Feelings about Fuller’s

On Friday it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing wing of Fuller’s, subject to rubber-stamping, and we felt, frankly, gutted.

Jess, being a Lon­don­er, took it espe­cial­ly hard, though not, per­haps, as hard as the per­son who runs the Lon­don His­to­ri­ans Twit­ter account:

For Fuck's sake Fuller's. What's wrong with you?

With a few days to absorb and reflect we’re still feel­ing dis­ap­point­ed, despite com­men­tary from those who argue that Asahi aren’t the worst, that it’s a vote of con­fi­dence of cask, and so on. It still feels as if some­one you thought was a pal has betrayed you.

We know this is com­plete­ly irra­tional, busi­ness is gonna busi­ness, and so on and so forth, but we kid­ded our­selves (or were seduced into?) think­ing Fuller’s was a bit dif­fer­ent.

Of course the signs were all there (the lack of respect for Chiswick Bit­ter, for exam­ple, in favour of any­thing they could slap SESSION IPA on) but there were pos­i­tive indi­ca­tors too – sure­ly if they were going to sell up they’d have done it in 1963, or 1982, or… And why the inter­est in old recipes, in col­lab­o­ra­tions and so on, if there wasn’t some kind of sen­ti­men­tal attach­ment to the idea of the fam­i­ly busi­ness, her­itage and beer?

Odd­ly, when the news broke, we were eat­ing break­fast in a Fuller’s hotel-pub, and it seemed that the staff were as bewil­dered as us. As cus­tomers asked them for their views, they polite­ly mut­tered, “We don’t know much about it, I’m afraid.” They appeared to be read­ing news web­sites and social media to work out what was going on in the com­pa­ny they work for.

We made a point of going into a cou­ple more Fuller’s pubs over the course of the week­end, like mourn­ers clutch­ing at mem­o­ries of the recent­ly deceased. The beer tast­ed as good as ever – bet­ter, in fact, espe­cial­ly the stuff badged as Dark Star and Gale’s. Again, staff seemed on edge, in one case open­ly snap­ping at a beer bore who insist­ed on lec­tur­ing them about Asahi and how the takeover would ruin the beer.

It’s worth not­ing, by the way, that this was being talked about in sev­er­al pubs we vis­it­ed, includ­ing one non-Fuller’s pub, all of them, we’d have said, ‘out­side the bub­ble’. Peo­ple have heard of Fuller’s and were inter­est­ed in this news, which got cov­ered heav­i­ly in the main­stream press.

From a cou­ple of sources, it became clear the brew­ing staff were in shock, too. Head brew­er Georgina Young:

It was a long and very emotional day.

Here’s what one Fuller’s employ­ee said to us in a pri­vate mes­sage on Sat­ur­day:

I wish I knew more – we all found out yes­ter­day… It’s a ratio­nal busi­ness deci­sion but a dev­as­tat­ing one for beer. If we are not inde­pen­dent, what’s the point? What do we still rep­re­sent? All this stuff about brands and growth is pret­ty mean­ing­less to Fuller’s cus­tomers who will just be pissed off.

Maybe this will not dam­age the beer in the long run, who knows. We’re aware it’s a con­tro­ver­sial view but we’ve been real­ly enjoy­ing Young’s recent­ly, iron­i­cal­ly in lots of Young’s-branded pubs where the aver­age punter prob­a­bly doesn’t realise the brands and the pubs part­ed com­pa­ny years ago. We’d cer­tain­ly be quite hap­py to walk into pubs and find cask ESB along­side Pil­sner Urquell. (And Fron­tier Craft Lager hurled into the skip of his­to­ry.)

What we do wor­ry about is those hid­den gems – the non-flag­ship back­street pubs in West Lon­don where grey paint and fake ghost signs have yet to take hold, and which still feel vague­ly like booz­ers. They’re either going to get trashed, or ditched, aren’t they?

And we wor­ry about whether this means Fuller’s, as a brew­ery, will stag­nate. What will moti­vate dis­en­fran­chised staff to try new things, or throw them­selves into reviv­ing old recipes? It’s been hard to find Lon­don Porter in any for­mat for a cou­ple of years – will this final­ly kill it off for good, along with poor old Chiswick? Look at Mean­time: the qual­i­ty or the core beer may be good, but the breadth of the offer is now dis­tress­ing­ly bland.

All that’s kept us going into Fuller’s flag­ship pla­s­ticky, faux-posh cor­po­rate pubs for the past decade is the beer. We go to the Old Fish Mar­ket in Bris­tol because we crave that dis­tinc­tive yeast char­ac­ter once in a while, not for the brand­ed cof­fee and gin expe­ri­ence in sur­round­ings that resem­ble a hotel lob­by.

