Nobody else went quite as far, but certainly in the past many independent brewers sold a much higher proportion of their own products than they do now. They had their own lager brands, their own premium keg, their own standard bottled beers and in some cases their own Scotch whisky from bonded stocks built up over a long period of time. Holts still do this to some extent, with their own Crystal and Diamond lagers, although they sell Foster’s and Kronenbourg alongside them at a higher price.
However, most of their competitors have steadily retreated from these sections of the market. The standard 275ml bottles of brown and light ale, and sometimes sweet stout, that used to sit at room temperature on shelves behind the bar have long since bitten the dust. And, if you considered your pubs as profit centres in their own right rather than just outlets for your beers, it made no sense to stock own-brand lagers such as Einhorn and Slalom which just put some customers off, rather than heavily-advertised, well-known national brands. Nobody ever went in a Robinson’s pub because they stocked Einhorn rather than Heineken.
Some, such as Boddington’s, decided that there was no longer any point in remaining in brewing at all, and turned themselves into pure retailers. We all know what happened to them. Very recently, Hyde’s have moved to a new, smaller “craft” brewery which involved them concentrating solely on their cask ales. They have stopped brewing Harp Irish Lager under licence, and the smooth ale you will get in a Hyde’s pub is now Tetley’s, not Hyde’s own.
But, while this approach may have made commercial sense looking at pub estates in isolation, in the longer term it was eroding the volume and viability of the associated breweries, and there are signs now that things are starting to change. In the past few years we have seen BrewDog reinventing the concept of the tied house – while they do offer a range of other brewers’ products, the core of their appeal is their own beers. Fullers, having long ago axed their own K2 lager, have re-entered that section of the market with a new “craft lager” called Frontier. Now that there is a growing interest in, and acceptance of, distinctive British-brewed lagers, maybe it’s time for the likes of Robinson’s to re-enter that market rather than just being happy to stock Carling, Stella and Peroni.
If you run a brewery and have a tied estate, surely it makes sense, within commercial reality, to have as much of the throughput as possible in those pubs being beers you’ve brewed yourself, and to make the fact that they are places to drink Bloggs’ beers a unique selling point. It is the one thing that you can do, but no-one else can. You won’t get anywhere in business nowadays just by running a me-too operation that offers customers no specific reason to use it, and the brewery and pub estate need to be considered as an integrated whole, not two separate outfits with conflicting interests.