Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The squeezed middle

The sale of Fuller’s brewing interests to Asahi has underlined the highly exposed position in which many of the established, medium-sized firms find themselves. As a mid-sized brewer, Fuller’s said, it was being squeezed between the global brewers and the 2,000 smaller brewers across the UK. They went on to say that tax breaks given to microbrewers and the power of the big global drinks firms have left little space at the bar for those in the middle.

Progressive Beer Duty was introduced in 2002 by Gordon Brown with the aim of stimulating the number of small breweries in the UK. And it has certainly succeeded in this objective, with over 2,000 now in operation. However, as with many such well-intentioned measures, it has had unintended consequences. It allows a 50% discount on beer duty for breweries with an annual production under 5,000 hectolitres (3,055 barrels). That’s 59 barrels a week. Above this figure, the duty relief is steadily clawed back, until it entirely disappears at 60,000 hl (36,661 barrels). Many of the established family brewers are above this figure, or only just below it. Fuller’s, who were one of the biggest, were producing about 200,000 barrels a year.

In practice, many of the new small brewers have used the duty relief not to bolster the finances of their business, but to sell beer more cheaply, which is helped by the fact that many are in effect “hobby businesses” that aren’t expected to provide anyone with a full-time living. The result is that the established brewers are put at a severe price disadvantage when competing in the free trade, and also pubs taking beer at these lower prices are able to undercut their tied houses. The overall market share of these small brewers is relatively small, and to the likes of AB InBev they are no more than a pinprick on an elephant’s backside. But they have a much higher share of the market for cask beer in the free trade, and if you go in any pub that is able to buy beer on the open market it is likely that most of its cask lines are from microbreweries. Some of these beers are very good, but the main reason many of them are there is that they are cheap to buy.

The business model under which the family brewers developed was one of building up tied estates that would take the majority of the production from their brewery. For many years, this worked well enough, but trends in the industry have combined to undermine it. First, there has been a dramatic decline in the amount of beer sold in the on-trade, which has fallen by two-thirds over the past forty years. This in itself has had a severe impact on breweries producing beer for pubs. Added to this, there was the long-term switch from ale to lager, which now accounts for two-thirds of beer sold in pubs. Some breweries initially attempted to develop their own lager brands to keep their mash tuns busy – anyone remember Amboss and Einhorn? – but eventually found that these brews commanded little customer loyalty compared with nationally-advertised brands, and had often become a specific reason for people avoiding their pubs.

So they ended up dropping their own lager production and buying in brands such as Carling from outside, thus further reducing the throughput of their own breweries. Being left with tied estates where beer sales had fallen to the extent that many of the pubs were no longer viable, combined with large brewing plants not doing remotely the volume that they once did, it is hardly surprising that many family brewers decided that the best course of action was to sell up. The general outcome was to sell to a larger competitor, who would within a short time close the brewery and absorb the production to bolster the viability of their own plant.

However, all was not doom and gloom. Some of the family brewers had a number of attractive suburban and rural pubs that were ideally suited to capitalise on the growing trend for eating out in pubs. They were also able to pick up more such properties at knock-down prices from distressed pubcos, an area where, locally, both Robinson’s and Lees have been very active, as indeed were Fuller’s. But what kind of beer you sell has very little relevance to the business of a dining pub, and so they ended up being effectively chains of middle-class eateries with an under-utilised brewery tacked on.

Fuller’s reckoned that 85% of their profits came from their pubs and hotels, and so it is perhaps understandable that they, and previously their local competitors Young’s, decided to concentrate on that part of their business and accept an attractive offer for the brewing side. However, in doing that they are losing their distinctiveness. A brewery produces a unique, identifiable product that is recognisable to customers and may command a great deal of loyalty, but a pubco is, well, just another pubco.

There are very few pub operators that really stand out from the others in terms of how they are run and what they offer. Most identifiable pub “brands” are, in effect, the equivalent of restaurant brands, such as Brewhouse & Kitchen and Brunning & Price, and the only really distinct pub brand that means something to a wider audience is Wetherspoon’s. This makes non-brewing pubcos more vulnerable in the long-term to takeover, and means their management have to constantly ask themselves what it is that they bring to the party that another owner wouldn’t. Just look at what happened to Boddington’s.

It’s also something of a fallacy that you can make such a clear distinction between the brewing and pub sides of the business. Yes, if you own a chain of pubs and a chain of hair salons, they have nothing in common and can each stand on their own feet, but a brewery and a pub chain to some extent support each other. You can work out that one is more profitable than the other, but there’s a large amount of discretion in how you allocate common costs and calculate transfer prices. It’s rather like arguing that, since your right arm does much more work than the left, you can dispense with your left arm and reduce your food intake. If you separate brewing and pubs, both will be diminished and their long-term survival as businesses put at greater risk. Samuel Smith’s have realised this, and make sure that every drop of beer sold in their pubs is their own production.

