News, nuggets and longreads 27 April 2019: numbers, mild, cult beer frenzy

Here’s everything that struck as as noteworthy in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from brewery numbers to the possible decline of lager.

Like many oth­er com­men­ta­tors, we’ve tak­en the total num­ber of UK brew­eries, and the amount by which it increas­es each year, as an at least par­tial­ly use­ful indi­ca­tor of the vigour of the craft beer boom. Accord­ing to a new report from accoun­tan­cy firm UHY, that growth might final­ly have begun to slow:

The craft beer boom in the UK has slowed sharply in the last year with the total num­ber of brew­eries increas­ing by just 8 ver­sus the 390 added in pri­or twelve months, our research shows… The total num­ber of UK brew­eries reached to 2,274 at the end of 2018, up from 1,352 five years ago… The craft beer mar­ket has become dif­fi­cult for new entrants as multi­na­tion­al brew­ers con­tin­ue to buy and invest the more suc­cess­ful “craft” brew­eries. The huge lev­els of invest­ment that the multi­na­tion­als then deploy through their “craft” sub­sidiaries throw up bar­ri­ers of entry against oth­er entrants. The multi­na­tion­als have been attract­ed by the high growth rates in the craft beer mar­ket and the pre­mi­um pric­ing they can achieve.

(This sto­ry got a bit man­gled in the retelling by some news out­lets which, tend­ing to pre­fer sto­ries of either total tri­umph or dread­ful doom, report­ed that only eight new brew­eries had opened in the past year.)

Relat­ed news: the total num­ber of pubs con­tin­ues to decline at a rate equiv­a­lent to 76 clo­sures per month, but the rate of clo­sures is quite clear­ly slow­ing.

Anoth­er nugget of news, unfor­tu­nate­ly from behind a pay­wall: finan­cial news ser­vice Merg­er­Mar­ket reports that both Tru­man’s and Five Points are active­ly court­ing investors or part­ners. There’s noth­ing we can link to at this stage but, well, keep your eyes peeled for fur­ther news.

Weyerbacher logo.

For Brew­Bound Justin Kendall offers com­ment on the strug­gles of yet anoth­er ear­ly-wave Amer­i­can craft brew­ery, Weyer­bach­er:

Most of Weyerbacher’s finan­cial issues stem from a 2014 expan­sion project that cost $2 mil­lion and includ­ed the addi­tion of a 40-bar­rel brew­house. Over the years, how­ev­er, the com­pa­ny dealt with increased com­pe­ti­tion — par­tic­u­lar­ly in the pump­kin beer cat­e­go­ry — as it strug­gled to grow sales and pay down debt.

We were expect­ing to see dou­ble-dig­it growth for a num­ber of years … and with the mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion that hap­pened in pump­kin and all of those oth­er things, that just didn’t pan out,” [Josh Lampe] said.

The mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion that hap­pened in pump­kin! What a time to be alive.

Illustration: beer bottles.

For Drinks Retail­ing News Antho­ny Glad­man has pro­duced a fas­ci­nat­ing piece on the strug­gle of inde­pen­dent bot­tle shops to attain sup­plies of the most sought after beers:

Any­thing DIPA or hazy goes real­ly fast,” says Dan Sandy, man­ag­er of east Lon­don craft beer store Kill The Cat. Beers from Cloud­wa­ter, Ver­dant and Deya are sub­ject to fierce com­pe­ti­tion because they will draw in cus­tomers and dri­ve sales of oth­er beers once peo­ple are through the shop door.

Every­one wants Deya cans but it’s not mak­ing very many,” says Jen Fer­gu­son, co-own­er of Hop Burns & Black, a craft beer retail­er in south east Lon­don. “The num­ber of Deya cans mak­ing it through to the dis­trib­u­tors is very small.”

Anoth­er exam­ple is Not­ting­ham brew­ery Neon Rap­tor. Alex Fitz­patrick, co-own­er of Brix­ton bot­tle shop Ghost Whale, found its beers became hard to get hold of seem­ing­ly overnight. “What hap­pened? Who pressed the but­ton that gave it this mag­ic rain­bow aura around every­thing it does?”

Beer being poured, from an old advertisement.

With CAM­RA’s dec­la­ra­tion of May as the month of mild in mind, Ron Pat­tin­son has tak­en a look at how beer style come in and out of favour:

When styles start to decline, it can hap­pen sur­pris­ing­ly quick­ly. It always kicks off the same way: young drinkers don’t adopt it. Then a style begins to be asso­ci­at­ed with old men. And no-one wants to drink what grand­dad’s drink­ing… Lager sales real­ly took off in the late 1970s. The young drinkers who adopt­ed it back then are now around 60. How long before Lager becomes asso­ci­at­ed with old blokes?

Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

One of the upsides to putting this round-up togeth­er slight­ly lat­er than usu­al is that it meant we caught a post from this very morn­ing by the Pub Cur­mud­geon in which the details of var­i­ous region­al quirks of dis­pense from the 1970s-90s are recalled:

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the aver­age pub across much of the Mid­lands and North, you would be like­ly to be served your beer in an over­size glass with a thick head reach­ing almost to the top, where­as in the South you would get beer from a hand­pump with a head no more than a quar­ter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coat­ing of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with lit­tle or no head as well. Get­ting a pint a total­ly flat-look­ing beer with plen­ty of CO2 still dis­solved in it was a touch dis­con­cert­ing.

And final­ly, from Twit­ter, one of those too-neat expla­na­tions that nonethe­less sort of, maybe, kind of, checks out:

For more links and com­men­tary check out Stan Hierony­mus on Mon­day and Alan McLeod on Thurs­day.

Gauging the Mood of the British Beer Scene

Twitter polls are ‘garbage’ as we were repeatedly reminded throughout the US election but, still, this might tell us something:

Twitter poll screengrab (link above).

Despite the per­vad­ing sense of gloom, per­haps the result of ennui on the part of hyper-vocal, deep-insid­ers who spend too much time think­ing about all this stuff, the major­i­ty of the 502 respon­dents don’t seem to think a dis­as­ter is loom­ing.

Now, it is worth con­sid­er­ing the fol­low­ing points:

  1. Our fol­low­ers are into beer which might trans­late into being blind­ly pos­i­tive about its for­tunes. Although, equal­ly, it prob­a­bly means they’re more aware of the bad news too.
  2. Some peo­ple might think a shake-out which sees, say, 10 per cent of brew­eries cease trad­ing is good news. Equal­ly, some peo­ple might feel pes­simistic pre­cise­ly because they think brew­ery num­bers are going to con­tin­ue increas­ing.
  3. The 8 per cent who think it’s about to go pear-shaped nonethe­less rep­re­sent a good old chunk. Inside infor­ma­tion, or just mis­er­able dev­ils? We wish we’d done this last year, and will def­i­nite­ly do it next year, to mon­i­tor the change.
  4. Some of the rea­sons peo­ple gave for being anx­ious are inter­est­ing and, again, sub­jec­tive: by far the most com­mon con­cern is that Amer­i­can-influ­enced styles are push­ing out tra­di­tion­al British ones; oth­ers were con­cerned about pubs which remain in trou­ble despite the brew­ery boom.
  5. His­to­ri­an David Turn­er does­n’t think we’ll get a shake-out and instead pre­dicts a plateau.

For our part, that poll and the rest of this week’s dis­cus­sion is enough for now to con­firm our gut feel­ing that, though 2017 is going to be bumpi­er than 2016, it’s not going to see some kind of beer­poca­lypse.

Brew­eries and bars will close, cer­tain­ly, and we’ll keep log­ging those events, but we also know that plen­ty of new ones are on the way.

There might be some struc­tur­al changes – per­haps fur­ther polar­is­ing of the mar­ket, for exam­ple – but that won’t look like a col­lapse.

We’d cer­tain­ly be some­what sur­prised if the launch of the Good Beer Guide in the autumn isn’t accom­pa­nied by news of a fur­ther rise in the over­all num­ber of brew­eries, for bet­ter or worse.

The Shake Out, 1983–84

We’re intending to spend a bit more time pondering the health of the UK beer industry in 2016 but, for perspective, here’s a bit of history around the first micro-brewery ‘shake out’ which happened back in the 1980s.

Bri­an Glover wrote for CAM­RA’s What’s Brew­ing news­pa­per for many years pro­vid­ing a run­ning com­men­tary on the rise of the micro­brew­ery which would even­tu­al­ly form the basis of his essen­tial 1988 New Beer Guide. In 1982 he pro­duced a mul­ti-page report on the micro­brew­ery boom cheer­ing on the then 100 or so new brew­eries that had flow­ered since the mid-1970s. The tone was tri­umphant with only one clo­sure to report, though a pro­file of Bourne Val­ley Brew­ery run by James Lynch (for­mer CAMRA chair turned brew­er) and John Feath­er­by high­light­ed some chal­lenges:

Back at the brew­ery, they are draw­ing in their horns to weath­er the reces­sion. ‘We have just with­drawn from sup­ply­ing Lon­don (and the West Coun­try) on a reg­u­lar basis,’ said John Feath­er­by. ‘We are restrict­ing our trad­ing area… to cut our trans­port costs.’

Feath­er­by also admit­ted that the brew­ery had­n’t made any mon­ey in its three years of trad­ing and said, ‘In fact, we would not set up a brew­ery now. We could not afford to.’

