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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.

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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…?

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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.

Categories
beer reviews breweries

Neon Raptor Total Eclipse Jaffa Cake milk stout

We’re trying to drink one beer every week from a brewery that’s new to us and this time round it’s a Jaffa Cake milk stout from Neon Raptor of Nottingham.

We’ve actually found ourselves having to hunt round a bit to find unfamiliar breweries. There might be 2,000 or so of them but it turns out that in Bristol, you only tend to see about, say, 150 of those in circulation.

To find Total Eclipse, we had to go to a pub that’s not on our usual rounds because we haven’t really warmed to it over the years — that is, the Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, or Volly.

What do you expect from a beer with 7.4% ABV, vapourwave branding and a lactose warning? It is not subtle. It is loud, and best looked at through Ray Bans.

One definite point in its favour was that it had the weight of its strength, being positively chewy. It looks like chocolate sauce and, yes, that’s about the texture it achieves too.

The reference to Jaffa Cakes is misleading — the orange and chocolate here are both bitter, and intense. We certainly found ourselves thinking of confectionery, though: Mum’s Christmas box of Black Magic, crystallised ginger, candied peels.

Ray liked it; Jess less so. She detected a dirty background flavour, something earthy, like… potatoes? But overall, once again, it was kind of fun, and we’ve got another brewery to keep an eye out for.