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.