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.