Fuller’s stood out from the rest of the crowd of family brewers both because its location in the capital gave it a higher profile and because, more than most of the others, it produced special edition and collaboration beers than piqued the interest of enthusiasts. It also stood on a site with perhaps uniquely valuable redevelopment potential. You can’t really imagine a multinational brewer swooping on Arkell’s or Felinfoel, or their brewery sites being worth tens of millions for upmarket housing. But the announcement of this deal will certainly have given many directors of family brewers cause for thought about their long-term future.

It’s often the case that people attract warm tributes when they die while having a much more equivocal reputation during their lives. I can’t help feeling that some of those shedding crocodile tears over the sale of Fuller’s are the same people who a year ago were happy to dismiss London Pride as “boring brown beer”. Maybe if we want to help the prospects of the family brewers, beer enthusiasts should give them a bit more love as upholders of a unique British tradition, rather than spending all their time gushing over the latest pastry stout or enamel-stripping IPA in an industrial-chic tap room.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Turning Japanese

There was shock news this morning when it was announced that Japanese brewers Asahi were buying Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million. Fuller’s will retain their pub estate and enter into a long-term supply contract with Asahi. It’s fair to say this came as a complete bolt from the blue and hadn’t been even hinted at by any commentators on the industry. It’s also surprising in that the major international brewers, with the exception of Molson Coors and Sharp’s, had in recent years largely turned their back on the British cask beer sector.

Asahi already own the Meantime brewery in London, and a number of brands including Grolsch and Peroni, but they aren’t major players in the British beer market, so the deal doesn’t really raise any competition concerns. From a purely financial point of view, it is entirely understandable that the directors said yes to an offer it was hard to refuse.

However, it is disappointing news in that it represents a further blow to vertical integration in British brewing. This has historically been a key factor in establishing distinctive identities between different pubs. If you don’t have any stake in brewing, then the temptation is inevitably going to be to stock the same popular beer brands that all your competitors have, thus overall reducing the amount of choice available to drinkers. This was well summed up by Tandleman here:

The track record of vertically integrated businesses that have sold off their breweries to concentrate on running their pubs is a distinctly mixed one. Young’s is still in business as an independent company, but whatever happened to Boddingtons or Eldridge Pope? And the company loses its distinctive USP and just becomes just another business running an estate of pubs that must be ripe for merger or acquisition. What is there that distinguishes a Young’s pub in the customer’s eye from a Stonegate or M&B one? Brewing is something that is in the blood, while being a landlord of pubs is just another way of making money.

While the future of the Fuller’s brewery is secure for the time being, there must be a question mark over its long-term survival given that it occupies a prime piece of West London real estate. And there’s another brewery located about 60 miles to the north that I’m sure would have some spare capacity to fit the Fuller’s beers in if they asked nicely...

There will also be questions about the future of the Gales beer brands, and of the Dark Star brewery in West Sussex that Fuller’s bought only recently.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Here to stay low

Over the past couple of years, there has been a marked increase in interest in no- and low-alcohol beers, accompanied by a substantial rise in sales. As the Morning Advertiser reports, it certainly looks as though this is not a passing fad, and they are here to stay. However, it’s important not to get carried away, and it should be remembered that there was a similar surge in enthusiasm in the early 1990s that eventually fizzled out. The inherent nature of these products means there is a basic limit to their appeal.

It has to be remembered that the fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. That’s why people drink it. They will choose between different beers based on taste, but they choose beer in the first place because it is alcoholic. Even the weakest beers within the normal strength range will have a subtle but gradual effect. What non-alcoholic beer aims to do is to mimic the experience and ritual of drinking beer, and as far as possible the taste, while avoiding that effect. But it always carries an implication of “ideally, I would like a normal beer, but for whatever reason I feel I need to drink this instead.”

Realistically, it is never going to be seen it as a product worth drinking and seeking out in its own right. It only exists because normal-strength beer exists. Nobody is going to go on a non-alcoholic pub crawl, or hold a festival of non-alcoholic beer, or make a pilgrimage to a particular pub because of the rare non-alcoholic beer it sells. Although the term may seem harsh, it is essentially a distress purchase.

