Category Archives: Beer business

Picketing Fuller’s EGM is like picketing your ex-girlfriend’s house

I have a huge amount of respect for John Cryne, who had done vastly more for the cause of cask beer than I have, over four decades as an activist in the Campaign for Real Ale that includes a stint as Camra national chairman and a long period as chairman of Camra in London. I’ve known him since at least the early 1980s, when he and his wife Christine (who has also, of course, worked tirelessly to advance appreciation of cask ale, in particular as organiser of the Great British Beer Festival for many years) were pillars of the Mid Beds branch of Camra, while I was chairman of its North Herts branch. John is a highly intelligent fighter for what he believes to be right, strong and undeviating in pursuit of his aims, with fools not suffered and the faint-hearted treated with scorn. But he’s entirely wrong in his call for a picket outside the EGM that has been called by Fuller, Smith & Turner for its shareholders to vote on the take-over of the London company’s brewing operations by the Japanese giant Asahi.

We all have emotional bonds with the brands that we love – that’s exactly what brands are designed to do, to make us have a passion for the product. But turning up at an EGM with placards and banners to protest at a take-over is like turning up outside your ex-girlfriend’s house with placards and banners to protest at her dumping you. It also fundamentally misunderstands the real relationship between consumers, brands and the companies that produce them. It may feel like love to you. But to the brand owner, it’s entirely a monetary transaction – and it couldn’t, shouldn’t be anything else.

In his call for a picket of the EGM, John said the sale of Fuller’s brewing side was “a betrayal by the family shareholders who we thought were committed to brewing in London for the next two hundred years.” This really is the language of Jilted John:

I’ve been going out with a girl
Her name is Fuller’s
But last night she said to me
When we were watching telly
(This is what she said)
She said listen John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you
So it’s the end for you and me.

Fuller’s is not your girlfriend, shouting “Asahi’s a moron!” will get you nowhere,and the decision of the family shareholders to sell is not them betraying you: indeed, the prime and pretty much sole responsibility Fuller’s shareholders have to have is to themselves – why should it not be, they’re risking their own money in the company – and the betrayal would be turning down the £250 million that Asahi offered. If anyone felt Fuller’s owed it to its drinkers to keep independent, they don’t understand how business works. As I already pointed out, even after costs and et ceteras, that represents all the earnings Fuller’s might expect from the beer division until 2038. In the meantime it still has the pubs and hotels side of the business, which is making 87 per cent of the profits anyway.

I have great sympathy with everyone whose reaction to the news of the sale was sadness at the thought of the loss of a historic link to which they had a big emotional attachment: I have a big emotional attachment to Fuller’s myself, although I can’t agree, again, with John Cryne in declaring that “this is not an action we expected from a brewery we have respected and supported since Camra was founded.” I’m not just talking about the enormous amount of slagging Fulle’s gets from Camra members on, eg, the Camra Facebook page (“brown twiggy pish”). To my father’s generation – and he grew up in West London – Fuller’s in the 1950s was a brewery to avoid, nicknamed “Fuller shit and turds”. It took a long time for Fuller’s to reach Camra cult status: in 1974, just a few years after the Fuller’s board had scrapped a proposal to close the Griffin brewery and move production of all the beers to a new greenfield fizz-factory near Heathrow, the Good Beer Guide found “only a handful” of Fuller’s pubs selling cask beer. By 1975 that was just ten out of 116 tied houses. The following year the number of pubs with handpumps had risen to 16, it was 38 out of 112 in 1979 and 66 out of 122 in 1981 – still barely more than half of all the tied houses with “real ale” in them.

The numbers were rising steadily, but even in 1984 a third of Fuller’s pubs did not sell cask beer, and four years later one in ten Fuller’s pubs were still keg-only. Only by 1990 had that dropped to “a handful”, five out of 149, at which point Fuller’s had picked up a Usain Bolt-style haul of medals at the Great British Beer Festival. The brewhouse was redeveloped in the early 1990s, increasing capacity by 50 per cent, while the number of tied houses was climbing too, up past 200 by 1994. Fuller’s head brewer, Reg Drury, and his young assistant, John Keeling, were starting to experiment with new brews: 1845, based on a 150-year-old recipe, for the 150th anniversary of the Smiths and Turners joining the Fullers in the business, and Vintage Ale, a strong bottle-conditioned beer designed to be laid down and matured for years, first produced in 1997. Vintage Ale, in particular, has continued to amaze and fascinate beer commentators: the vertical tastings of different brewings of Vintage Ale in the Hock Cellar at the Griffin Brewery have been some of the finest evenings of beer I have ever been involved in.