We don’t know how this will turn out. We’re not going to boy­cott Fuller’s. We’re not ‘but­thurt’. But some­thing in the rela­tion­ship has changed, and we will prob­a­bly end up drink­ing less Fuller’s beer with­out think­ing much about it.

News Pubs and Old Favourites #1: The Forester, Ealing

We spent the gap between Christmas and New Year in West London, on the hunt for Proper Pubs. Four stood out and we’re going to give each one its own post.

Jess first vis­it­ed the Forester in North­fields, Eal­ing, in 2016, dur­ing research for 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, and has been try­ing to get Ray there ever since. It’s of aca­d­e­m­ic inter­est, being built in 1909 as an ear­ly Improved Pub to a design by Now­ell-Parr, and retain­ing a mul­ti-room lay­out with lots of peri­od details.

It also hap­pens to be a sub­ur­ban back­street cor­ner pub – our cur­rent favourite thing. As we approached, it peeked into view between the cor­ner shops and ter­raced hous­es, like a steam­punk cruise ship at berth.

It’s a Fuller’s pub, too, which means touch­es of the cor­po­rate, but not to an oppres­sive degree. It helps that the light is kept low and (not to everyone’s taste, we know) the music loud, so every table feels like its own warm bub­ble.

The Forester, Ealing -- interior.

The locals seemed well-to-do with­out being posh, sink­ing beer and gin, and throw­ing out the odd rau­cous joke: “Bloody hell! When you bent over then, Steve… Either you’re wear­ing a black thong or you for­got to wipe your arse.”

They ignored par­ties of out­siders – a group of what we took for pro­fes­sion­al foot­ballers on tour, all design­er shirts and hair prod­uct; a trio of twen­tysome­things, appar­ent­ly from the mid­dle east, when-in-Rome-ing with pints of Guin­ness – with­out appar­ent mal­ice.

The beer was excel­lent, too – Fuller’s as Fuller’s should be served, gleam­ing and bril­liant beneath clean arc­tic foam. The ESB in par­tic­u­lar was hard to resist, demand­ing to be treat­ed like a ses­sion beer, which maybe it is at Christ­mas.

We made time to vis­it twice dur­ing a four-night trip, which should tell you some­thing. You might find it worth a detour next time you’re in Lon­don.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK

Here’s everything we’ve read about beer and pubs in the last week that excited us enough to hit the bookmark button, from glitter beer to Kölsch.

And what a week it’s been – a pos­i­tive flood of inter­est­ing writ­ing, lots of it on the hefty side. We’ll nev­er work out the rhythms. It’s just odd that some weeks we post five links and think, well, that’s it, we’re done, and then on oth­er occa­sions… Well, brace your­self.

Madeleine McCarthy (L) and Lee Hedgmon holding glasses of glitter beer.

First, a sto­ry we didn’t expect to care about but which did some­thing inter­est­ing: it actu­al­ly changed our minds. Glit­ter beer is the lat­est Oh, Sil­ly Craft Beer! trend, easy to dis­miss out of hand, but Jeff Alworth made the effort to go and try some and was won over:

What you can’t appre­ci­ate from still pho­tos is that glit­ter expos­es how dynam­ic a beer is. The tiny flecks ride the cur­rents in bands and whorls, fol­low­ing the con­vec­tion of released car­bon diox­ide or the motion of the drinker’s hand. As you look down into the glass, you see it roil and churn. It’s riv­et­ing. Beyond that, imag­ine drink­ing a green, shim­mer­ing Bel­gian tripel and try­ing to make it track to the taste of, say, West­malle. It’s an object les­son in how much appear­ance fac­tors into our men­tal for­mu­la­tion of “fla­vor.” The slight breadi­ness and vivid effer­ves­cence have fused in my mind with the qual­i­ties that define a tripel; look­ing at Lee’s beer, I was forced to go back to the basics of what my palate could tell me.

We’re not say­ing we now des­per­ate­ly want to drink a glass of spark­ly pale ale but if we see one on sale, we’ll def­i­nite­ly try it, which is not what we’d have said last Sat­ur­day. Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 24 March 2018: Glit­ter, Ilford, AK

Thought for the Day: SIBA & the Family Brewers

St Austell Brewery.

Last week SIBA members voted not to permit larger independent brewers to join as full members, against the urging of SIBA’s leadership. And we reckon, well, fair enough.