Then, through­out 1983, there were rum­blings, such as an arti­cle that appeared in What’s Brew­ing in April that year head­lined THE GREAT BEER CRASH. It report­ed on the col­lapse of a Lon­don-based dis­trib­u­tor, Roger Berman’s B&W, tak­ing with it the asso­ci­at­ed micro-brew­ery, Union. In Decem­ber, Bri­an Glover was observ­ing that Devon’s micro-brew­ery scene was thriv­ing with five then oper­at­ing in the coun­ty.

But it could soon turn sour if they crowd each oth­er out… ‘It’s cer­tain­ly get­ting tight in the free trade around here,’ admit­ted Paul Bigrig [of the Mill Brew­ery], ‘espe­cial­ly with the appear­ance of Sum­mer­skills and Bates.’ Already Swim­bridge Brew­ery in North Devon has gone under this year.

Then, in Feb­ru­ary 1984, in anoth­er spe­cial sup­ple­ment, Glover called it: SMALL BEER CRASH.

The expect­ed ‘shake­out’ of new small brew­eries has final­ly arrived with 12 hav­ing closed since July [1983]… All were free trade brew­ers, most strug­gling to sell their beer with­out the pro­tec­tion of their own pubs… The only sur­prise is that so many sur­vived for so long, giv­en the harsh reces­sion, stiff com­pe­ti­tion and dearth of gen­uine free­hous­es…

The most famous of the failed brew­eries was Pen­rhos, found­ed by Richard Boston and Mon­ty Python star Ter­ry Jones in 1977 and run by Mar­tin Grif­fiths. (His com­put­er brain did­n’t work out.) Grif­fiths reck­oned he and Jones had lost £70,000 (going on for a quar­ter of a mil­lion quid in today’s mon­ey) over the course of the brew­ery’s life.

Anoth­er brew­er, Geoff Pat­ton of Swim­bridge in Devon, cit­ed aggres­sive dis­count­ing by larg­er brew­eries. The own­ers of Swan­nells in Hert­ford­shire acknowl­edged that poor qual­i­ty con­trol and mar­ket­ing had con­tributed to its fail­ure. Tis­bury fell when its sis­ter pub chain, on which it relied for the bulk of its sales, went into receiver­ship.

Bri­an Glover said, in con­clu­sion, ‘The small brew­ery boom… looks to be over.’ His final pre­dic­tion?

The future, it would seem, lies in the con­sol­i­da­tion of the sur­viv­ing free trade brew­ers; an expand­ing num­ber of [brew pubs] – and increas­ing involve­ment in small-scale brew­ing by the major brew­ers… A few new inde­pen­dent free trade brew­ers will appear in the next cou­ple of years. But sad­ly, they will almost cer­tain­ly be out­weighed by the num­ber that give up the unequal strug­gle.

As it hap­pened, the pal­try c.100 micro-brew­eries of 1984 have become c.1,500 in 2016, which just goes to show how dif­fi­cult it can be to pre­dict any­thing.

Keeping a List, Checking it Twice

Various bits of beer news in the last few months have prompted a fresh round of declarations that the good times are over, the hangover is coming, the ‘shake out’ is due.

It’s cer­tain­ly true that after a decade when it felt like the news was almost entire­ly good – new bars, new brew­eries, more beer styles! – there has been a bit of a dip in lev­els of excite­ment.

Our gut feel­ing is that it’s over­ly pes­simistic to assume every­thing is about to come crash­ing down and that the gloomi­ness is to some extent per­son­al: peo­ple are exhaust­ed and bored. (See also: the death of beer blog­ging.)

Hav­ing said that, it is also like­ly that some ven­tures com­menced in the white heat of 2010-11 are reach­ing their nat­ur­al end. That is to say, they’ve either suc­ceed­ed, in which case they’ve ceased to be new and excit­ing, have set­tled into a groove, or per­haps even been sold on; or they’ve fold­ed because the peo­ple behind them have run out of mon­ey and/or steam, or just want to try their hands at some­thing else.

Our con­tri­bu­tion to the col­lec­tive fret­ting, which we hope will pro­vide a pic­ture of what’s going on and help main­tain per­spec­tive, is a table of good and bad news which we here­by com­mit to keep­ing up to date through­out the next year.

Please do get in touch if there are things you think need to be record­ed on either side – spe­cial­ist bars open­ing or clos­ing, brew­eries fold­ing, and so on. We’re espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in total brew­ery num­bers for Birm­ing­ham, Bris­tol and Man­ches­ter, if any­one has those at hand.

So far, a week into Jan­u­ary 2017, it does­n’t look so bad. But let’s see.