Feelings about Fuller’s

Fuller's Traditional Draught Beers (1970s beermat).

On Friday it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing wing of Fuller’s, subject to rubber-stamping, and we felt, frankly, gutted.

Jess, being a Lon­don­er, took it espe­cial­ly hard, though not, per­haps, as hard as the per­son who runs the Lon­don His­to­ri­ans Twit­ter account:

For Fuck's sake Fuller's. What's wrong with you?

With a few days to absorb and reflect we’re still feel­ing dis­ap­point­ed, despite com­men­tary from those who argue that Asahi aren’t the worst, that it’s a vote of con­fi­dence of cask, and so on. It still feels as if some­one you thought was a pal has betrayed you.

We know this is com­plete­ly irra­tional, busi­ness is gonna busi­ness, and so on and so forth, but we kid­ded our­selves (or were seduced into?) think­ing Fuller’s was a bit dif­fer­ent.

Of course the signs were all there (the lack of respect for Chiswick Bit­ter, for exam­ple, in favour of any­thing they could slap SESSION IPA on) but there were pos­i­tive indi­ca­tors too – sure­ly if they were going to sell up they’d have done it in 1963, or 1982, or… And why the inter­est in old recipes, in col­lab­o­ra­tions and so on, if there wasn’t some kind of sen­ti­men­tal attach­ment to the idea of the fam­i­ly busi­ness, her­itage and beer?

Odd­ly, when the news broke, we were eat­ing break­fast in a Fuller’s hotel-pub, and it seemed that the staff were as bewil­dered as us. As cus­tomers asked them for their views, they polite­ly mut­tered, “We don’t know much about it, I’m afraid.” They appeared to be read­ing news web­sites and social media to work out what was going on in the com­pa­ny they work for.

We made a point of going into a cou­ple more Fuller’s pubs over the course of the week­end, like mourn­ers clutch­ing at mem­o­ries of the recent­ly deceased. The beer tast­ed as good as ever – bet­ter, in fact, espe­cial­ly the stuff badged as Dark Star and Gale’s. Again, staff seemed on edge, in one case open­ly snap­ping at a beer bore who insist­ed on lec­tur­ing them about Asahi and how the takeover would ruin the beer.

It’s worth not­ing, by the way, that this was being talked about in sev­er­al pubs we vis­it­ed, includ­ing one non-Fuller’s pub, all of them, we’d have said, ‘out­side the bub­ble’. Peo­ple have heard of Fuller’s and were inter­est­ed in this news, which got cov­ered heav­i­ly in the main­stream press.

From a cou­ple of sources, it became clear the brew­ing staff were in shock, too. Head brew­er Georgina Young:

It was a long and very emotional day.

Here’s what one Fuller’s employ­ee said to us in a pri­vate mes­sage on Sat­ur­day:

I wish I knew more – we all found out yes­ter­day… It’s a ratio­nal busi­ness deci­sion but a dev­as­tat­ing one for beer. If we are not inde­pen­dent, what’s the point? What do we still rep­re­sent? All this stuff about brands and growth is pret­ty mean­ing­less to Fuller’s cus­tomers who will just be pissed off.

Maybe this will not dam­age the beer in the long run, who knows. We’re aware it’s a con­tro­ver­sial view but we’ve been real­ly enjoy­ing Young’s recent­ly, iron­i­cal­ly in lots of Young’s‑branded pubs where the aver­age punter prob­a­bly doesn’t realise the brands and the pubs part­ed com­pa­ny years ago. We’d cer­tain­ly be quite hap­py to walk into pubs and find cask ESB along­side Pil­sner Urquell. (And Fron­tier Craft Lager hurled into the skip of his­to­ry.)

What we do wor­ry about is those hid­den gems – the non-flag­ship back­street pubs in West Lon­don where grey paint and fake ghost signs have yet to take hold, and which still feel vague­ly like booz­ers. They’re either going to get trashed, or ditched, aren’t they?

And we wor­ry about whether this means Fuller’s, as a brew­ery, will stag­nate. What will moti­vate dis­en­fran­chised staff to try new things, or throw them­selves into reviv­ing old recipes? It’s been hard to find Lon­don Porter in any for­mat for a cou­ple of years – will this final­ly kill it off for good, along with poor old Chiswick? Look at Mean­time: the qual­i­ty or the core beer may be good, but the breadth of the offer is now dis­tress­ing­ly bland.

