Categories
breweries opinion

Recognition, demand and supply

It’s probably too soon to make this point but… Some breweries have done better than others in the past year, haven’t they?

It’s been a rotten year for everyone, obviously, but nonetheless it feels as if there have been, relatively speaking, winners and losers.

Now, because it’s bad taste to boast, not many breweries are admitting to having adapted to the difficult circumstances of 2020 with any success. We did, however, notice this interesting piece on an accounting industry institute body’s website:

All that time spent on spreadsheets modelling scenarios paid off in May. This is when we switched our bars/taprooms to bottle shops. As only one staff member is needed to manage a bottle shop, it’s kept costs low. They’ve done an amazing trade because they’re based in suburban areas. With everybody working from home, customers regularly visit on their daily walks.

And Jeff Alworth has covered some similar stories from the US:

We breweries of course sell beer by the case, and here in Oregon you can buy three cases at a time, per person.  So it’s pretty easy to stock up with minimal trips out of your house. I don’t think any of us realized this advantage when this all started. But in my mind it explains everything about why breweries were able to better survive this economic/epidemic crisis. Sure, delivery helps. But restaurants can do that as well and they haven’t fared nearly as well as we have. It’s funny, because it reminds me of the fact that for hundreds of years one of the main reasons people drank beer was because it’s safer than water. During this past year it’s been safer to pick up beer at the brewery than food at a restaurant—again due to the packaged durability of beer.

Breweries that rely entirely on the pub trade have obviously been at a disadvantage but those which rely on a certain type of pub trade even more so. The cut-price cask ale merchants, that is, whose beers nobody is ever delighted to see on the bar, but which they might tolerate at £2.50 a pint when everything else is a quid more expensive. Makers of rough and/or dull beer designed to please landlords with margin to make rather than drinkers. Let’s be honest, we’ve got Wickwar in mind, now deceased, but you’ve probably got a local equivalent.

Those which have done better, we suspect, are those whose names live near the front of everybody’s minds – the ones with fans, the ones that people will cross town to drink.

We ordered a box of Oakham beers this week, for example, because we haven’t had a pint of Citra in more than a year and missed it. In the past year we’ve also ordered from, among others:

  • Thornbridge (reliably great)
  • Good Chemistry (local, interesting beer, reminds us of The Good Measure)
  • Lost & Grounded (local, proper lager)
  • Fyne Ales (Jarl, Jarl, Jarl)
  • Elusive (varied styles, always interesting)
  • Cheddar (local, solid, reminds us of The Drapers Arms)
  • Bristol Beer Factory (local, reliable, reminds us of The Grain Barge)
  • Harvey’s (Sussex Best is the best)
  • St Austell (in honour of Roger Ryman, reminds us of Penzance)

We have tried to find ways to explore new breweries – selection boxes from online retailers, our standing order with The Drapers Arms delivery service – but when you’ve got to choose your weekend beer no later than Tuesday, you tend to stick to what you can trust.

As well as good beer, and the ability to distribute packaged beer directly to consumers, the breweries on the list above are known and liked. (Or were, at least, until the small brewers duty relief disaster.) They’re either old and venerated almost by default or they’ve invested serious time and energy into making themselves known through strong branding and an active online presence.

It will be interesting to see what’s on offer in UK pubs this time in 2022. Could there be (again, feels rude to say it) a survival of the fittest effect? Or will we find ourselves missing beers we couldn’t order to drink at home, or forgot existed?

Categories
breweries

Brewery merger amnesia

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.

Categories
Beer history breweries featuredposts

Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all?

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear.

What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

Categories
breweries london

Why so many breweries in Waltham Forest, all of a sudden?

I paid a flying visit to Tap East the week before last to see my brother. While I was there I tried the Pilsner by Pillars Brewery.

“Do you know it’s made round the corner from where we grew up?” asked my brother.

“Brewed on an industrial estate in Walthamstow – isn’t everything these days?”

And then the two of us took a moment to ponder on how weird that is and how far things have come for beer in Waltham Forest, with several breweries and talk of a rival beer mile.

