Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Micro to macro

Doesn't look like a microbrewery to me
In the seventy years from the beginning of the twentieth century, as far as I can see not a single new commercial brewery was established in the UK. All change and development in the industry came from consolidation and takeover, with only a small handful of new plants being constructed by existing companies.

However, things then began to change. One or two “new wave” breweries actually predated CAMRA, the Miner’s Arms in Somerset springing to mind, but after the organisation was formed the number slowly but steadily started to increase. What was at first a trickle became a steady flow and more recently a flood.

For many years we were happy to call them “micro-breweries” to distinguish them from the established independent breweries. However, as some grew bigger, this term became increasingly inappropriate. Some are now brewing considerably more than the smaller family brewers, and a growing number such as Castle Rock, Wye Valley and Butcombe have developed tied estates running into double figures. Many are now established and familiar features on bars up and down the country.

So clearly they’re not in any meaningful sense “micro” any more. Indeed, is there still any point in making a distinction between them and the pre-1970 breweries? Many younger consumers will perceive no difference in kind between Timothy Taylors and Saltaire on the bar or the PBA shelves, and would probably view Black Sheep as a long-standing Yorkshire institution.

To my mind, though, having lived through the history, there still is a clear difference. A brewery that has endured through several generations and has been rooted in a tied estate is not at all the same as one founded relatively recently and initially mostly depending on free trade for growth. I’m not saying one is better than the other, and in fact some of my favourite beers come from post-1975 breweries, but the distinction is still valid.

Maybe once some of these new breweries have survived changes of ownership or being passed on to at least one new generation it might be eroded, but there remains a big gap between “founded before 1900” and “founded since 1975”. And, if they’re no longer micro-breweries, but aren’t family breweries either, what are we supposed to call them now?

(And that’s without even touching on the thorny issue of whether they qualify as “craft”).


  1. No idea what you call them or, as you imply whether it matters to the average consumer who would have Black Sheep (good example) in the same mental bracket as Tim Taylors or Thwaites.

    Incidentally, I vaguely recall Butcombe as early '80s, but wouldn't have clue about Otter, and guess most Southern drinkers would have those in the same basket as Badger anyway.

  2. I've read small breweries get some sort of excise tax break. Which beer aficionado in which Government was responsible for this, and how much of the recent explosion in brewing companies can be attributed to it? My first experience of these new breweries was Brendan Dobbin's Ardwick brew-pub, circa 1987. His Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is unforgettable. I vaguely recall he was, as a brewing consultant, responsible for what is now a global brand, but had to eventually change the name when he sold it in his own pub - unpasteurised, of course. What a beer.

    1. Yes, Progressive Beer Duty, introduced by Gordon Brown in 2002. Undoubtedly a factor in the dramatic rise in brewery numbers in recent years, although it's clawed back once production rises and is often seen as imposing a kind of "glass ceiling" on brewery expansion.

      I certainly remember Brendan Dobbin and the King's Arms from the late 80s. The beers were a revelation, but the pub was in an incredibly rough location. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was eventually renamed as Yakima Grande. He also brewed a house beer called Green Bullet for the Crown in Stockport.

  3. Castle Rock now have over 20 pubs. At one time they promoted themselves as "Nottingham's Major Micro" but I haven't heard that tag line for a while.

  4. I did the Kings Arms while trying to do all pubs in the City of Manchester then Greater Manchester,i thought it was in a great location with flats almost all around it and it being an old pub made it look out of place in an area like that.
    I have a decent photo of the pub taken when i visited it.


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