The linked article refers to the “significant benefits of having a drink with friends”, but that occasion only exists because other people are drinking alcohol. Yes, a non-alcoholic beer will allow someone to join in, but without the alcohol it wouldn’t be happening in the first place. Not for nothing is alcohol, in moderation, referred to as a “social lubricant”. And, if you choose a non-alcoholic beer without any obvious pressing reason to do so, your choice may come across as a self-righteous reproach to your drinking companions.

Health may be cited as a reason for choosing non-alcoholic beers, but they still contain calories, and sugar, the current bĂȘte noire of the public health lobby, whereas diet soft drinks are free from both. And de-alcoholisation is a complex “industrial” process that requires significant investment in the necessary plant. They’re not products that can just be knocked up in a shed in a natural, artisanal way.

As well as being the key to the appeal of beer, alcohol is also an essential component in its flavour. Even in the weakest mild or light lager, it’s still a noticeable part of the mix, and it becomes more pronounced the further you go up the strength scale. Take the alcohol away, and something seems to be missing. A couple of years ago, I did a tasting of some widely-available non-alcoholic beers, with distinctly mixed results.

Early alcohol-free beers, which all tended to be lagers, often had a noticeably cardboardy taste. This seems to have been much reduced nowadays, and some of the lagers are quite palatable, if distinctly bland. As many normal-strength lagers are fairly subtle in flavour terms anyway, this is maybe not too much of a problem. Things get more difficult when it comes to ales. Full-strength ales generally have more robust flavours, and when an attempt is made to translate this to a low-alcohol brew the results can often be quite unpleasant, with a malty gloopiness and a sense of unfermented wort. The St Peter’s Without which I sampled was so nasty that it went straight down the sink. I recently tried the new low-alcohol Old Speckled Hen, which wasn’t much better, with an odd off-flavour that reminded me of nothing so much as room-temperature school milk. Adnams’ low-alcohol Ghost Ship was considerably better, with a hoppy character reminiscent of the standard brew, but even here you feel that is hiding some nastiness lurking underneath.

Having said that, it has to be accepted that these beers do fill a substantial and growing market niche. It’s no good to pooh-pooh them and just say “get a proper pint down your neck!” Whether at home or out and about, people have a range of entirely valid reasons not to want to drink alcohol: driving, wanting to keep a clear head for work, pregnancy or other health issues. Surely choosing something that has at least some of the flavour and character of beer is preferable to sparkling water or Diet Coke. Who knows, they could even act as a “gateway drug” to proper beer!

As I mentioned in the post I linked to, I had been trying some of these beers and continue to do so. Following a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, I wanted to reduce my beer consumption somewhat, and one way of doing this was sometimes to replace the glass of beer drunk at home in front of the telly with an alcohol-free alternative. This wasn’t the world’s most cutting-edge beer-drinking experience in the first place, and I am still maintaining the ritual of beer drinking, which is the key aspect. However, I have to say that I have generally stuck to lagers, as I can’t really get on with any of the low-alcohol ales.

Low- and no-alcohol beers are certainly here to stay, but some of the more bullish predictions of their likely market potential are overstated. They will only ever be an inferior alternative to normal-strength beer that cuts out the alcohol. They may be not too bad, all things considered, but they will never be quite as appealing, and people aren’t going to start seeking them out in their own right. Unless people were visibly enjoying the one, the other would have no reason to exist.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Ale-aggro

Over the weekend, Boak & Bailey published a long and thorough blogpost on the story of Watney’s Red Barrel, which is well worth reading in depth. It has acquired a reputation as the examplar of all that was bad in British beer at the time of the formation of CAMRA, but was it really all that bad? Some say no, but others say yes.

Red Barrel was in fact replaced in 1971 by a significantly different beer just called Red, which was, as Boak & Bailey explain, deliberately made to be blander and even more lacking in character. Yet, in the popular imagination, many of the failings of Red are now mistakenly attributed to Red Barrel, which is the name that sticks in the mind.

I carried out a quick Twitter poll to see how many had sampled either. Given that you would have to be in your mid-fifties to have had the chance, a surprising number had, which is perhaps indicative of the age profile of my followers. Although the early years of my drinking career overlapped with the final days of Red, I have to say I’ve never sampled either, as they weren’t commonplace in the areas where I lived. By the time I moved to Surrey in 1980, where Watney’s pubs were thick on the ground, the standard keg offer was Ben Truman Export, which had taken the place of Red, alongside Watney’s Special Bitter.

