There’s been an outbreak of fretting about the sheer number of breweries in operation in the UK, and people in the industry speak to us in ominous tones of a ‘great shake out’ being due. Summary: she cannae take much more, Captain! She’s breaking apart!
British ‘alternative’ beer has been an aggressively competitive climate for decades, though, and it is only natural for there to be slightly more breweries in operation that the market can support. Breweries will come (‘Surely there’s room for a little one?’) and go.
Of those ninety-five small breweries open in 1981, only eighteen were still in business in 2001. However, a survival rate of one in five over twenty years compares very well with most small business sectors, where the average age of a new company when it dies is said to be just four years.
Martyn Cornell, Beer: the story of the pint, 2003.
Taking as given that they make beer which at least some people like, what seem to us to have been successful brewing businesses tend, we think, to do one or more of the following.
- Identify a new market and get in first, rather than waiting for others to test the water. For example, Sean Franklin’s Rooster’s (still going, under new management, after twenty years) was on the forefront of the trend for hop-aromatic golden ales; and David Bruce kickstarted a brewpub craze from 1979, despite everyone telling him there was no demand.
- Build a successful brand and put it at the centre of their business. Hopback (26 years and counting) have Summer Lightning; Thornbridge (approaching their first decade) have Jaipur; Butcombe (founded 1978) have their flagship bitter.
- Invest constantly, often using borrowed money or government grants. Bottling and canning lines, for example, though expensive to install, generate income and open up new markets. (PR bonus: their expansion becomes a story in its own right, generating news coverage.)
- Have the nerve to charge a premium. People really will pay more for something new and exciting, and they really are daft enough to believe that if it costs more, it might be better.
- Own a pub, or at least have an idea where their beer will sell. It’s no good starting a brewery and having your fingers crossed that you’ll find an outlet in a landscape dominated by pubcos and regional brewers.
- Hire star players. Magic Rock, for example, hit the ground running partly because Stuart Ross had built a name for himself at the Crown Brewery.
- Demonstrate a strong, distinctive ‘personality’. Other companies might be cheaper, or imitate the style, but customers are drawn to sincerity, individuality and originality.
- Behave with a certain arrogance. Once they’ve decided on a course, they stick to it, ignoring critics and pressure groups. (Meantime spring to mind here.)
- Or, alternatively, respond to the market. If their beer isn’t selling, they find out why and fix it. If they can do so convincingly (without looking like Dad in a backwards baseball cap) they reinvent themselves for each new era. (Crouch Vale, 32 years old, might be a good example of the latter, as might Moor.)
- Bottle and/or keg beer for export. For example, St Peter’s — hardly our favourite brewery — has been around for seventeen years, the vast majority of its beer being sold overseas. Relying on one market, e.g. cask ale in pubs, is very risky.
Have we missed anything, or even completely missed the point? Let us know what you think, especially if you’re a business person or brewer.
Here’s what we said on the subject of the boom in January. We await this year’s figures on new brewery openings with interest.