More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links

Illustration: dark star -- SOLD

Having reacted in the immediate aftermath of the news that Fuller’s has acquired Dark Star we’ve been thinking and talking about it since, and seeking additional input.

First, we asked on Twitter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Predictably, lots of people wanted a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we deliberately omitted because we were after a decisive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the optimistic side — Dark Star seemed in the doldrums to us and this is more likely to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 people who did feel strongly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:

In the meantime some concrete information has emerged. For the Morning Advertiser James Beeson interviewed Dark Star MD James Cuthbertson who said:

“There will be some overlap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redundancies, which we will hope to keep to a minimum. However, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the overriding point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat people.”

There have also been substantial reflective pieces from Pete Brown, who is typically keyed into the emotional aspect of the story:

When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.

And Roger Protz, who is generally critical of takeovers and sensitive to corporate skullduggery, but here says:

The success of the craft beer sector is creating a number of acquisitions…. These takeovers have been driven to a large extent by rapidly declining sales of global lager brands and old-fashioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the other hand is not a global brewer and its beer sales are not in decline. But working with Dark Star and creating collaboration beers with Moor Beer of Bristol and Marble has shown the kudos that can be gained by identifying with a craft sector that has such appeal to younger and discriminating drinkers.

His summary of the background to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is helpful, too: an uninterested family, a decrepit brewery, and little choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lingering local resentment all the same.

* * *

Some people seem puzzled or even irritated at the focus on this story, especially those who don’t live in or anywhere near London and the Home Counties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star — it’s a case study in what might happen elsewhere in the country.

If you want to play the prediction game perhaps start by looking for a brewery with a convincing modern craft beer identity and high profile, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the example at hand, lost its superstar head brewer, Mark Tranter, in 2013, after which its beer was widely perceived as having dipped in quality. It also seemed to be struggling to maintain its relevance in a world of Cloudwaters and BrewDogs, always one rebrand behind the zeitgeist.

Or, to put all that another way, breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.

Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have studied their British beer history, or happen to have lived through it, will perhaps wonder if this is Fuller’s moving into Whitbread territory. Back in the post-war period Whitbread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of smaller breweries until they had become a national operation — the precursor to the rather faceless international brewing firms we know today.

The difference, it seems to us, is that back then (to generalise very broadly) Whitbread were after pubs, not brands. They wanted outlets for their own products — a hundred pubs here, a hundred pubs there — but did away with local brands and closed down local breweries, which maximised the impact of national advertising campaigns and kept things simple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pressure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, owning a portfolio of smaller breweries or at least brewery names is a great way of doing so while controlling margins and simplifying supply chains. Some people call this ‘the illusion of choice’ which is accurate if you define choice as the ability to decide where your money ends up. But often it really is choice, at least in terms of styles and profiles, to a degree. Better than nothing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried selling its own craft brands, with some success, but Dark Star really is something different. Fuller’s has golden ales and summer ales but no Hophead of its own and we imagine that’s the specific beer this deal has been done to secure. (Perhaps based on sales figures from The Harp, a central London freehouse acquired by Fuller’s long-regarded as an unofficial town tap for the Sussex brewery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are neither here nor there — probably more trouble than they’re worth — and Fuller’s is not Whitbread circa 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to general outrage, and we’d be very surprised if production of Dark Star beers moves to west London anytime in the next decade, given increased interest in provenance and transparency among consumers.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 December 2017: Brixton, Walkabout, TransPennine Trains

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from sexist beer branding to chronic Oztalgia.

First, that brewery takeover news. Well, we say ‘takeover’ but in fact Heineken has actually acquired a non-controlling (49 per cent) stake in south London’s Brixton Brewery. With this, Camden Town and London Fields in mind, it begins to seem that the key to luring in investment from Big Beer is a good neighbourhood-specific brand name. We can certainly imagine Brixton Craft Lager competing for bar-space with Camden Hells in the near future. The general reaction seems to be neutral, shading positive — ‘good for them’ — but this slam from Yes! Ale reflects the counterview: “You may as well be pissin’ straight into the fermenter, Moneybags.”