It must be remembered that Red belonged to the category of “premium kegs” which were ubiquitous in the big brewers’ pubs at the time. Each of the “Big Six”had their own brand – Worthington E, Double Diamond, Whitbread Tankard, Courage Tavern and McEwan’s Export – while Greenalls had Festival. These beers were sold alongside ordinary bitter and mild (whether real or keg) and commanded a price premium of a couple of pence a pint. For a time they were seen as desirable, aspirational drinks in the same way as Peroni is now, but by the end of the 1980s they had pretty much entirely disappeared. Effectively, premium lager and the real ale revival combined to kill them off. In fact, it’s now difficult in mainstream pubs to find any kind of conventional, non-nitro, keg ale, so it’s not possible to recreate the Red Barrel experience. Perhaps the nearest I’ve come is mid-2000s non-nitro Smithwick’s in Ireland.

A parallel could be drawn with the Austin Allegro, which is often seen as representative of the bad side of the 1970s British motor industry in the same way as Red was to British brewing. This was introduced in 1973 as the successor to the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 series, which in its day was widely regarded as a modern and forward-looking product. Yet the Allegro offered no significant improvement, while at the same time doubling down on some of the earlier models’ bad points. Motoring writers remain divided as to whether it was actually quite as bad as its popular image, and there were certainly plenty of other clunkers around at the time. But it has certainly come to stand, in the same way as Red Barrel, as a prime symbol of 1970s British naffness.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Craft will eat itself

Over the weekend, my attention was drawn to this blogpost entitled Is Craft Beer Burning Out? The opening paragraph immediately grabs your attention:
IPAs so cloudy they look like radioactive pond water, double mocha-wocha choco-vanilla fudgy wudgy pastry stouts, DDH fruit smoothies (that’s Double Dry Hopped for the uninitiated) and salty goses that taste like gym instructor sweat. Is craft beer trying so hard these days it’s in danger of burning itself out?
This trend is perhaps more pronounced on the other side of the Atlantic, but the constant pursuit of the new has certainly spread over here too. It ends up going in ever-decreasing circles as brewers and drinkers hare after increasingly outlandish novelties. Of course there is a place for innovation in beer, but if people never want to drink anything twice it ultimately becomes self-defeating.

It also undermines quality. If you’re never going to get the chance to drink a beer twice, then the incentive to make a product where drinkers will want to make repeat purchases disappears, and there’s no opportunity to tweak recipes in response to customer feedback. And, as the author points out, whereas in the past brewers would make small-scale test batches to develop and refine any new product, now they just put anything out without testing in the knowledge that drinkers will be moving on to something else anyway.

There’s a story that one particular brewer once had a batch that was badly affected by the common brewing fault known as diacetyl, but instead of pouring it down the drain they decided to rebrand it as “Butterscotch Porter”. That kind of thing now seems to be par for the course – however it turns out, someone will regard it as “interesting”.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the things damaging cask beer is the culture of ever-changing guest beers, which presents it as a disposable, interchangeable product and prevents the development of brand loyalty. The constant pursuit of novelty also serves to further widen the gulf between the enthusiast and the ordinary drinker in the pub with his or her regular pint of Pedigree or Carling.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Style or substance?

There have been quite a few articles in recent months asking the question of “how to save cask?” Some of these, especially those from across the Atlantic, refer to cask beer as a “style”. But, as I have pointed out in the past, that is incorrect. Bitter is a style; IPA is a style, but cask is rather a whole system of storage, maturation and dispense that can encompass a wide variety of different styles, but is critically dependent on sales volume to be viable.

However, it has come to be established as a beer category in its own right that commands a great deal of loyalty. In the 1970s, many people would identify themselves as “a bitter drinker” or “a mild drinker”, which could include both cask and keg, but that has virtually disappeared now. Cask is not just a delivery mechanism for various styles, and indeed people are much more likely to identify themselves as “a real ale drinker”. That doesn’t mean they will never touch beers that aren’t real, but that if there is no real bitter available they don’t immediately turn to a keg bitter as a substitute. The handpump has become clearly established as a distinctive symbol of a particular generic kind of beer.

The loyalty goes go the other way too, though. Some people identify as “smooth drinkers”, and I have seen people come in to pubs and ask whether they have any smooth. Likewise, the typical Guinness drinker would not see a cask stout as an acceptable alternative – they identify with Guinness as a brand, not with stout as a style.

I recently ran the Twitter poll shown above. Presumably most of my followers, or at least the ones who would answer this poll, are cask ale drinkers, and the results show that, while some do drink non-craft keg ales, for most it is something they do rarely or never. Personally I can only recall a handful of occasions in the past year, a couple in Sam Smith’s pubs, and one in a keg-only free house in a small town in Wales where I had a half of Banks’s Mild. I don’t dogmatically avoid keg beers, but if I find myself in a pub where there is no cask available I will generally switch to lager or perhaps Guinness rather than smooth ales.

