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.

Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have stud­ied their British beer his­to­ry, or hap­pen to have lived through it, will per­haps won­der if this is Fuller’s mov­ing into Whit­bread ter­ri­to­ry. Back in the post-war peri­od Whit­bread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of small­er brew­eries until they had become a nation­al oper­a­tion – the pre­cur­sor to the rather face­less inter­na­tion­al brew­ing firms we know today.

The dif­fer­ence, it seems to us, is that back then (to gen­er­alise very broad­ly) Whit­bread were after pubs, not brands. They want­ed out­lets for their own prod­ucts – a hun­dred pubs here, a hun­dred pubs there – but did away with local brands and closed down local brew­eries, which max­imised the impact of nation­al adver­tis­ing cam­paigns and kept things sim­ple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pres­sure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, own­ing a port­fo­lio of small­er brew­eries or at least brew­ery names is a great way of doing so while con­trol­ling mar­gins and sim­pli­fy­ing sup­ply chains. Some peo­ple call this ‘the illu­sion of choice’ which is accu­rate if you define choice as the abil­i­ty to decide where your mon­ey ends up. But often it real­ly is choice, at least in terms of styles and pro­files, to a degree. Bet­ter than noth­ing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried sell­ing its own craft brands, with some suc­cess, but Dark Star real­ly is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Fuller’s has gold­en ales and sum­mer ales but no Hop­head of its own and we imag­ine that’s the spe­cif­ic beer this deal has been done to secure. (Per­haps based on sales fig­ures from The Harp, a cen­tral Lon­don free­house acquired by Fuller’s long-regard­ed as an unof­fi­cial town tap for the Sus­sex brew­ery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are nei­ther here nor there – prob­a­bly more trou­ble than they’re worth – and Fuller’s is not Whit­bread cir­ca 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to gen­er­al out­rage, and we’d be very sur­prised if pro­duc­tion of Dark Star beers moves to west Lon­don any­time in the next decade, giv­en increased inter­est in prove­nance and trans­paren­cy among con­sumers.

Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wether­spoon, but isn’t, which is fas­ci­nat­ing to us. It’s clear­ly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t bla­zoned on the build­ing’s front or men­tioned any­where else that we could see.

This is a daft ques­tion but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the per­son who was serv­ing us.

It’s not Wether­spoon’s,” they replied instinc­tive­ly, even though that was­n’t what we’d asked. “Every­one thinks that but it’s actu­al­ly part of a com­pa­ny called Stonegate. I’d nev­er heard of them until I start­ed work­ing here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too – fan­tas­tic ben­e­fits and train­ing.” (All this offered freely and appar­ent­ly sin­cere­ly with­out any addi­tion­al prompt­ing.)

It’s true – Stonegate is a big com­pa­ny, run­ning almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cov­er of sev­er­al well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Let­tuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Prop­er Pubs sub-brand: “Our Prop­er Pubs are the per­fect place to enjoy a qui­et drink, grab a mid-week bite, get togeth­er at the week­end or enjoy the best sports cov­er­age around.”

The pub itself isn’t love­ly – too plas­tic for our taste, lack­ing even the dis­tinc­tive­ness of decor Wether­spoon pubs gen­er­al­ly shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonethe­less, it was absolute­ly crammed with fam­i­lies shar­ing meals, and groups of foot­ball fans arranged in var­i­ous odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub tru­ly serv­ing its com­mu­ni­ty – buzzy and infor­mal, but smart with it.

The beer range was­n’t as tit­il­lat­ing as a typ­i­cal Spoons either with a small­er range of inter­est­ing bot­tled beers and no nov­el­ty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Har­vey’s Sus­sex Best, Lon­don Pride and Wad­worth 6X, with the last two tagged as Com­ing Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Har­vey’s and ESB are good choic­es – enough to get us a lit­tle bit excit­ed, any­way. Sus­sex Best was­n’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good – quirky, dry, a lit­tle leafy – but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a prob­lem.

The mem­ber of staff who pulled it saw at once that it was­n’t right, form­ing no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with anoth­er. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obvi­ous­ly so.

Don’t wor­ry, just make it two Sus­sex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a man­ag­er got involved, appar­ent­ly the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or oth­er­wise. He said firm­ly, even stern­ly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or head­less, but the mem­ber of staff pour­ing the beer had clear­ly been put in a tricky posi­tion. So, chalk­ing it up to expe­ri­ence, we broke the dead­lock and agreed to take it, bear­ing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cos­met­ics aside, tast­ed accept­able, if a touch sweet and sub­dued.

Sit­ting out­side on the patio watch­ing the traf­fic go by we could­n’t help com­pare this expe­ri­ence to our recent expe­ri­ences in Wether­spoon pubs, where the slight­est com­plaint seems to trig­ger a full apol­o­gy and a replace­ment with­out hes­i­ta­tion. We would­n’t want to draw any con­clu­sions based on one vis­it to a Stonegate Spoon­sa­like, and one fum­bled trans­ac­tion, but it’s cer­tain­ly a first mark on the score­card.

Dis­clo­sure: we sold a copy of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub to some­one who works at Stonegate the oth­er day.

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suit­ed drinkers all over the pave­ment and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was qui­eter and we slipped into the cov­et­ed back room. It’s an amaz­ing pub, the Red Lion – real­ly beau­ti­ful, full of cut glass and mir­rors and warm light. There’s a rea­son Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swoon­ing in Nairn’s Lon­don. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serv­ing you that. It does­n’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and sug­gest­ed some­thing else. Impres­sive. Oliv­er’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, con­tin­ues to be decent enough with­out ignit­ing any great pas­sion on our part. ESB, on the oth­er hand, seems to get bet­ter every time we have it – rich­er, more bit­ter, ever juici­er. Same again, please. It gave us hang­overs but it was 100 per cent worth it.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Com­fort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s”