All that’s kept us going into Fuller’s flag­ship pla­s­ticky, faux-posh cor­po­rate pubs for the past decade is the beer. We go to the Old Fish Mar­ket in Bris­tol because we crave that dis­tinc­tive yeast char­ac­ter once in a while, not for the brand­ed cof­fee and gin expe­ri­ence in sur­round­ings that resem­ble a hotel lob­by.

We don’t know how this will turn out. We’re not going to boy­cott Fuller’s. We’re not ‘but­thurt’. But some­thing in the rela­tion­ship has changed, and we will prob­a­bly end up drink­ing less Fuller’s beer with­out think­ing much about it.

17 thoughts on “Feelings about Fuller’s”

  1. Very much enjoyed read­ing this, thanks for the time– and per­son­al feel­ings– you put into it. It will be inter­est­ing to see if more infor­ma­tion comes out lat­er on about the tim­ing of this.

    I’d read Adri­an Tier­ney-Jones’s offi­cial “Fuller’s” book and as a result (unusu­al­ly for me) had a fair­ly good knowl­edge of the entire his­to­ry of the com­pa­ny. Had real­ly hoped they would buck the trend and remain fam­i­ly-owned for­ev­er.

    I had noticed them mak­ing a push, with­in the last 5 or 10 ten years, to get Pride or ESB on the bar in cer­tain places over here in the States. Per­haps that in itself was a sign of their ambi­tions– maybe they hope to join that small club of UK beers that are reg­u­lar­ly seen all over the world, in the man­ner of Guin­ness. (Which in itself sounds a lit­tle sad, now that I type it!)

  2. Enjoyed the anony­mous quote from an employ­ee there, par­tic­u­lar­ly the bit about brands and growth being mean­ing­less to cus­tomers.

    I’m a rel­a­tive­ly new fan of Fullers, after years of ignor­ing it after too many dodgy pints of stale Pride in bland cor­po­rate pubs.

    What ignit­ed my new­found inter­est was sev­er­al fan­tas­tic pints of “Gales” HSB in var­i­ous pubs in Hamp­shire when I moved there about 3 years ago . I’m too young to have been aware of old Gales so when I read up on the his­to­ry I decid­ed to give Fullers anoth­er chance pure­ly on the qual­i­ty of the beer.

    Cou­ple that with the col­lab­o­ra­tion box to appeal to my “crafty” side, some pos­i­tive pub­lic­i­ty around the Head Brew­ers past and present, and many more fan­tas­tic pints in the Wyke­ham Arms in Win­ches­ter and I was com­plete­ly sold on Fullers being a brew­ery with more skill and integri­ty than I’d realised. Bot­tles of ESB quick­ly replaced tins of aver­age Amer­i­can style IPAs in my cup­board.

    Back in Lon­don now, my Fri­day evening post-work local is a new­ly refurbed, cor­po­rate-style Fullers hotel/pub, it’s sav­ing grace being tasty pints of Pride, which prob­a­bly tast­ed bet­ter know­ing that they were from a local, his­toric, inde­pen­dent brew­ery. I’ll no doubt still be sink­ing a fair few there, but from now on always with one eye on the qual­i­ty, and with an under­ly­ing dis­ap­point­ment that I’m just buy­ing into face­less big beer.

  3. Well writ­ten, strives for the bal­ance beer his­to­ri­ans view whilst also giv­ing the gutt lev­el reac­tion. I don’t see a lot of fullers up this end of the coun­try so easy to think of as anoth­er super­mar­ket brand . (Not helped by odd encoun­ters with it in bad­ly run chain pubs ) but they have been the best of the nation­al brands /old fam­i­ly region­al brew­ers . Think I’ll go now read blogs from when fullers bought dark star :a lot of the voic­es then offer­ing reas­sur­ance may now be revis­ing their views .

  4. In con­ver­sa­tion the word “but­thurt” usu­al­ly seems to con­vey “hel­lo, I’m a school bul­ly and you’re a los­er”, so I would­n’t say I’m ‘but­thurt’ either. I am gut­ted, though. Pride has­n’t been what it was for some time now, but ESB and 1845 are still great beers, and some of the Past Mas­ters have been ter­rif­ic – and that’s not to men­tion the Dark Star port­fo­lio, which must now be under even greater threat of ‘ratio­nal­i­sa­tion’. It’s pos­si­ble the new own­ers will make sure all of those beers keep com­ing, in bot­tle and cask, to the same stan­dards as before – but it does­n’t seem very like­ly (par­tic­u­lar­ly if the brew­ery was FST’s loss-mak­ing divi­sion, as one of those quotes sug­gests).