It’s noticeable how little cask and keg actually tread on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Forty years ago, many brewers had a mixture of both versions of the same underlying product in their pubs, but nowadays the only ones I can think of are Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s. The vast majority of the remaining family breweries, at least in their own pubs, are all-cask. About a third of the pubs in the country still have no cask beer, but in most areas they tend not to be the ones the casual pubgoer would go into, leading some people to overestimate the dominance of cask. And a lot of keg beers are sold in clubs, which by definition tend to be used by regulars rather than casual customers. Very few of the new generation of breweries produce keg versions of their best-selling cask ales.

Much the same is true in the sphere of craft keg. Most craft kegs tend to occupy niches where cask is absent, typically American-style IPAs and very strong or speciality beers that by definition are not going to sell in the quantities needed for cask. There is some overlap, but not all that much. However, it is not difficult to foresee in the future that a keg American-style IPA, albeit at a moderate, sessionable strength, will become a regular fixture in mainstream pubs, no doubt to the detriment of cask. For some drinkers now, the fact that these beers are on keg is a selling point in itself.

It’s also important to remember that much of the change in market share amongst the various segments is due to customer churn rather than direct switching from one to another. Of course some drinkers have transferred their allegiance from cask to craft keg, at least on some occasions if not all the time, but that isn’t the prime reason for the apparent rise of one at the expense of the other.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Don’t let the facts get in the way

For some years now, we have often seen assertions from sections of the beer commentariat that one of the main causes of the decline of the pub trade in recent years has been the policies of the large tied pubcos. However, as I argued here, there really is very little substance in this. Yes, in many respects the pubcos have been less than ideal custodians of their estates, but the decline of pubs has been due to a lethal cocktail of social change and legislative restriction. Running them in a somewhat different manner would not, overall, have made much difference.

The British pub trade today comprises a wide variety of different ownership models, including large and small pubcos, managed pub chains, family brewers and independent operators. If the pubcos really did have a particularly negative influence, then surely the other sectors would be doing markedly better. But, in fact, as Pete Brown points out in this article, over the past ten years it has in fact been the major operators who have done much better than the independents.

While everyone can point to examples of independently-run pubs that have prospered, there are plenty of others that have quietly fallen by the wayside, not to mention the huge numbers of pub disposals that nobody else has even sniffed at. Can anyone seriously argue that, under different ownership, all those beached-whale estate pubs and street-corner locals in run-down urban areas would have thrived? The reasons why one pub succeeds over another are completely different from those behind the wider decline of the trade as a whole.

The whole argument is just a convenient distraction from the true underlying issues. And it should always be remembered that, in the 1970s, the beer tie saved real ale in this country.

I also can’t help thinking that, in surveying the courses of pub decline over the past ten or so years, Pete as usual totally ignores the familiar elephant in the room...

Friday, 4 January 2019

Why can’t they just leave us alone?

Between Christmas and New Year, the Daily Telegraph reported how Public Health England were urging the government to impose strict maximum calorie limits on a huge range of common dishes eaten out of the home. Now, as I have argued before, while there may be practical difficulties in achieving it, there isn’t really any objection in principle to providing calorie information. However, this goes far beyond that to represent an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday actions, and something that is not mirrored in any other country.

There’s a huge list of practical problems with this. For a start, it’s a blanket, one size fits all solution that does not take account of people’s hugely different dietary requirements. Someone doing hard manual work (and there are still a few about) will need far more calories than a sparrow-like maiden aunt. There’s nothing to stop people ordering two meals if they don’t think that one is enough. And how does it deal with self-service buffets, or the growing trend for tapas-style menus with a variety of “small plate” dishes?

It must also be remembered that, in recent years, there has been a marked reduction in the average amount of calories consumed per person. If we are indeed as a society becoming more obese (which is less clear-cut than often supposed), then it is due to doing less, not eating more.

Not surprisingly, there was a chorus of protest in response to this news. Surely, you might think, there would be tremendous political mileage for any party prepared to call a halt on the ever-growing tendency to want to micromanage every aspect of people’s daily lives. Why can’t people be treated like responsible adults and left alone to make their own decisions?

But the problem is, as I have often said, that people in general do not identify any commonality of interest with others whose freedom is being infringed. I may be outraged that my ability to do this is being curbed, but I will cheer on when whatever that other dirty, irresponsible scumbag does is banned. As long as people to continue to view things within their own particular silo, it will continue happening.

It all started, of course, with the campaign against tobacco. And how many people welcomed that, and flatly denied that it represented the start of a slippery slope?