep logging those events, but we also know that plenty of new ones are on the way.

There might be some structural changes — perhaps further polarising of the market, for example — but that won’t look like a collapse.

We’d certainly be somewhat surprised if the launch of the Good Beer Guide in the autumn isn’t accompanied by news of a further rise in the overall number of breweries, for better or worse.

The Shake Out, 1983-84

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.

Keeping a List, Checking it Twice

Various bits of beer news in the last few months have prompted a fresh round of declarations that the good times are over, the hangover is coming, the ‘shake out’ is due.

It’s certainly true that after a decade when it felt like the news was almost entirely good — new bars, new breweries, more beer styles! — there has been a bit of a dip in levels of excitement.

Our gut feeling is that it’s overly pessimistic to assume everything is about to come crashing down and that the gloominess is to some extent personal: people are exhausted and bored. (See also: the death of beer blogging.)

Having said that, it is also likely that some ventures commenced in the white heat of 2010-11 are reaching their natural end. That is to say, they’ve either succeeded, in which case they’ve ceased to be new and exciting, have settled into a groove, or perhaps even been sold on; or they’ve folded because the people behind them have run out of money and/or steam, or just want to try their hands at something else.

Our contribution to the collective fretting, which we hope will provide a picture of what’s going on and help maintain perspective, is a table of good and bad news which we hereby commit to keeping up to date throughout the next year.

Please do get in touch if there are things you think need to be recorded on either side — specialist bars opening or closing, breweries folding, and so on. We’re especially interested in total brewery numbers for Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester, if anyone has those at hand.

So far, a week into January 2017, it doesn’t look so bad. But let’s see.