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.

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