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.

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.