Brewery merger amnesia

Memory.

The recently announced ‘joint venture’ between Marstons and Carlsberg made us think about how modern brewery mergers are much more commercially savvy than 1960s and 1970s equivalents.

Nowadays there is a recognition that local brands are important and that if you keep then more or less the same then, after a while, people might forget that there is a new parent company.

A while back, for example, we were corresponding with a journalist about modern bitter brands and he was completely unaware that Marstons had taken over the brewing arm of Charles Wells.

More embarrassingly, I momentarily forgot that Magic Rock had been bought out by Lion in March 2019 – and I’ve written about Magic Rock at length on multiple occasions.

To be fair, it isn’t featured at all on their lovely pictorial history page, or on their about page, so maybe they forgot too.

We’ve also astonished friends by breaking the news to them that Camden and Beavertown are no longer independent. Those takeovers were big news for beer geeks but outside the bubble, people either missed the announcements, or instantly forgot.

And in one case, they were gutted about it, too: “Oh. I thought I was supporting a local independent brewery.”

You might say it’s too early to tell how things will play out with some recent takeovers. The Big Six in the post war period usually allowed a year or so before closing down breweries and rebranding products. (See: Usher’s.)

And consumer preferences change. During the takeover mania of the 1960s and 70s, CAMRA lambasted Watney’s and Whitbread for doing away with local brands. Now, you might argue that at least their uniform packaging and design was honest.

When there’s actual ownership and rights splits, provenance can be more obvious. So, for example, when Asahi bought the Fullers’ brewery, there was a requirement to set up a separate Fullers Brewery website to maintain the distinction between that and the pub operator. And that website does mention Asahi at a couple of points.

Interestingly, though, the first search results for “fullers beers” still takes you to the pub company’s website, so if you weren’t following closely, you might just assume it was business as usual.

All of this underlines that transparency isn’t a one-off event – ownership needs to be clear to consumers from packaging and promotional material on an ongoing basis.

6 thoughts on “Brewery merger amnesia”

  1. I forgot about Magic Rock (having sold out) for a while myself, to the point of being disappointed all over again when I remembered – it’s certainly not something they shout about. What was the deal with Beavertown, btw – wasn’t it something in between “external investment” and a full buyout?

    I think the only reliable outward sign in these cases – apart from checking the small print on every bottle or can you pick up – is that the turnover of new beers gets a lot slower or stops altogether, as a kind of preparatory stage to the conversion of the brewery name into a brand. And for breweries which were already more or less synonymous with a couple of big beers, it could be a long time before anyone notices.

  2. The Charles Wells thing isn’t so clear cut as you make it out. CW sold their brewery and brand portfolio (except Charlie Wells triple hop IPA and dry hopped lager) to Marstons. But not the CW name. Marstons have had to rebadge the old brewery and beers to The Eagle Brewery and the CW pub estate business has now been renamed to Wells & Co. Wells & Co are building a new *smaller*(30,000 hl) brewery in Bedford (Called Brewpoint) with the plan that most of the volume will be sold through their estate. So CW will again be a separate brewing business from Marstons.

  3. I had a can of Marston, Eagle brewery Bombadier in my Canadian backyard on Saturday. The packaging was updated but the ownership was fairly clear. Ownership hasn’t been a driving force for me but that’s largely due to the pervasive efforts of the US micro/craft scene to ensure gradations and labels were meaningless well before the last few years of buyouts.

  4. and what will happen to the Youngs brands that went through that strange journey? First the mutual arrangement/merger with Charles Wells, then the buy out, then sold to Marstons. As I keep writing elsewhere, and I will stop soon, Marstons PLC is really Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery which re-named itself after it bought Marstons. We are encouraged (and the newspaper business pages which simply publish press releases accept without question) to think that Marstons PLC is the venerable Burton on Trent based brewery. However, Marstons Burton is just as vulnerable to brand squashing as Boddingtons, Bass and Youngs have been

  5. I think we can all help others to remember, by referring to them as ABInbev(Camden) or Heineken(Beavertown), for example.

    Or better still, don’t refer to them at all!

    Our Beer World would be a better place, if we all recognise how sinister the Macros are. They would love so much to be able turn back the clock 50 years, to the dark days of the 1970’s, when the vast majority of the public drank the same beer for life, chosen from a list of about a dozen bad Macro brands.

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