Beer history Generalisations about beer culture

Brewery Numbers Aren’t Everything


It seems that, between 1980 and 1983, around a hundred new breweries opened in Britain — about as many again as there were in total ten years earlier. Last year, as you’ll have heard repeated over and over, for the first time in a century, there were more than a thousand breweries operating across the UK. London alone now has almost fifty.

But how excited should we be about those numbers?

On the one hand, many small breweries, each brewing a range of beers, means lots of choice for consumers. There are multiple examples of the most obscure varieties of beer on the market — yes, but which British-brewed Berliner Weisse would madam like?

But, on the other hand, some of these breweries are so small, and their beer has so few outlets, that we’re not even sure they really exist in any meaningful sense.

Looking in more detail at the early eighties brewing boom, which was greeted with breathless excitement by beer enthusiasts desperate to believe, it’s notable how many breweries were literally just a bloke with a bucket in his kitchen, or off-the-shelf ‘brewpubs’ jumping on the Firkin bandwagon. Even some apparently bigger breweries were actually small ones occupying corners of grand buildings. Easy come, easy go.

Are there figures for the total number of different beers in regular production knocking about somewhere? Or the number of people employed in the brewing industry? One really interesting figure, following on from this discussion, would be how many breweries are making any kind of profit.

18 replies on “Brewery Numbers Aren’t Everything”

People have been saying for a few years now that the bubble must surely burst and a shakeout ensue, but it hasn’t happened yet. As you say, many will just essentially be hobby projects, or be attached to a pub where they don’t really need to be viable in their own right. Maybe a test of how many are genuine commercial businesses is how many have at least one paid employee apart from the proprietor.

I think the point might be that there are more big small breweries than ever too. Of course many small ones don’t have wide distribution, but they do make a contribution. It may be part time as a lot are and it may be they don’t make much money, but enough to keep it either worthwhile or interesting for them and (sometimes) for us.

Even if you had the numbers you seek, it would just pose a different set of questions. But that’s your bag of course.

PS. I am not sure that I agree that the rise in brewery numbers in the early 80s was met with “breathless excitement”. Then there was little opportunity to sample them because of the tie. So for most of us, we were only excited when we came across it. Rather like craft though, it wasn’t that likely. And just as likely to be disappointing.

Re: breathless excitement, we were thinking particularly about Brian Glover’s New Beer Guide and What’s Brewing at the time, both of which announced each new brewery as a blow to the Big Six. (Though, interestingly, Michael Hardman slagged one brewpub off quite badly in WB… might post about that.)

On numbers, I suppose what’s striking is the tendency to compare the c.1000 we have now with the c.1000 we had just before World War I, at which time many were decently-sized industrial concerns serving maybe one town and a few nearby villages. (I think — sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.)

A lot of the breweries were very small. Many pub breweries didn’t even brew enough beer for their pub and bought in supplies.

Here’s a breakdown (courtesy of 1928 Brewers’ Almanack, page 118):

publican brewers 2,357
<1,000 barrels 2,536
1,000 – 10,000 580
10,000 – 20,000 197
20,000 – 100,000 280
100,000 – 500,000 46
total 5,996

Slight mistake in those numbers – the publican brewers shouldn’t be added to the total as they’re already included in the other categories. And I forgot breweries over 500,00.

500,000 8
total 3,647

I can’t say how excited we should be about the apparent explosion in brewing for commercial purposes, shall we say. But the status quo we have at the moment is very similar to what existed throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries and probably up until WW2. Brewpubs were the norm and very often it was a woman with a bucket behind the distinctive regional brews of a place. There are loads of historical records relating to brewing and pubs and so when you do get figures a retrospective might be interesting? We are, as it were, as we were, minus the mega breweries and parent companies… Here in Cornwall Redruth Brewery held sway until relatively recently. I’m shortly going to be working with Cornwall Record Office and a local industrial society to digitise and put online (much of) their archive. Ironically the downfall of Redruth Brewery was the increase in local microbreweries and brewpubs and the diametrically opposite domination of the mass drinks market by megabreweries, they fell in between and failed.

Are the Redruth records available to view in hard copy somewhere at the moment? Would love to see them. It sounds as if they had the same problem as Cain’s.

Ha ha, no, sorry, *I* should have been clearer — just wasn’t sure if they were publicly accessible. Thanks for the additional info.

It’s very similar to what is happening here, and in other countries.
I believe that, provided they are well managed and offer a decent product, most of these new breweries hare here to stay, or at least those who make most of their money through direct sales. There is a growing number of people who are rediscovering “local”, and certainly not only in beer, they’ve got tired of the “one-size-fits-all” of the mass market and want something with a more human face, may be not as a staple, but at least as an alternative to what they consume every day.

In addition, the brewpub, besides not having to compete for shelf space or pumps, has the advantage of offering something more than beer. In fact, I believe that in many cases, the quality of the restaurant/pub part of the business is every bit as important as the quality of the beers, if not more.

Salutary point that the pre-WW II/consolidation structure of British brewing was different than the current proliferation of mostly very small breweries dotted through the country. However, if we step further back, to the pre-industrial picture of British brewing, the analogy to the modern scene becomes closer even down to the image of the man with the bucket since home- and estate-brewing and the countless Blue Anchor-type operations were rather domestic in nature. It’s all really come back full circle except that even very small breweries can sometimes send their beers out further than in the oldest days. We have a pub in Toronto which specializes in beers from very small Quebec breweries and brewpubs for example (350 miles distance).

Numbers can be deceptive in the sense of disproportionate distribution of the modern breweries. I doubt they are spread out/concentrated commensurate to the population distribution/density although I wonder if anyone has essayed a map of the current structure.


Gary — we got about halfway through putting the details of all the breweries that have opened since 1965 into a spreadsheet so we could do things like graph them over time or map them. Hopefully we’ll get chance to finish that at some point over the summer.

Re: existing in a meaningful way.

Hear hear. It’s like blogs. You have opened an account and posted your “hello world” entry. But if I bookmark you, will you still be giving me regular content a month from now? A year?

Dunno how you arbitrate these things, but I am pretty sanguine about ignoring breweries until I think they’re more than just a vanity project.

True, but my point is an existential, not financial, one. I’m not trying to diminish small breweries’ effort at start-up, just the degree to which the wider world needs to immediately recognize them as members in full standing.

Comments are closed.