    For now I’ll prob­a­bly drink Fuller’s beers more often rather than less, on the basis that they’re under threat – but I’ll be keep­ing a clos­er eye than usu­al on how they taste.

  5. I’ve just had a pint of Asahi-owned PU this after­noon in Exeter and it was very good, so I hope that that this bodes well for the future espe­cial­ly when it comes to ESB, which I always have sev­er­al pints of at Padding­ton Sta­tion before head­ing west, but I can­not help being dis­ap­point­ed and sad­dened by the news, bit like when your favourite band’s singer kills him­self or your foot­ball club’s best play­er is sold, so I sup­pose it’s a sort of cul­tur­al thing — dur­ing my research for the book, sev­er­al years ago, it felt tak­en for grant­ed that inde­pen­dence was a thing, but you nev­er know (and I think if they do quit the Grif­fin then the pass will have well and tru­ly been tak­en). I have an attach­ment to some beers and their mak­ers, what they taste like, their his­to­ry, how they fit into the world and above all their place, their loca­tion and land­scape. After all, a brew­ery that has been going for 150 years has seen hun­dreds of peo­ple make deci­sions and take chances and fit into the world in the way they see fit — maybe this is why I say to myself, I wish this had not hap­pened.

  6. I know some brew­ers at Pil­sner Urquell and I can say Asahi did no do any harm to the beer, to the com­pa­ny and to the peo­ple. In the con­trary – they recent­ly launched a col­lab beer with one of the most promi­nent czech micro brew­ers, they keep releas­ing a sea­son­al spe­cial beer each month and they are much more craft­beer friend­ly com­pa­ny than heineken and abi for exam­ple. Don’t pan­ic. Asahi will prob­a­bly not ruin any­thing. They respect her­itage and they bought it the way peo­ple buy expen­sive watch­es.

  7. I think fullers have pos­si­bly under­es­ti­mat­ed the extent to which peo­ple vis­it their pubs because of their sta­tus as ‘lon­don’s brew­ery’ and the affec­tion, pride and loy­al­ty that engen­ders. The pubs them­selves are real­ly noth­ing spe­cial with­out that asso­ci­a­tion. Peo­ple could just as eas­i­ly go else­where, and prob­a­bly now will.

  8. I’m a huge fan of Fuller’s beers, and was dev­as­tat­ed when I heard the news. Then I read Mar­tyn Cor­nel­l’s pos­i­tive views on the sale and thought I’d over­re­act­ed. Then I dis­cov­ered Mar­tyn had­n’t actu­al­ly realised that the free­hold of the Chiswick site was part of the deal. Best way of secur­ing the site, and its her­itage? I thought of all the oth­er old brew­eries (and their beers of course ) that I’ve loved and lost over the years, Frem­lins, Brak­s­peare, Eldridge Pope, Gale’s, Mor­land, Mor­rells, Rid­ley’s, King & Barnes amongst oth­ers, and felt very sad again. Dif­fer­ent times and rea­sons for those takeovers I’m sure, but I sus­pect that Fuller’s his­toric spot by the Thames will be lux­u­ry flats in a few years time. Won­der how long before the last few go, when Har­vey’s, Hook Nor­ton, Adnams, St Austell, Wad­worth and the oth­ers sell off and close their brew­eries to con­cen­trate on their pub estates. But there, as Mar­tyn says, it’s busi­ness. There are some great lit­tle brew­eries set up in the last cou­ple of decades to keep me going I guess. But I shall miss my bot­tles of 1845, if and when that goes, that’s for sure.

  9. Regard­ing Peter’s points above: PU is a bit dif­fer­ent. It’s a sin­gle jew­el, not a crown of them. Mak­ing it the same as it always was was the goal of the pre­vi­ous own­er and now Asahi. Tankov­na, or the keller some tourists get to taste, are details, com­par­a­tive­ly. Urquell is Urquell (which is mar­velous, to be sure).

    Also, PU has been inter­na­tion­al since the lat­er 1800s. All Asahi needs to do is grow it fur­ther.

