Initially, it was met with guarded optimism, with CAMRA welcoming it as a means of preserving both the pubs and the brewery. However, it wasn’t long before it all started to unravel, and the announcement came that Brains were unlikely to reopen their new, state-of-the-art brewery, and that the beers could well end up being brewed in England. I’m sure Bedford or Wolverhampton could make a decent fist of them, but this would mean that a once-proud brewery company would be reduced a mere financial husk, with no direct involvement in either brewing or pub operation.
It should not be forgotten that, in the 1970s, Brains were one of the select band of breweries to offer real ale in every single pub they owned. Their flagship beer SA was one of the early standard-bearers of the real ale movement, although it is in a style that is no longer so fashionable. It is still one of my favourites, though, and one I will usually go for if I happen to see it on the bar.
However, they have suffered from the usual problems encountered by every brewery mainly dependent on the on-trade, which has halved over the last couple of decades. And in recent years they have seemed to lack a coherent strategy, introducing a range of craft beers that were well-received, but seemed to fall between two stools in the marketplace, and increasing their estate by expanding into England, only to sell all those pubs again early last year. Plus the lockdowns in Wales have been even longer and more restrictive than those in England, and Brains have now become the first major brewing casualty of the Covid crisis. Tandleman has also blogged very perceptively on the Brains story here.
No doubt this news will give the directors of the remaining family brewers pause for thought as to whether the vertically integrated model combining brewery and pubs is still relevant in today’s business landscape. Going back a couple of generations, this was the default in the industry. Breweries acquired pubs to sell their product, and the number of pubs they owned was a key factor in judging their success and status. Most production went through their own pubs, and most of what the pubs sold came from the owning brewery.
Up and down the country there was a patchwork quilt of independent breweries of various sizes, in general just producing variations on the theme of standard British beer styles. People would, in general, choose a pub based on its location, its atmosphere, where their friends went and what activities took place there rather than specifically which beer it sold. Obviously some beers were better regarded than others, but by the end of the 1960s the wave of big brewery takeovers had eliminated pretty much all of the total clunkers. Perhaps one of the last to go was Swales of Manchester, taken over by Boddingtons in 1970 with 38 pubs and rapidly closed down, whose beer was dismissed as “Swales’s Swill.” But I’m too young to remember it, and I may be unjustly denigrating them.
There were still about 100 independent family brewers remaining at the dawn of the CAMRA era. Some, such as Boddingtons and Young’s, had strong local followings, whereas others weren’t met with such enthusiasm. Locally, I don’t think people would have gone much out of their way to drink Burtonwood or Matthew Brown. But all of them had their own individual character, and there was something to be said for pretty much all of them. The only one that people seemed to struggle to find a good word about seemed to be Gibbs Mew of Salisbury. Often the main determinant of which pub to choose was whether or not they sold real ale – people would choose a real Oldham Brewery pub over a keg Thwaites one.
Over the years, the various pressures on the industry caused many of these companies to be taken over or leave brewing, with the result that less than half are still standing today. It must always be remembered that, with the one exception of Matthew Brown being taken over by Scottish & Newcastle in the late 1980s, all of these were agreed deals. The single biggest factor determining survival or extinction was the continued commitment of the owning family.
In the ensuing years, various changes occurred in the industry to undermine the viability of the integrated model. First was the rise of lager, which by the middle of the 1980s accounted for half of all beer sold in pubs. Many family brewers developed their own brands, some decent, some less so, but they never resonated with customers in the same way as their ales, and the lack of a well-known national brand on the bar was often a reason for drinkers to avoid their pubs.
Then there was the growth of the food trade. Some brewers had attractive suburban and rural pubs in their estates that were well-placed to capitalise on this, but it reduced the overall importance of ale in the sales mix. After the 1990 Beer Orders, there was a growing expectation of seeing a wider range of beers on the bar, whether rotating guest beers or national brands, making brewers’ own ranges look dull and uninspiring.
And the dramatic decline of total beer volumes in pubs, which halved between 1998 and 2019, put further pressure on the brewing side of the business. Typically, the family brewers sold a much higher proportion of their production in the on-trade than the industry as a whole. This trend has particularly affected wet-led pubs without food sales to fall back on, and this was exacerbated by the 2007 smoking ban. This type of pub was over-represented in the estates of many of the family brewers, such as those in the North-West.
The overall effect of these changes has been to greatly erode the synergy between the brewing and pub-operating sides of the business, and diminish the relative importance of brewing. As I’ve said in the past, many of these companies have come to look like a chain of smart dining pubs with an under-utilised ale brewery tacked on as an afterthought. Inevitably, this has caused some of them to question whether it makes sense to carry on this way in the future, and no doubt more will do the same.
But surely, if you are running an integrated business, it makes sense to make a virtue of it rather than seeing it as a problem. There are no magic answers, but several breweries have found ways to address this. For firms varying from Bathams to BrewDog, the fact that you can buy those particular beers in those pubs or bars is a major factor in defining their appeal.
Sam Smith’s beers may not be such a compelling attraction, but their overall offer is a highly distinctive one on the pub market, and they make a point of promoting the fact that as much as possible of what they sell is made in-house. That, incidentally, as also something that the supermarket chain Morrisons use in their publicity. And Holt’s of Manchester, while a lot less out on a limb than Sam’s, do brew their own range of lagers and stouts which are the standard beers in those categories in their pubs. If you own a brewery, you might as well try to make the best use of it.
Too many pubs now have beer ranges that are hard to distinguish from one another. Promoting the fact that Bloggs’ pubs are the best place to find Bloggs’ beers has the potential to create a unique selling proposition. It also must be noted that the integrated approach has been adopted by newer breweries such as Joule’s and Wye Valley who have built up significant tied estates that heavily feature their own beers. Clearly there is life in that model yet.