The young John Keeling at work in the Fuller’s brewhouse

Still, if as Jim Armitage of the Evening Standard said, “We must mourn the passing of the last great London-owned, brewed and bred beer,” it’s a process that has been happening for 120 years, since Watney’s merged with their porter-brewing rivals Reid’s of Clerkenwell and Combe’s of Covent Garden in 1898. There were 90 breweries in London in 1904, and just 10 in 2007. Tick off the great London breweries we have lost since the 1974 Good Beer Guide: Charrington’s of Mile End in 1975, Whitbread in Chiswell Street in 1976, Mann’s of Whitechapel in 1979, Courage by Tower Bridge in 1982, Truman’s in Brick Lane in 1989, Young’s in Wandsworth in 2006. Indeed, tick off the 80 or so family-owned breweries listed in the 1974 GBG: 45 have now closed, more than half, and another seven are still open but under different ownership. That’s exactly one closure a year. Of those closures, I can tell you at least a dozen that I miss deeply: Rayment’s in Hertfordshire, Hartley’s in the Lake District, Higson’s of Liverpool, Paine’s in St Neots, Ruddle’s … all gorgeous beers. And that doesn’t count the many breweries owned at that time by the Big Six that were still producing great brews: the former Fremlin’s brewery in Kent, Wethered’s in Marlow and the ex-Starkey Knight and Ford brewery in Devon, for example, all, under the Whitbread umbrella, making beers that I loved when they were around and mourned when they disappeared.

So forgive me, then, if I’m a bit mourned out, having to cope with the disappearance of dozens of beers over the decades that were all certainly up to the high standards that Fuller’s has set. That’s life. At least Fuller’s is still brewing – and there are 2,000 other breweries in Britain now, against the fewer than 200 we had in 1974. That, at least, should cheer us all up.

A short history of Asahi, in which beer gets called ‘bitter horse-piss wine’

In view of recent events, I thought people might be interested in a short history of Asahi Breweries …

Beer was introduced into Japan by the Dutch, who were the only Europeans allowed to trade with the country after the expulsion of the Portuguese early in the 17th century, and who would take biiru with them when they made their compulsory once-a-year trip from their base in Nagasaki to the Emperor’s palace in Edo (now Tokyo). However, it was not until Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived in Japan in the 1850s to try to push the shogunate into opening diplomatic relationships with the United States that the locals made any proper analysis of this new drink, after the American delegation on Perry’s second trip to Japan in 1854 presented officials with gifts including three casks of beer. Japanese opinion was divided: one called it “magic water”, while another described the beer as “bitter horse-piss wine”.

The treaties signed between Japan and the US saw Yokohama opened from 1858 as a place for European traders to settle, and in 1863 military forces from Britain and France arrived in Yokohama to protect the increasing numbers of their nationals based in the city. Two years later, according to an article published in the China Mail newspaper in Hong Kong on October 19 1878, two foreigners, one an Englishman called Campbell and the other an American called Langthorne, began to brew beer in Yokohama, at the first commercial brewery in Japan. Campbell and Langthorne are deeply obscure and nothing more seems to be known of them, not even their first names. Their business did not last long, according to the China Mail, at least in part because of increasing imports of beer from Europe and America: the newspaper wrote that “either because in those days the foreign denizens of Yokohama were so rich or so extravagant as to despise any but the produce of the famed distant vats of Burton, Edinburgh and Dublin, or because the projectors had not sufficient knowledge of their art to make their liquor palatable, or capital enough to work and wait until it had created a reputation and a market, they soon abandoned their enterprise; and the buildings they erected were subsequently pulled down.”

