The Shake Out, 1983–84

HEADLINE: 'Small Beer Crash'

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.

4 thoughts on “The Shake Out, 1983–84”

  1. And 1983–84 was a time of eco­nom­ic expan­sion, so you can’t direct­ly link the health of the small brew­ery sec­tor to the wider econ­o­my.

    One fac­tor that’s often been cit­ed in the devel­op­ment of new brew­eries is a wave of redun­dan­cy cheques, of course.

    This was also the time when CAMRA mem­ber­ship reached its nadir.

  2. The main rea­son for the fail­ure of the brew­eries at the time would appear to be the lack of out­lets par­tic­u­lar­ly premis­es in major urban areas which were not tied either by own­er­ship or loan tie to oth­er pro­duc­ers. From my expe­ri­ence at the time free or untied premis­es were more com­mon in rur­al areas which may explain why pro­duc­ers such as Pen­rhos were set up in remote rur­al areas,the dis­ad­van­tage of such a loca­tion was increased trans­port costs and pos­si­ble dif­fi­cul­ties in recruit­ing and retain­ing staff. Today the sit­u­a­tion has changed,in par­tic­u­lar changes to licens­ing leg­is­la­tion have made it con­sid­er­ably eas­i­er to obtain premis­es licences,allowing new entrants a route into the mar­ket eg Whether­spoons and the increased vari­ety of pack­ag­ing options available,eg keg and can have result­ed in brew­ers with­out their own out­lets hav­ing a con­sid­er­ably greater poten­tial mar­ket for their prod­ucts. For this reason,I do not believe that brew­eries will fail for the same rea­sons as before,however those brew­ers con­cen­trat­ing on cask beer will prob­a­bly find that their mar­ket is under pres­sure as it depends sole­ly on the on trade.

  3. I have been in the indus­try since that time, as a pub­li­can and brew­er and have recent­ly sold my 14 years estab­lished busi­ness as the mar­ket is well sat­u­rat­ed, maybe peaked.
    It strikes me that craft beer (hate that term) is now attract­ing busi­ness oppor­tunists, and the prod­uct is mere­ly a com­mod­i­ty, and when it starts to fiz­zle out, they will move on and latch on to anoth­er trend.
    Of course I’m not say­ing that the Brew­ers of thir­ty years ago weren’t busi­ness­men, but they were an eclec­tic mix of fruit­cake and char­ac­ters, not many had a busi­ness plan !
    There are inter­net trade arti­cles com­ing from the US which report a decline in the craft beer mar­ket. One inter­est­ing com­ment was that there was con­sumer con­fu­sion due to the num­ber of brands and styles avail­able.
    There has also been an increase in cor­po­rate takeovers by the big names, well if that isn’t a sign of peak­ing, I don’t know what is.
    Regard­ing choice, I would rather go back to the brews of around 1990, there were few­er choic­es but bet­ter qual­i­ty. I am not impressed with many of the beers today, it’s a bit like free view TV, a huge choice of most­ly rub­bish !
    Also, there seems to be ‘hop wars’ going on, brew­ers com­pet­ing to find the most acidic throat rip­ping over hopped unbal­anced beers pos­si­ble.

    Now I see the mul­ti­ple oper­a­tors rebrand­ing pubs as craft beer hous­es (with Doom Bar on sale of course ) I’ve had enough, sell up while at the top, there may be brew­eries for sale for nowt in the next year or two.

    Now, where did I put my glass of Rio­ja.……

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