News, Nuggets and Longreads 30 March 2019: Magic Rock, Bottle Shop, Light Ale

Here’s all the news and commentary on beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from takeovers to light ale.

First, some big news which would be more excit­ing if it had­n’t seemed inevitable, and if we had­n’t been through this cycle mul­ti­ple times in the past decade: Hud­der­s­field­’s Mag­ic Rock has been acquired by multi­na­tion­al brew­ing com­pa­ny Lion.

We’ve always found Mag­ic Rock­’s Richard Bur­house to be a frank, thought­ful sort of bloke, and his state­ment strikes home in a way these things often don’t:

Of course, I realise that this news will not be uni­ver­sal­ly well received but I’m also con­scious that inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned brew­ing com­pa­nies don’t invest in Hud­der­s­field every day, and I’m delight­ed that the jour­ney we start­ed eight years ago has got us to this point… I’m proud that we con­tin­ue to be a good news sto­ry in the town; the deal with Lion secures growth and longevi­ty for Mag­ic Rock, gen­uine job secu­ri­ty for our employ­ees and enables us to hire more peo­ple and con­tribute more to the econ­o­my of the local area going for­ward.

It’s inter­est­ing that of the four brew­eries involved in the found­ing of Unit­ed Craft Brew­ers in 2015, three have now been bought by multi­na­tion­als. We said at the time that UCB rep­re­sent­ed a state­ment of ambi­tion, which ideas seems to have been borne out by the pas­sage of time. Any­way, that’s one rumour down, leav­ing one more (that we’ve heard) to go…


More news, not per­haps unre­lat­ed to the above:


Light split (HSD and Light Ale).

Justin Mason at Get Beer. Drink Beer. has been research­ing and reflect­ing upon one of the most pop­u­lar 20th cen­tu­ry beer mix­es, light and bit­ter:

Light and Bit­ter is, as you might expect, a half of Bit­ter (usu­al­ly a bit more, three quar­ters was­n’t uncom­mon) served in a pint glass or mug with a bot­tle of Light Ale as an accom­pa­ni­ment. This was to be mixed as you saw fit, either in mea­sured stages but more usu­al­ly as half the bot­tle, tak­ing it almost to the top, and the oth­er half when you were down to the half pint lev­el again… I could­n’t remem­ber the last time I saw any­body order or drink a Light and Bit­ter in any pub I was in for at least ten years…


A mural in south London.

Stay­ing in the realms of the old school, Desert­er has been tour­ing the work­ing men’s clubs of south Lon­don:

Have you ever walked past those huge old build­ings that have a Courage sign from anoth­er epoch, but offer no encour­age­ment to enter? They’re mem­bers’ clubs, where the beer is as cheap as fibs and ‘refurb’ means a new snook­er table. Lib­er­al Clubs, Work­ing Men’s Clubs, Social Clubs. A mys­tery to most. A sanc­tu­ary to some… Roxy and Gail had become mem­bers of a CIU club and that enti­tled them to vis­it any of their 1800+ clubs in the UK and take in their spe­cial ’70s-ness, low-price pints, mas­sive func­tion rooms and strong cue-sports pres­ence. I bor­rowed a card and kicked off our club tour at the Peck­ham Lib.


J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2002 & 2009.

Archive arti­cle of the week: can you imag­ine a news­pa­per today pub­lish­ing any­thing as niche and geeky as this set of ver­ti­cal tast­ing notes by Michael Jack­son on J.W. Lees Har­vest Ale from 1995?

The exact influ­ence of age is open to argu­ment. Nine­ty-nine out of a hun­dred beers will go down­hill. Only the strong and com­plex might improve. Before this tast­ing, I would have said that Lees Har­vest Ale might devel­op favourably for three to six months. Now, I think six or sev­en years. Beyond that, oxi­da­tion cre­ates Madeira-like notes, which can become dom­i­nant. From day one, the herbal flow­er­i­ness of the hop can recede, but it was still def­i­nite­ly evi­dent in the 1990.


For more good read­ing, check out Alan on Thurs­day and Stan on Mon­day.

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, Nuggets & Longreads 4 August 2018: Alcohol, Mirages, Contracts

Here’s everything to do with beer and pubs that struck us as bookmarkable in the past week, from alcohol guidance to estate pubs.

First, a bit of news from the oth­er side of the world: Lion, which seems to be on a spend­ing spree, has just bought pio­neer­ing New Zealand ‘bou­tique brew­ery’ Har­ring­ton’s, found­ed in 1991.

Mean­while, in Aus­tralia, AB-InBev (via it’s ZX Ven­tures invest­ment wing) has acquired online beer retail­er Booze­Bud, to go with sim­i­lar pur­chas­es world­wide such as Beer­hawk here in the UK.


 

Illustration: poison symbol (skull and crossbones)

For the Guardian philoso­pher Julian Bag­gi­ni reflects on the essen­tial prob­lem of alco­hol guid­ance in the UK: the entan­gle­ment of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence-based advice with mat­ters of moral­i­ty.

