Tasting and Market Research, 1966

In July 1966, an anonymous editorial in A Monthly Bulletin explained how breweries of the time carried out market research into beer.

AMB was a Reader’s Digest style magazine focusing on beer and pubs and was published by the Brewers’ Society. About 18 months ago, Martyn Cornell sent us his spare volumes (he retains a full set) and we’ve been going through them with a fine tooth comb lately while researching a Big Project which is how we came across this article:

If you are market-researching in beer, you cannot merely send your team out for the day to knock on every other door in a suburban street. For one thing the men, who are probably your main customers, will be out at work: for another, they will not appreciate your representatives calling while they are out to ply their wives with drink.

The author explains that market research begins with sales statistics and surveys distributed to ‘bartenders’ (those who think that word is a recent Americanism, take note) and customers, before moving on to taste tests:

In the early days of market research in beer, tasting tests were conducted rather tentatively. Perhaps at heart the researchers wondered whether, deprived of the guidance of labels, consumers might not be foxed by any two beers of the same colour. In fact, it has been found that consumers’ discrimination is good provided only that they are kept to the kind of beer — mild, bitter, or whatever — to which they are most accustomed.

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The King is Dead, Long Live the King

George Simonds
Brewery owner George Simonds c.1910

We know that the idea of small vs. big in the world of brewing isn’t new, but it was in the post-war period that brewers in Britain got really big to the point where it began to seem problematic.

They were complacent, arrogant and confident in the belief that consumers wanted consistency and familiarity above all else, and as a result, removed much of the diversity and flavour (for better or worse) from British beer.

It’s too much to say that big beer has been ‘overthrown’ in the last fifty years, but it has certainly been challenged — not only by consumers and small brewers, but also by governments which supported vibrant entrepreneurship over tweedy stolidity.

But none of those Big Six breweries began life as faceless monoliths. They were all small breweries once, founded by plucky individuals who saw an opportunity to challenge the status quo and make some money on the way. Eventually, though, they had to hand over control to sons and grandsons until, hundreds of years later, push-me-pull-you committees of cousins, in-laws and outsiders with no real interest in beer were in charge.

Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.

That doesn’t mean their beer will necessarily become terrible overnight (Watney’s beer was pretty good in the 1920s, it seems) but big breweries with lots at stake take fewer risks, and are more easily tempted into diminishing the beer for the sake of profit.

We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap…”

If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.

This was prompted by a conversation between Alan McLeod and Stan Hieronymus.

Pinning down the Big Six

Window with the Bass logo, Kennington, South London.

We’ve been grappling with a problem this weekend: commentary on the British beer industry makes frequent reference to the Big Six, a set of colossal brewing companies emerging from the takeover mania of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Sometimes, though, it’s the Big Five, the Big Seven, or even the Big Eight; and the companies making up the Big Six in 1960 merge with others, grow and change names, which makes it hard to keep track.

In trying to tell a story, this is a pain.

Should we explain every name change as it happens, possibly confusing the reader and slowing down the narrative? Rely on footnotes? Or, as we’ve seen people do when writing about, say, the Royal Air Force, or Archibald ‘Cary Grant’ Leach, refer to them throughout by one name for the sake of clarity at the expense of accuracy? (With an explanatory note, of course.) We’re inclined towards the latter approach, but still thinking.

Anyway, for your information, in the oh-so-2002 Schott’s Miscellany style, here’s our best attempt to explain the Big Six.

UPDATED: Tandleman highlighted that we’d picked a bad source for our 1960 list, so we’ve found a better one from 1959 and changed the first section below.

UPDATED AGAIN: based on Martyn’s suggestions below. (We’ll also try to identify newspaper sources for each of the mergers/changes.)

The Big Six in 1959#
Ind Coope and Taylor Walker, Watney Mann, Courage and Barclay, Bass Ratcliffe Gretton, Whitbread, Scottish Brewers.
 
Brewery mergers/takeovers 1960-67
Courage Barclay + Simonds = Courage Barclay & Simonds (1960)
Scottish Brewers + Newcastle Breweries = Scottish and Newcastle (1960)
Bass + Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Mitchells & Butlers (1961)
Ind Coope/Taylor Walker + Ansells+Tetley Walker = Ind Coope Tetley Ansell (1961)
Ind Coope Tetley Ansell = Allied Breweries (1963)
Charrington United + Bass Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Charrington (1967)
 
The Big Six in 1967##
Bass Charrington, Allied Breweries, Whitbread, Watney Mann, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage Barclay & Simonds.
 
Brewery mergers/takeovers/name changes after 1967
Courage Barclay & Simonds = Courage (1970)
Watney Mann + Truman Hanbury & Buxton (owned by Grand Metropolitan Hotels) = Watney Mann & Truman (part of Grand Metropolitan) (1973)
Allied + J. Lyons = Allied Lyons (1978)
Bass Charrington = Bass (1983)
 
The Big Six in 1989###
Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Scottish & Newcastle, Whitbread.
 
The Big Seven
As above, but with Guinness.
 
  • # ‘Towards Larger Units in the Brewery Trade’, The Times, 19 February 1960, p.17. ‘What the Brewery Merger Means’, The Financial Times, 4 June 1959, p.11.
  • ## Beer: a report on the supply of beer, Monopolies Commission, 1969, table IV, p.5.
  • ### The Suppply of Beer, Monopolies and Mergers Commission, March 1989, Appendix 2.3, p.238.