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.
Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from sexist beer branding to chronic Oztalgia.
First, that brewery takeover news. Well, we say ‘takeover’ but in fact Heineken has actually acquired a non-controlling (49 per cent) stake in south London’s Brixton Brewery. With this, Camden Town and London Fields in mind, it begins to seem that the key to luring in investment from Big Beer is a good neighbourhood-specific brand name. We can certainly imagine Brixton Craft Lager competing for bar-space with Camden Hells in the near future. The general reaction seems to be neutral, shading positive — ‘good for them’ — but this slam from Yes! Ale reflects the counterview: “You may as well be pissin’ straight into the fermenter, Moneybags.”
Meanwhile, Spanish firm Mahou San Miguel has acquired a 30 per cent stake in Avery, a brewery in Colorado, while AB-InBev has acquired Australian upstarts Pirate Life lock, stock and (ahem) barrel. December is a busy time for this kind of activity every year now, it seems, perhaps for as obvious a reason as everyone scrambling to wrap up negotiations before the Christmas lull.
One final bit of reading on this: Richard Taylor of BrewDog writing at the BeerCast suggests that the Pirate Life story might signal how this will play out in future takeovers, with Big Beer winning over reluctant craft brewers with the offer of a separate smaller brewery to play around on making sour beers or whatever. “Hey guys, it’s fine”, he imagines the Big Beer negotiators saying. “We’ll build a new brewery for your core stuff and push it to market. You can keep the old kit and go wild on it. Brew what you like! Go for IT! HIGH FIVE. NOW. HIGH FIVE US LIKE A DUDE. RADICAL!’”
Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 December 2017: Brixton, Walkabout, TransPennine Trains”
Selling your brewery for fabulous amounts of money to a big multinational isn’t a problem — it’s doing so when you’ve made capital from being opposed to just that kind of thing.
If you had made a point of saying along the way, ‘We would never rule out selling to someone like AB-InBev — we have no beef with Big Beer,’ then it’s unlikely anyone would get annoyed when you did so.
So why didn’t you do that?
It must have been at least partly because you believed you’d gain less publicity and adulation, and sell less beer.
You might have been right to think that, but we suspect not: the other way, you’d gain marks for honesty, and pick up the kind of fans for whom beer isn’t so pungent with politics.
Either way, if you insist independence is important when it benefits you but then decide people who care about it are silly and immature when your situation changes, expect them to be annoyed.