[We] like to think in clean, clear cat­e­gories of good and bad. With our puri­tan­i­cal Protes­tant his­to­ry, alco­hol has always fall­en on the dark side of this divide. So when the truth turns out to be com­pli­cat­ed, rather than accept this mature­ly, we refuse to acknowl­edge the good and car­ry on as though it were all bad. Because drunk­en­ness is sin­ful, moral con­dem­na­tion of it trumps any oth­er redemp­tive qual­i­ties it might have.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 4 August 2018: Alco­hol, Mirages, Con­tracts”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 21 July 2018: Films, Maps, Infographics

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from SIBA to Ales by Mail.

First, an inter­est­ing nugget of news: a few months ago, SIBA’s mem­bers reject­ed a bid by lead­er­ship to make room in the organ­i­sa­tion for larg­er brew­eries; now, rather on the qui­et, the mem­ber­ship has been over­ruled. One SIBA mem­ber con­tact­ed us to express dis­ap­point­ment, but also res­ig­na­tion, and relief that at least it did­n’t seem to be caus­ing a huge row: “SIBA needs a peri­od of calm and a sense of busi­ness as usu­al.” Steve Dunk­ley at Beer Nou­veau, mean­while, offers com­men­tary from a small brew­er’s per­spec­tive:

SIBA is repo­si­tion­ing itself to include, and be fund­ed, by big­ger brew­eries, at the expense of the small­er ones. It’s set­ting its stall out to cam­paign for tax breaks for large com­pa­nies, at the expense of small­er ones.  It claims to be the voice of Inde­pen­dent British Brew­ing, yet run­ning the very real risk of clos­ing down a lot of its small mem­bers, dri­ving away a lot more, and not attract­ing even more. SIBA has around 830 mem­bers, less than half of the almost 2,000 British brew­eries there were in 2016, yet still claims to be the voice of the indus­try. It states itself that the major­i­ty of its mem­bers pro­duce less than 1,000hl, yet its actions don’t rep­re­sent them.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 21 July 2018: Films, Maps, Info­graph­ics”

Crossover Event: Beavertown & Heineken

Heineken sign

Beaver­town has sold a sub­stan­tial stake to Heineken  – they’re not spec­i­fy­ing how much but 49 per cent seems a rea­son­able assump­tion – and our Twit­ter men­tions have gone a bit mad.

That’s because a few weeks ago, you might recall, we wrote a piece reflect­ing on signs one might look out for to indi­cate that a brew­ery is ready­ing itself for sale, point­ing to Beaver­town as an exam­ple of a firm that seemed to be glow­ing hot.

Now, let’s be clear: our post was actu­al­ly pret­ty ten­ta­tive – might this, pos­si­bly that – and, though we named AB-InBev as a pos­si­ble suit­or in the quick Tweet we fired off before the post, we did­n’t spec­i­fy any names in the post prop­er because we did­n’t have a clue.

Even if we’d guessed Heineken would have been low down the list giv­en its fair­ly recent acqui­si­tion of anoth­er Lon­don brew­ery, Brix­ton.

(Although with­in min­utes of our post­ing mul­ti­ple peo­ple had mes­saged us to say, “It’s Heineken”, and prop­er jour­nal­ists soon fer­ret­ed out the sto­ry.)

So, yes, we’re feel­ing pleased that our log­ic was test­ed and seems to have held up but, no, we don’t feel like sooth­say­ers or a pair of Mys­tic Megs. What we came up with was half edu­cat­ed guess, half luck.

In the PR around today’s news Beaver­town has addressed a few impor­tant points head on, admit­ting to hav­ing swerved telling the truth because (as we acknowl­edged in our post) busi­ness­es don’t gen­er­al­ly talk about deals while they’re being nego­ti­at­ed and, indeed, are usu­al­ly legal­ly pro­hib­it­ed from doing so:

It’s been an uncom­fort­able few weeks as spec­u­la­tive rumours have been fly­ing about.  The real­i­ty is that some­times in busi­ness you can’t share every­thing and I’m a true believ­er in not talk­ing about any­thing unless it is a done deal, and up until this very day there was no deal.

It’s at this point, though, that we’ll refer to an even old­er post of ours, from May last year: brew­eries could avoid a lot of the crit­i­cism and high emo­tion that hits on takeover day, and lingers for months and even years after, if they made a point of say­ing from much ear­li­er on in the cycle some­thing like, “We some­times talk to poten­tial investors and would nev­er rule out sell­ing a stake in the com­pa­ny, just so you know.”

Peo­ple will prob­a­bly under­stand if you have to keep the specifics of par­tic­u­lar deals qui­et, as long as the very idea that you might be talk­ing to whichev­er glob­al giant isn’t a nasty sur­prise.

What­ev­er the logis­tics behind the deci­sion, how­ev­er good the news for the com­pa­ny, regard­less of whether the beer stays the same, there will always be peo­ple who feel stung when a com­pa­ny which was sell­ing a set of val­ues as much as pale ale decides that one of those val­ues does­n’t mat­ter any more.