    Fuller is very dif­fer­ent, with a port­fo­lio that has evolved over a sim­i­lar peri­od result­ing from many deci­sions and choic­es made by British own­ers and man­agers liv­ing in Eng­land, large­ly for the U.K. mar­ket. ESB dates from 1971. It was select­ed with a huge fund of knowl­edge of what came before, it’s an evo­lu­tion, as the cur­rent range is yet retain­ing, except for Free­dom, the top fer­men­ta­tion tra­di­tion and empha­sis on cask dis­pense.

    With a for­eign own­er now mak­ing sim­i­lar deci­sions for the future, the brew­ery’s char­ac­ter will change inevitably.

    Con­verse­ly, to keep Pride and ESB as if trapped in amber (sor­ry) for the next 50 years is not nec­es­sar­i­ly desir­able either, but some­thing an off­shore own­er might be tempt­ed to do. Doing noth­ing can be as much of a wreck­ing ball as dri­ving a coach and four through the exist­ing range.

    It’s noth­ing to do with Japan, it would be the same chal­lenge with a Dutch, Ger­man, or a U.S. own­er. Fuller has become an inter­na­tion­al brew­er and will have the advan­tages of that but also, in my opin­ion, the ano­dyne char­ac­ter that seems to char­ac­terise so many inter­na­tion­al com­pa­nies.

  10. the lack of respect for Chiswick Bit­ter, for exam­ple” – you can’t respect some­thing that isn’t sell­ing. Yes it’s a great beer, but if it’s not shift­ing, there’s no point in push­ing it at peo­ple who won’t drink it. Fron­tier, on the oth­er hand, is prob­a­bly the brew­ery’s most suc­cess­ful new launch for decades, in terms of sales.

    As I said else­where, emo­tion­al­ly I’m deeply sad­dened: I love Fullers, enor­mous­ly, and I had a strong atach­ment to the idea of its Lon­don­ness, its inde­pen­dence. But ratio­nal­ly …

    1. The prob­lem with Chiswick was that from a pun­ter’s POV, it was­n’t real­ly that dif­fer­ent from Pride, in the way that ESB, 1845, Ben­gal Lancer, Wild Riv­er or Lon­don Porter all filled unique nich­es.

      One thing Fuller’s always lacked was a good hop­py ses­sion beer, but then of course they bought Hop­head.

  11. When the val­ue and rev­enue from the estate increased to the point where brew­ing was almost irrel­e­vant to the pub oper­at­ing busi­ness and cer­tain­ly a risk to it, the clin­i­cal deci­sion was made to sell the brew­ing side. To avoid the risk and pre­serve the tra­di­tion, the main share­hold­ers could have sold the brew­ery to them­selves as a sep­a­rate com­pa­ny, but the wind­fall to share­hold­ers of £55–69m from the sale might have had some­thing to do with that. My fear is that now the estate has lost its finan­cial mill­stone, it’s become a valu­able (over £500m) rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing prop­er­ty port­fo­lio that will become attrac­tive to invest­ment funds and pri­vate equi­ty, even­tu­al­ly lead­ing to anoth­er ‘ratio­nal’ busi­ness deci­sion in the inter­ests of the share­hold­ers. There are a few more larg­er ver­ti­cal­ly-inte­grat­ed brew­ers that are in dan­ger of suf­fer­ing the same fate.

    1. This is a very good point. You could even see the sale of the brew­ing busi­ness as a strate­gic move to pro­tect it, antic­i­pat­ing a time when the vul­tures come for the prop­er­ty com­pa­ny.

  12. I think I most­ly agree with you.

    I won­der if FST’s man­age­ment would have dared pull this stunt when John Keel­ing was still there.

  13. Thanks B&B for a good, reflec­tive piece. And the those mak­ing com­ments. I was jolt­ed awake by the 8.00am news bul­letin on Radio4 and could not believe what I had heard. Per­haps I should be inoc­u­lat­ed by now – the clo­sure of Bod­ding­ton’s (despite all Charles (?) Bod­ding­ton’s efforts to fend of an ear­li­er approach by Allied), of Brak­s­pear, then the dag­ger blow that was the clo­sure of Young’s. But this, I don’t know it felt even worse. I did not know Charles Bod­ding­ton, I did not know the own­ers of Brak­s­pear. I did know John Young. And I do know Antho­ny Fuller, Michael Turn­er and Richard Fuller. And it is because I thought I knew them that I find this deci­sion so hard to live with.

Comments are closed.