Meanwhile, Spanish firm Mahou San Miguel has acquired a 30 per cent stake in Avery, a brewery in Colorado, while AB-InBev has acquired Australian upstarts Pirate Life lock, stock and (ahem) barrel. December is a busy time for this kind of activity every year now, it seems, perhaps for as obvious a reason as everyone scrambling to wrap up negotiations before the Christmas lull.

One final bit of reading on this: Richard Taylor of BrewDog writing at the BeerCast suggests that the Pirate Life story might signal how this will play out in future takeovers, with Big Beer winning over reluctant craft brewers with the offer of a separate smaller brewery to play around on making sour beers or whatever. “Hey guys, it’s fine”, he imagines the Big Beer negotiators saying. “We’ll build a new brewery for your core stuff and push it to market. You can keep the old kit and go wild on it. Brew what you like! Go for IT! HIGH FIVE. NOW. HIGH FIVE US LIKE A DUDE. RADICAL!’”

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 December 2017: Brixton, Walkabout, TransPennine Trains”

QUICK ONE: The Problem is Hypocrisy

Illustration: a pint of beer in chalk on a blackboard.

Selling your brewery for fabulous amounts of money to a big multinational isn’t a problem — it’s doing so when you’ve made capital from being opposed to just that kind of thing.

If you had made a point of saying along the way, ‘We would never rule out selling to someone like AB-InBev — we have no beef with Big Beer,’ then it’s unlikely anyone would get annoyed when you did so.

So why didn’t you do that?

It must have been at least partly because you believed you’d gain less publicity and adulation, and sell less beer.

You might have been right to think that, but we suspect not: the other way, you’d gain marks for honesty, and pick up the kind of fans for whom beer isn’t so pungent with politics.

Either way, if you insist independence is important when it benefits you but then decide people who care about it are silly and immature when your situation changes, expect them to be annoyed.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 May 2017: Malt, Monkeys and the Daily Mail

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the last week in the world of pubs and beer, from drunken monkeys to the soap opera of brewery takeovers.

The mayor with his homebrew.

Lars Marius Garshol found himself in a town ‘Where the Mayor Makes His Own Malt’:

When Martin, Amund, and I were invited to visit Roar to explore the local beer style stjørdalsøl, Roar figured that he might as well make use of the three visiting beer  ‘experts,’ and have us do a set of talks for the local home brewing association… They’d set it up as a rather grand affair, and the mayor himself came by to open the evening. I was a bit surprised by this, until the mayor started talking. He said a few words about the cultural importance of the local brewing, and then added that ‘Usually, when I do something like this I give the organizers flowers. But in this case I thought beer would be more suitable.’ At which point he took out a bottle and handed it to the chairman of the brewer’s association. It turned out that the mayor is also a farmhouse brewer, and since this is Stjørdal, he of course makes his own malts, too.


Drunk monkeys.
Painting by David Teniers (1610-1690) via Res Obscura.

For Res Obscura Benjamin Breen looks into why so many 17th Century paintings feature drunk monkeys:

The most simple answer is that these paintings are the early modern version of searching for “dog who thinks he’s a human” on YouTube. They’re funny. Paintings of intoxicated monkeys were actually a sub-set of a larger genre of paintings known as Singerie, which poked fun at occupations ranging from drunkard to painter by portraying the participants as frivolous simians… [But] I think that what we’re missing when we simply see these as a form of social satire is that these are also paintings about addiction.

(Via @intoxproject)


The bar with stools and drinkers.

Jessica Mason, AKA The Drinks Maven, has written a passionate argument for choosing pubs over restaurants:

Great atmospheres are created with our ears as much as our other senses. Conversation and laughter emit from secluded seats, across bars and around rickety tables. Why is this? The simplicity of the everyday – the nicks and scratches and bare wood – isn’t trying to be more or any better. As such, more honest and heartfelt and open conversations are debated around pub tables… Informality and a certain lack of posturing put people at ease. If you want to hear the truth from someone, talk to them in the pub. The point they put their drink down and say: ‘Look, the truth is…’ you’ve figuratively helped them remove their armour.