Pubs that were on the brink of closing have been ‘rescued’ and you certainly don’t go short of a Sunday roast and a hazy pale ale.

And while it’s easy to moan about gentrification, this isn’t a case so much of pushing out existing traditional businesses because there are way more decent places to drink now than there ever were.

When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife.

And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.

Talking this through with Ray, we concluded that Waltham Forest these days is the perfect combination of shed-loads (literally) of bona fide industrial estates, not just converted railway arches; with good transport connections; and an increasingly young, wealthy demographic.

That must make it a great seedbed for new breweries and a good option for established breweries looking to move or expand.

We asked London beer experts Des de Moor and Jezza for their opinions, by way of testing our assumptions.

The latter, editor of the excellent Beer Guide London, confirmed my perception of a recent explosion: “That section has certainly grown remarkably in the last year or two in particular.”

And both Des and Jezza came up with the same overarching explanation. Des happens to have been giving this some thought lately as he’s been working on an imminent new edition of his CAMRA guide to London pubs. Here’s how he expresses the challenge for London brewing businesses and the appeal of Waltham Forest:

Your task is to find an ‘up and coming’ area that already has, or is near to somewhere that has, a bit of hipster buzz, and over the coming years is likely to attract a population who will drink and talk about your beer, but still has relatively affordable industrial space and where you won’t have a problem getting an on-licence… Walthamstow, and particularly the area where all the new breweries are opening up, to the west of the historic centre along Blackhorse Road, is one of the few places that scores highly on all these factors. This is part of the Lea Valley, historically one of London’s largely industrial areas as the risk of flooding from the Lea discouraged housing development.

Jezza and Des also highlighted a point we’d missed which is that the local council has been keen to encourage craft breweries and other businesses, “even to the extent of partnering in a pub that showcases breweries in the borough” as Des put it, referring to the Welcome to the Forest Bar.

What about the Pilsner, though – was it any good? Yes, rather to my surprise, it was absolutely fantastic – really crisp and clean, as if it had been brewed in a Bavarian city somewhere rather than round the back of my old primary school.

Perhaps the next step could be to build a sprawling Munich style beer garden down by the reservoirs…?

Categories
Blogging and writing breweries

Anatomy of a Rumour

If you are at all engaged with beer social media, you will be aware that there have been rumours, or at least rumours of rumours.

Though we don’t recall signing up to a code of ethics on this, there are certainly good reasons to be cagy about sharing or discussing such rumours.

First, there’s the risk of things getting a bit ‘lawyery’. We don’t know if this is a real issue, or a borrowed trouble, but who wants to find out the hard way?

Then there’s the question of people’s feelings. Imagine you’re negotiating the sale of your company but haven’t finalised the deal; there’s a non-disclosure agreement in place so you can’t tell your team anything until it’s done; and, anyway, you wouldn’t want to say anything in case it falls through at the last minute. Then imagine how those team members feel learning the news from Twitter, or on some poxy beer blog.

The American food reporter Farley Elliott recently described how, in the early days of his career, he would sometimes turn up at restaurants he had heard were closing down and, over-eager in making his enquiries, accidentally break the news to frontline staff that they were about to lose their jobs. He felt bad, they felt bad… There are better ways.

Finally, there’s the risk of embarrassing yourself if the rumoured takeover doesn’t happen. Rumours are just rumours, and are sometimes just lies. Five or so years ago, we heard a cast-iron rumour of a takeover that was definitely about to happen at any minute now… but didn’t. And still hasn’t.

And anyway, unless you are working for an outlet that thrives on scoops – that relies on being first with the breaking news – there’s no particular need for anyone in beer to be rushing to talk about this stuff.

The only difference a rumour makes, really, is that it allows time to mentally prepare. It can be a jolt to learn that a brewery you like or are interested in has been taken over when 300 hot-take Tweets land within a minute of each other.

Given how things are, though, shouldn’t we all be mentally prepared, all the time, for any brewery of decent size and market reach to sell up? We all know how to spot the pre-eruption tremors these days.

Sure, we’ll still jump when the balloon pops, but at least by now we’ve learned to discern the balloon, and to see someone standing there with pin in hand, grinning, waiting.