In 1868, however, the wonderfully named Marinus Johannes Benjamin Noordhoek Hegt, born in the Netherlands in 1821, a sea captain and merchant who came to Yokohama in 1860, opened a small brewery at No 46 Bluff, part of Yokohama’s designated European district, where there was a deep well on the site. Hegt hired as his brewer Emil Wiegand, a brewer from Germany who had emigrated from Hessen at the end of 1853, aged 19, via Bremen, arriving in New York on January 6, 1854. Wiegand was apparently naturalised in Philadelphia in 1856, and looks to have spent 11 years in the eastern US, presumably working in local German-run breweries, before leaving New York on December 1 1867 to travel to California via Nicaragua. He spent barely a year in San Francisco before moving to Japan, arriving there, according to a deposition he made later in a tribunal at the US consulate general, in 1869 after signing a contract to manage the “Japan Yokohama Brewery”.

Hegt’s brewery inspired a man called William Copeland, born Johan Bartinius – sic– Thoresen in Tromøy, in southern Norway, in May 1834, to build a brewery of his own on the site first used by Campbell and Langthorne, No 123 Bluff, which had as its chief attraction a source of “singularly pure” water, and which became known as the Spring Valley Brewery. Copeland, who had arrived in Japan in 1864 (and whose middle name changed to Martinius at some point) made his first brew in January 1870, shortly after Hegt had moved to larger premises at Bluff lot 68 in 1869. The two rival breweries ran in competition with each other until June 1876, when the owners agreed to a merger, and Copeland and Wiegand brewed at the Spring Valley Brewery site, using Bluff lot 68 as a maltings, until the maltings were destroyed by fire in 1877.

The Spring Valley Brewery made lager during the summer, and “‘English ale’, ‘Bock’ and ‘Bavarian’ beer, demanded by the better sort of customer” during the winter. The beer was exported to Tokyo, Nagasaki and other Japanese towns, and as far away as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Copeland and Wiegand brewed together as co-partners until the end of 1879, when Wiegand filed a bill with the US consular court in Yokohama for a dissolution of the partnership, alleging “fraudulent acts and other irregularities” by Copeland. The American consul general, who had the legal right to hear cases in Japan involving American citizens, found Copeland not guilty, but it was agreed that the partnership should be dissolved anyway and the firm wound up, with its assets sold. The brewery was estimated to be worth some £32,500, and Wiegand, who had bought much less to the partnership than Copeland, was due $6,250 of that. Unfortunately the only bidder for the brewery was Copeland, who bought the business back in February 1880 for just $12,000, which meant that not only did Wiegand not get anything, he now owed Copeland several thousand dollars. Wiegand eventually died in San Francisco in 1887, aged 47.

In 1880, meanwhile, Copeland was involved in another lawsuit between himself and his head clerk, which was again settled by the US consul in favour of Copeland. However, the suit bankrupted the Spring Valley business, and though Copeland continued brewing by himself until 1882, the business went under in an economic recession. Two years later, on July 1884, the Spring Valley brewery was sold by the US Marshall by order of the US Consular Court for $11,500. The London and China Telegraph of September 22 1884 wrote that “this property is estimated to have cost the late proprietor over $60,000.” Who bought it remains unclear, but on April 27 1885 the London and China Telegraph reported that two fires had recently broken out at the premises of the Spring Valley Brewery on the Bluff, Yokohama, and in the first, which began at 8pm on March 13, the block was destroyed which housed in its lower portion the “extensive” brewery plant. The plant and buildings were insured for $5,000 in the Lancashire and the City of London Insurance Companies, but “the brewery plant could not be replaced for at least three times that amount.”

Two months after the fire, in May 1885, the first meeting was held of resident foreigners in Yokohama that would eventually lead to the foundation of the Japan Brewery Company Ltd, set up with mixed Japanese and foreign investment. This company quickly acquired the Spring Valley brewery site to build its own brewery, taking advantage of the site’s water supply. The new concern eventually launched its “Kirin beer” in 1888, and changed its name to Kirin in 1906.