Andy reads the Daily Mail in Chorleywood.

The Ultimate London Pub Crawl this week reached Chorleywood at the Hertfordshire end of the tube network:

We were regaling the bar staff about our quest to explore all 270 London tube stations when a bystander sauntered over:

‘I used to do a similar thing, but on the national rail network,’ he boasted nonchalantly.

We made noises of the noncommittal variety, half impressed and half mistrustful.

‘Yeah, me and the lads would stick a pin in the rail map on a Friday night and go out boozing all weekend. Glasgow was a great one – I had to buy myself some new clothes there mind you.’

Anton Dreher.

Since working on Gambrinus Waltz we’ve been itching to taste an authentic recreation of a 19th century Vienna beer — what were they really like? Now Andreas Krenmair, who is working on a book about homebrewing historic styles, has some new information from close to the source:

I visited the Schultze-Berndt library located at VLB and curated by the Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Brauwesens… [where] I stumbled upon a Festschrift regarding 100 years of brewing Vienna lager, aptly named ‘Schwechater Lager’. While not having that much content, it still had some bits and pieces that gave away some information, including the beautiful water colour illustrations… One image in particular contained something very interesting: pictures of huge stacks of hop bales… These hop bales clearly show the marking ‘SAAZ’.


Brewery Takeover News

It’s been a busy week in the US: AB-InBev swooped in to acquire Wicked Weed of North Carolina. Good Beer Hunting partners with AB-InBev on various projects and takes a broadly positive line to such acquisitions these days but its story covers the key points well: Wicked Weed is a niche buy for AB; fans have reacted with particular irritation to this one; and other breweries are responding in various ways, including withdrawing from Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium Festival.

Then the following day Heineken picked up the part of Lagunitas it didn’t already own. This story was covered at Brewbound which generally takes an editorial line which seems to us moderately critical of big beer and AB-InBev in particular. Its editor seems to spend quite a bit of time bickering about disclosure and propriety with Good Beer Hunting on Twitter, too.

Remember, news isn’t neutral.


Brewery Takeover Commentary

Jeff Alworth at Beervana (sceptical of big beer, pro indie, but not a screaming fundamentalist) is troubled by the way another AB-InBev acquisition, Ten Barrel, seems to be obfuscating its connection with the global giant:

Two Saturdays hence (May 13), AB InBev is hosting a massively expensive party in Bend. They’re promoting it the way only one of the largest companies in the world can–with prizes, a big music lineup (including De La Soul!), and the kind of overheated marketing gloss the finest agencies supply. The occasion celebrates the founding of a brewery AB InBev purchased in 2014. Shockingly enough, this is not the way they’re talking about it… Indeed, the entire event is an exercise in disguising this detail.

Counterpoint: in no other sector would we expect a subsidiary to loudly state the name of their parent company in marketing material, says Good Beer Hunting on Twitter.

But we’re with Jeff: a brand built primarily on the value of Independence is being dishonest, even exploitative of consumers, if it doesn’t actively disclose its change in status for at least a few years after acquisition.


Psst! Whispering men.

Meanwhile, Draft magazine has a bit of a coup, convincing a senior employee at a brewery taken over by AB-InBev to discuss what the experience is like:

There’s more paperwork and bureaucracy to work through now, but not a lot more. I’ve worked in this industry for a while, and the biggest thing I learned during that time is how jaw-droppingly loosey-goosey most breweries are and how little structure there is with most craft breweries. You’d be surprised how many craft breweries don’t even know their real margins. It’s just basic business things. So to answer your question about whether there’s more bureaucracy and oversight now, I’d say no more than your average company; it’s just that most breweries have so little.

The only problem with this anonymous account is that it’s exactly the kind of thing we’d authorise if we worked in PR for AB — broadly upbeat with the only negatives, like the one above, actually being backhanded boasts.

But maybe this is really how it is and all this intrigue is just making us paranoid.


And, finally, this seems like a good advertisement for the Tour de Geuze which is underway in Belgium at this very moment: