Beer history Blogging and writing

Pinning down the Big Six

Window with the Bass logo, Kennington, South London.

We’ve been grappling with a problem this weekend: commentary on the British beer industry makes frequent reference to the Big Six, a set of colossal brewing companies emerging from the takeover mania of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Sometimes, though, it’s the Big Five, the Big Seven, or even the Big Eight; and the companies making up the Big Six in 1960 merge with others, grow and change names, which makes it hard to keep track.

In trying to tell a story, this is a pain.

Should we explain every name change as it happens, possibly confusing the reader and slowing down the narrative? Rely on footnotes? Or, as we’ve seen people do when writing about, say, the Royal Air Force, or Archibald ‘Cary Grant’ Leach, refer to them throughout by one name for the sake of clarity at the expense of accuracy? (With an explanatory note, of course.) We’re inclined towards the latter approach, but still thinking.

Anyway, for your information, in the oh-so-2002 Schott’s Miscellany style, here’s our best attempt to explain the Big Six.

UPDATED: Tandleman highlighted that we’d picked a bad source for our 1960 list, so we’ve found a better one from 1959 and changed the first section below.

UPDATED AGAIN: based on Martyn’s suggestions below. (We’ll also try to identify newspaper sources for each of the mergers/changes.)

The Big Six in 1959#
Ind Coope and Taylor Walker, Watney Mann, Courage and Barclay, Bass Ratcliffe Gretton, Whitbread, Scottish Brewers.
Brewery mergers/takeovers 1960-67
Courage Barclay + Simonds = Courage Barclay & Simonds (1960)
Scottish Brewers + Newcastle Breweries = Scottish and Newcastle (1960)
Bass + Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Mitchells & Butlers (1961)
Ind Coope/Taylor Walker + Ansells+Tetley Walker = Ind Coope Tetley Ansell (1961)
Ind Coope Tetley Ansell = Allied Breweries (1963)
Charrington United + Bass Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Charrington (1967)
The Big Six in 1967##
Bass Charrington, Allied Breweries, Whitbread, Watney Mann, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage Barclay & Simonds.
Brewery mergers/takeovers/name changes after 1967
Courage Barclay & Simonds = Courage (1970)
Watney Mann + Truman Hanbury & Buxton (owned by Grand Metropolitan Hotels) = Watney Mann & Truman (part of Grand Metropolitan) (1973)
Allied + J. Lyons = Allied Lyons (1978)
Bass Charrington = Bass (1983)
The Big Six in 1989###
Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Scottish & Newcastle, Whitbread.
The Big Seven
As above, but with Guinness.
  • # ‘Towards Larger Units in the Brewery Trade’, The Times, 19 February 1960, p.17. ‘What the Brewery Merger Means’, The Financial Times, 4 June 1959, p.11.
  • ## Beer: a report on the supply of beer, Monopolies Commission, 1969, table IV, p.5.
  • ### The Suppply of Beer, Monopolies and Mergers Commission, March 1989, Appendix 2.3, p.238.

25 replies on “Pinning down the Big Six”

At one point CAMRA tried to add Greenalls to make a “big eight” but, while they may have had as many tied pubs as S & N, they were way behind in terms of beer production. It’s also interesting (and I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land) how little now remains of a once powerful company. It’s almost as if it never existed.

The four founders seem to have particularly hated Greenall’s — wonder if that influenced the later push to include them amongst the ‘bad guys’? We came across a few mid-1980s CAMRA newsletters which certainly did include them in a ‘Big X’ list.

Well, taking over Simpkiss and pouring the last brew down the drain, and demolishing Tommy Duck’s in Manchester overnight without planning permission, were pretty nasty things to do.

And the beer improved once they closed their own brewery and had it brewed by Tetley’s 😮

Tandleman — thanks — we’ll have a dig for a source (the FT will have some stats) and update.

Steve — we should probably have kept going. Maybe we’ll bring it up to date in a future revision.

Inevitably some feckin’ pedant (ie me) is going to come along and say: “It’s a bit more complicated than that”.

Ind Coope Tetley Ansell Ltd was set up in June 1961, but didn’t change its name to Allied Breweries until March or April 1963.

Two important mergers on the way to Bass Charrington were those between Bass and Mitchells & Butlers of Birmingham in 1961 to make Bass Mitchells & Butlers, and Charrington and the largely Northern and Scottish-based United Breweries (which was the concern set up by the Canadian EP “Eddie” Taylor to promote his Carling’s Black Label [sic – and sick] lager) to make Charrington United in 1962. Thus the merger of 1967 was between the two companies Charrington United and Bass Mitchells & Butlers.

The hotel company Grand Metropolitan acquired Truman Hanbury & Buxton in 1971 after a tremendous battle with Watney Mann, and then Grand Met took Watney’s over as well, in 1972, merging the two in 1973 as Watney Mann and Truman, which was the brewing division of Grand Metropolitan.

Your new look is very nice, but the “enter a website” space in the comments section doesn’t seem to like urls without “www” in them – so very 2005.

Any thoughts on how to handle this without disrupting the narrative?

PS. New look!?

Um – yeah, don’t know what happened, but your blog looked completely different the last time I came to it 40 minutes ago, and has now reverted back to its usual style … [cue spooky X-files type music, please]

The first Big Six seems to include Guinness – I’m assuming this is a typo, not a company called “Guinness, Courage and Barclay” (although nothing would surprise me, anything before about 1969 is Here Be Dragons for me).

Yep, typo. Thanks. (That’s the correct place for Guinness in the running order, based on net assets, but people tended not to include Guinness in the Big Six because, we think, they had no tied houses.)

1989 is nice and simple and thats when we had the MMC . Has Guinness ever owned pubs in this country?
I think Judge Dread also had a Big 6 , 7 and 8 also

That’s an impressive degree of stability over 30 years – no wonder people thought that Something must be Done. Bit of a shame that Something turned out to be the Beer Orders.

Which is helpful for our purposes — a constant strand of ‘DNA’ running through most companies from 1963 until the 1990s makes it a little easier to write about them.

Beer orders were a bit of a mess but companies like Bass saw it as a big restriction in that they had to sell pubs and not expand which lead them to sell the breweries and pubs completely. Although not a fan of Punch etc it did lead to more different beers being available now, if Bass and Whitbread etc still had a massive estate where would all the micro breweries sell their beer?

I think we would still have seen a large-scale sell-off of the lower-end pubs by the Big Six, and also a growth of “Tap & Spile” type alehouse concepts. It’s even possible that one or more might have completely spilt their brewing and pub owning arms. If it’s no longer possible for your pubs to mostly sell your own products, then the synergy between the two starts to disappear.

Interesting that there is a little bit of nostalgia in some quarters towards the Big Six in regards to how they ran the intergrated brewing/pub model.

Oh, indeed: that’s because Punch and Enterprise are basically about income streams, and the securitisation thereof, where the two most important income streams are rent, and beer bought cheap (from the brewer) and sold (to the tenant) dear. The actual sustainability of any individual pub doesn’t matter much, because (1) you’re always churning your bottom-end pubs anyway, and using income from those sales and fresh loans based on securitising your income streams to buy more higher-end pubs, and (2) there’s a constant stream of suckers wanting to run their own pub you can use as cannon-fodder and not care too much what happens to them.

Now, that last bit started to become less true as the pubcos began to realise that constantly turning over tenants WAS costing them money. And the huge amounts of debt the pubcos built up on the back of over-optimistic forecasts of future income that took no regard of the possibility of a recession is now a serious problem.

But the Big Six were probably less oppressive towards their tenants in so far as they didn’t have the constant pressing need for income to service huge debts, and they recognised the need to maintain the credibility of their own brand names, which were, after all, on the outside of the pub as well as on the beers inside.

All the same, the integrated brewer/pub model was, economically, entirely artificial, a creation of the limited supply of on-trade outlets caused by the restrictions of the licensing system, and it fell apart remarkably quickly: within a couple of years. But another eight or 10 years further on, of course, and the originally large number of small pubcos had coalesced into two or three giants, whcih was an eventuality I can guarantee you nobody foresaw at the time of the Beer Orders. In fact I’ve just looked out a 4,500-word piece I wrote for the Morning Advertiser in 2004, to mark the 15th anniversary iof the beer orders, and here’s the father of the man who, by coincidence, has just been appointed to run Mitchells & Butler, the pubco remnant of Bass:

“Charles Darby, who was managing director of the Bass Taverns division at the Bass group, Britain’s biggest brewer and second-biggest pub owner in 1989, says today [ie 2004 – MC]: “I don’t think we ever envisaged a pub company growing that large – we thought maybe 2,000 pubs would be the limit – and I don’t think the politicians and the civil servants ever envisaged pub ownership being concentrated in so few hands again. All they wanted to do was to free the tie to the big brewers.”

“I think at Bass we were a fairly enlightened operator in relation to our tenants, we charged what we regarded as a fair rent, and the beer prices were by and large the same as for the free trade. Under the pubcos the whole purchasing scene changed dramatically, and the tenants lost out in a big way.”

And here’s Iain Low of Camra, who would have had a great deal to do with that organisation’s input into the MMC report that sparked the beer orders, again speaking in 2004:

“Naively, Loe says, Camra and other campaigners thought that the independent brewers would buy up chunks of newly-freed big brewers’ pubs. Those that did buy “big wodges”, however, such as Devenish, the former West Country brewer, “are no longer with us.” Above all, ‘nobody foresaw the switch from one complex monopoly to another, with the big brewers keeping their massive market share by offering deep discounts to big pub companies.'”

And here’s the conclusion to that piece from 2004:

“Could the rise of the pubcos have been stopped? Their triumph was actually predicted as long ago as 1950, by a right-wing economist called Arthur Seldon. He foresaw that the growing national brewers with heavily advertised brands would destroy the local monopoly of the small brewer, and place him under intense competitive pressure. ‘Such competition,’ Seldon wrote perceptively, ‘may lead some small brewers to sell out to the larger; others may attempt to make their houses profitable by turning themselves into … chains of “free” houses and selling the beer in greatest demand.’

“What would then happen, Seldon predicted, was that ‘Beer would then be supplied by a smaller number of specialist brewers who had disposed of their houses. The industry would then tend to separate into its two parts [pub owners and brewers] as the economic conditions in which the licensing system led to their integration faded away. The controversial “tied house” system might in time come to be recognised as a phase arising from the peculiar social and economic conditions of the 19th century.’

“So, Beer Orders or not, we would still be eventually looking at a situation where brewers with no pubs of their own supplied specialist pub companies. Maybe Lord Young need never have bothered. But at least he gave us wider choice, and the greatest number of operating breweries since Seldon made his predictions.”

And THAT, of course, is still true, with knobs on: when I wrote that piece there were only some 450 new breweries, a figure that has, I don’t need to remind you, more than doubled in eight years. Without the Beer Orders (which were scrapped in 2002), THAT would never have happened.

Interesting question – which provides more real choice for the consumer?

(a) 800 companies in the market, but the top 4 controlling 90%
(b) 400 companies in the market, but the top 4 controlling 75%
(c) 200 companies in the market, but the top 4 controlling 50%

[…] The Big Six all had the DNA of family breweries, but had lost their humanity. Regional brewers, on the other hand, were only ever a step away from becoming bad guys themselves. A little growth spurt; a takeover here and a closure there; a little too heavy a hand with the brewery tie and… well, look at Greene King, who were heroes in the 1970s, but now seem to be villains. […]

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