By now the Japanese brewing industry had become thoroughly “Nipponised”, helped by men such as Nakagawa Seibei. Nakagawa (in Japan, surnames are given first) travelled at his own expense from his homeland to Germany in 1872, hoping to learn a foreign skill he could use back in Japan. He was advised to study brewing, and spent more than two years, from 1873 to 1875, at a brewery in Fürstenwald owned by the Berlin brewery Tivoli.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Nakagawa, who was only 24 when he arrived in Germany, where everything – the language, the architecture, the food and drink, the clothing, the entire way of life – was utterly alien to all he had known previously. On his return to Japan with a certificate of study from the Tivoli brewery, Nakagawa was hired by the Japanese government to build a brewery in the newly founded city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which was being rapidly developed in response to a possible invasion threat from Russia. The brewery made its first German-style lager in 1876, and was sold by the government to private investors ten years later.

Between 1869 and 1872 there were more than a hundred brewery start-ups in Japan, most being small and deeply obscure, with very little now known about them. All, or at least all those about whom sufficient details are known, concentrated on producing German-style beers, mostly because Japanese beer drinkers needed the reassurance that domestic brewers were using the same techniques and ingredients as foreign brewers in order to buy Japanese-brewed rather than imported beer. Among the start-ups was one begun by Torii Komakichi, a well-known sake brewer from Sakai, south of Osaka, a city in the south-central region of Japan’s main island, Honshu. In 1888 Torii’s Osaka Beer Brewing Company sent Ikuta Hiizu to Germany to study brewing at the brewery school in Weihenstephan, Bavaria. Ikuta returned to Japan in 1889, where he was appointed manager and technical director of a new brewery built at Suita Mura, on the edge of Osaka, which was completed in 1891. The plans for the brewery were drawn up in Germany, although it was built by an Osaka constructor, and all the brewing machinery was from Germany, though most of the malt and hops was imported, initially, from the US west coast.

The Asahi brewery in Osaka circa 1902: double-click to embiggen

In 1892 the company launched a beer under the name Asahi, meaning “morning sun”. The Osaka brewery showed its beer at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where it was noted that the company was using Japan-grown barley of the Golden Melon variety, which stood up to the hot and humid climate of Honshu, and which had been introduced into the country from the United States in 1885. The same year Osaka was reorganised as Osaka Breweries Ltd. An “Asahi Beer Hall” was opened in nearby Kyoto in 1896 to promote the company’s beer to thirsty tourist. By 1901 it was the second biggest brewery in Japan, at 53,500 hectolitres, well ahead of the Japan Brewery Company/Kirin at 28,500hl and Sapporo at 24,517hl, but behind the Nippon Beer Co of Tokyo, whose main brand was Yebisu, on 59,450hl.

An advertisement for three beer brands then owned by the newly formed Dai Nippon Beer Company, Yebisu, Sapporo and Asahi, from the China Mail, Hong Kong in 1907

The same year the Japanese government introduced a “brutal” new beer tax, which hammered the smaller brewers. The “big four” battled on, but in 1906, in an attempt to reduce competition, which was damaging profits, Sapporo, Osaka Beer Co and Nippon Beer agreed to merge under the name Dai Nippon (“Greater Japan”) Beer Company. From then until after the Second World War, the Japanese beer industry was almost totally dominated by Dai Nippon Beer and Kirin, both producing – until 1941, at least – heavily German-influenced beers. However, the pair were unable to stop retail outlets conducting a vicious price war. This only ended in 1933, when the two giants of Japanese brewing signed an agreement to form the “Co-operative Beer Sales Company Inc”, a deal brokered by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, which gave Dai Nippon 70 per cent of joint sales and Kirin 30 per cent. In the total market, Dai Nippon had a 56 per cent share and Kirin 28 per cent, giving the Co-operative Beer Sales Company 84 per cent of the domestic Japanese beer market. Through the 1930s Asahi and Kirin fought each other for the title of Japan’s best-selling beer brand, with Asahi on an average of 30 per cent of the market and Kirin on 27.5 per cent. Meanwhile Dai Nippon Beer’s Asahi division was opening new breweries, in Hakata, Fukuoka, on Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, in 1921 and Nishinomiya, a few miles from Osaka, in 1927.

