Beer Matters

“Rolling in Fuller’s Pride, through the earth far and wide…”

Most of you will have heard the news that Fuller’s brewery has been bought by the European subsidiary of the Japanese brewing corporation Asahi. Some of you probably discussed it in the pub on practice night as we did and wondered about its implications.

I predict that nothing much will change in the next few months, maybe a year or two. But what then? Here are three possible scenarios, all or any of which might happen:

The brewery could be closed and production moved elsewhere. Spokespersons have talked about “protecting the heritage of the Griffin brewery”, but for how long? It occupies a prime site close to the Thames at Chiswick and must be a tempting prospect for avaricious property developers.

The commitment to real ale could end. Asahi apparently has plans to make London Pride a global brand (not that being a national brand has done it any good – Pride now sits on many a bar, often alongside the equally ubiquitous Doom Bar, and often in indifferent condition) but I can’t imagine it will be served in Tokyo or Timbuktu as a cask beer. Does that mean that keg Pride (or worse, keg ESB) may become the norm here? Fuller’s have already produced some excellent beers (e.g. Black Cab stout and Wild River IPA) which now seem to be only available in keg format, no doubt in order to promote them as “craft” beers for the younger generation. We’ve already lost Chiswick, a classic session bitter. What else might disappear from Fuller’s portfolio?

Fuller’s tied estate could be sold off. During the past two decades the company has expanded outside its original West London catchment area and now owns nearly 400 pubs across Southeast England (including the Editor’s local in Winchester). As things stand, the pubs are not part of the deal with Asahi, but once divorced from the brewing business they could easily end up being sold to a pubco (how good or bad a thing that might be depends largely on which one).

Of course, brewery takeovers are nothing new. At one time there were thousands of small local breweries in this country. Then during the early-to-mid 20th century, no doubt aided by the advent of motorised transport, takeovers and mergers occurred on an unprecedented scale. By 1970 there were barely 100 independent breweries left, with the bulk of beer production in the hands of six large conglomerates.

Around 1978 the tide turned again with the establishment of a number of new small breweries. Now there are over 1700. This doesn’t mean that the takeovers and mergers have stopped. Formerly regional players like Greene King and Marston’s have moved into the big league. Fuller’s have played this game too, taking over and closing down George Gale’s brewery in Horndean (being Hampshire born and bred, I still resent that) and more recently acquiring the relatively new Dark Star brewery.

An interesting aside to this is the three names rule. The company’s full name is Fuller Smith & Turner. There was once a brewery called Reid’s which eventually became part of Watney Combe & Reid. When the latter was absorbed into the Grand Metropolitan empire, along with Mann Crossman & Paulin and Truman Hanbury & Buxton, the result was Watney Mann Truman. Where more than three names are involved, those of the junior partners are invariably dropped. (The three names rule is not confined to brewing either. Beecham’s, makers of the eponymous pills, became part of Smith Kline Beecham; now as you drive into London on the M4 the sign on the building reads Glaxo Smith Kline.) It doesn’t always apply though; a multinational taking over a British brewery may opt to remain anonymous, perhaps unsurprisingly if its name is something as unromantic as AB InBev (the largest brewing corporation in the world and currently the owner of Meantime), so maybe Smith and Turner are not yet destined for oblivion.

I do wonder about the human element in this. 13 years ago, John Young, an old and sick man, reluctantly agreed to the sale of the Ram Brewery and subsequently died the week the yeast was pitched for the last time in Wandsworth. How does Anthony Fuller feel? Is he just looking forward to a comfortable retirement? Has he, like John Young, no younger relatives willing to take the family business forward? Have his hands been tied by bean counters on the board?

We shall see what transpires. Meanwhile I think the ghost of George Gale may be permitted a wry smile.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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