Yes, fam­i­ly brew­ers are an endan­gered species and worth pre­serv­ing. Fuller’s and St Austell are fine brew­eries whose beer we gen­er­al­ly love, and a dif­fer­ent breed from Greene King and Marston’s. They’re cer­tain­ly a mil­lion miles from AB-InBev and are ‘good­ies’ in the grand scheme of things. (Dis­clo­sure: we’ve had occa­sion­al hos­pi­tal­i­ty from St Austell over the years.)

At the same time, Fuller’s and St Austell already have sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages over gen­uine­ly small brew­eries, not least estates of pubs which those small brew­ers are effec­tive­ly locked out of. They also have nation­al brands, and appar­ent­ly sub­stan­tial mar­ket­ing bud­gets.

If we ran a real­ly small brew­ery and were strug­gling every day to keep our heads above water, com­pet­ing for free trade accounts and scram­bling for every last sale, we’d be pret­ty pissed off at the idea of those two brew­eries muscling in on what lit­tle ben­e­fit SIBA mem­ber­ship seems to bring.

And much as we admire Fuller’s and St Austell we don’t think either is per­fect­ly cud­dly. If they were keen to join SIBA as full mem­bers it was prob­a­bly out of a (entire­ly rea­son­able) desire to secure some fur­ther com­mer­cial advan­tage. If we’re wrong, if we’re being too cyn­i­cal and it was sim­ply a mat­ter of long­ing to belong, then they clear­ly have more work to do get­ting that mes­sage across.

Help­ing those small brew­ers to sell a bit more beer, with­out strings attached, would prob­a­bly be the most direct­ly con­vinc­ing way to go about it.

Further Reading

More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links

Illustration: dark star -- SOLD

Having reacted in the immediate aftermath of the news that Fuller’s has acquired Dark Star we’ve been thinking and talking about it since, and seeking additional input.

First, we asked on Twit­ter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Pre­dictably, lots of peo­ple want­ed a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we delib­er­ate­ly omit­ted because we were after a deci­sive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the opti­mistic side – Dark Star seemed in the dol­drums to us and this is more like­ly to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 peo­ple who did feel strong­ly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:

In the mean­time some con­crete infor­ma­tion has emerged. For the Morn­ing Adver­tis­er James Bee­son inter­viewed Dark Star MD James Cuth­bert­son who said:

There will be some over­lap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redun­dan­cies, which we will hope to keep to a min­i­mum. How­ev­er, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the over­rid­ing point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat peo­ple.”

There have also been sub­stan­tial reflec­tive pieces from Pete Brown, who is typ­i­cal­ly keyed into the emo­tion­al aspect of the sto­ry:

When a brew­ery gets bought, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, it can feel as though peo­ple you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like every­one else – they’ve dis­il­lu­sioned you and let you down. Alter­na­tive­ly, it may be that they stood hero­ical­ly for as long and they could, but even­tu­al­ly had no choice to suc­cumb, prov­ing that a rebel­lious, anti-estab­lish­ment stance is always ulti­mate­ly doomed to fail­ure.

And Roger Protz, who is gen­er­al­ly crit­i­cal of takeovers and sen­si­tive to cor­po­rate skull­dug­gery, but here says:

The suc­cess of the craft beer sec­tor is cre­at­ing a num­ber of acqui­si­tions.… These takeovers have been dri­ven to a large extent by rapid­ly declin­ing sales of glob­al lager brands and old-fash­ioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the oth­er hand is not a glob­al brew­er and its beer sales are not in decline. But work­ing with Dark Star and cre­at­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion beers with Moor Beer of Bris­tol and Mar­ble has shown the kudos that can be gained by iden­ti­fy­ing with a craft sec­tor that has such appeal to younger and dis­crim­i­nat­ing drinkers.

His sum­ma­ry of the back­ground to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is help­ful, too: an unin­ter­est­ed fam­i­ly, a decrepit brew­ery, and lit­tle choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lin­ger­ing local resent­ment all the same.

* * *

Some peo­ple seem puz­zled or even irri­tat­ed at the focus on this sto­ry, espe­cial­ly those who don’t live in or any­where near Lon­don and the Home Coun­ties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star – it’s a case study in what might hap­pen else­where in the coun­try.

If you want to play the pre­dic­tion game per­haps start by look­ing for a brew­ery with a con­vinc­ing mod­ern craft beer iden­ti­ty and high pro­file, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the exam­ple at hand, lost its super­star head brew­er, Mark Tran­ter, in 2013, after which its beer was wide­ly per­ceived as hav­ing dipped in qual­i­ty. It also seemed to be strug­gling to main­tain its rel­e­vance in a world of Cloud­wa­ters and Brew­Dogs, always one rebrand behind the zeit­geist.

Or, to put all that anoth­er way, brew­eries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase – it’s dur­ing the come down that they’re vul­ner­a­ble.