When Japan went to war with China in 1937, a conflict which eventually widened into bitter conflict with the United States and the UK in 1941, the beer industry in Japan became more and more tightly controlled by the government, not least because through taxation it generated essential funds for the war effort. In 1939, sake was still the dominant alcoholic beverage in Japan, selling 4.5 times as much as beer, which was largely an expensive middle and upper-class luxury. But as rice production was diverted into foodstuffs, sake production was halted by the end of 1940. Beer took its place, since barley was only a grade-B foodstuff. At the same time, with supplies of hops no longer available for import from Germany, Japan’s brewer began to make their beers less bitter. Small brewers disappeared completely, leaving only Dai Nippon and Kirin by 1943.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, in the seven-year occupation that followed, much effort was made by the occupiers to break up Japan’s economic conglomerates, the zaibatsu. Dai Nippon did not wait to be broken up, instead putting forward its own arrangement in which, in 1949, it split into two, one side taking the Asahi brand, the other, initially called Nippon Breweries, the Sapporo and Yebatsu brands. Asahi had 36 per cent of the market, Nippon Breweries 38.7 per cent and Kirin 25.3 per cent. The three operated an informal cartel that eliminated price competition, while Japan’s ministry of finance kept import duties on foreign beers high, with an (under world trade rules, illegal) agreement that the three brewers would, as a quid pro quo, buy expensive Japanese-grown barley rather than much cheaper foreign barley.

Until the middle of 1949, the occupying forces had barred Japanese from going to restaurants, bars or beer halls. The reopening of the “on-trade” saw beer sales boom: one bar in Osaka was selling 120 wooden crates of 24 bottles each night, an entire truckload in a day. In 1954 Asahi began to pull ahead of its rivals, capturing 37 per cent of the market, after leading the way in marketing efforts that included sponsoring radio and television programmes, films (including Gone With the Wind when it returned to Japanese cinemas in 1952) and boxing matches. In 1958, Asahi introduced Japan’s first canned beer. Meanwhile the Japanese alcohol market was changing, with sake falling from 71 per cent of all alcohol beverages sold before the Second World War, against beer’s 16 per cent share, to 29 per cent in 1959, against beer’s 44 per cent.

As well as canned beer (which today has more than 60 per cent of the Japanese market), Asahi also pioneered the first outdoor fermentation and lagering tank, the “Asahi Tank”, launched in 1965 and soon licensed to a German brewery construction firm, Ziemann.

By now Asahi had seen its share of sales drift down, leaving it with just 27.9 per cent of the Japanese market in 1961, barely ahead of Sapporo on 27.8 per cent, while Kirin had 41.7 per cent. Kirin’s dominance enabled it to set prices that hampered its rivals’ attempts to match them and still be profitable, and by the mid-1980s its share of the market was more than 60 per cent, with Sapporo on 20 per cent and Asahi on 11 per cent, while Suntory, a distiller that had entered the beer market in 1963, had seven per cent.

At the same time, the beer produced by the three firms continued to be the comparatively light, lightly hopped drink Japan’s brewers had been forced to change to during the Second World War, a style of beer which both proved popular with the increasing numbers of women drinkers, and beer rapidly left sake sales far behind. While the trend in the 1950s and 1960s towards less-bitter beers could be also seen in, for example, the United States, from the 1970s, Japan’s brewing industry began to exhibit some peculiarly Japanese developments. One was the introduction of “beer-like” brews, or happoshu (literally “sparkling spirit”), containing little or no barley, a reaction to both the high price of barley itself and the high taxes on barley brews in Japan. Another was the rise of “draught-style” bottled and canned beers from the late 1970s, with Asahi launching its own Draft Beer brand in 1986.

This did not stop Asahi striking deals with brewers elsewhere in Asia: in 1971 it signed an agreement with United Breweries of New Guinea that saw a brewery built in Port Moresby to make Asahi beers, and in 1986 another contract was signed with San Miguel to start brewing Asahi brands in Indonesia. In 1990 Asahi bought just under 20 per cent of the Australian beer giant Foster’s Group (sold in 1997 back to Foster’s).

A three-litre can of Super Dry, the beer that saved Ahasi

What saved the company, however, was the introduction of “dry beer” in 1987 to try to compete with Kirin, which by then had 63 per cent of the domestic market, with Asahi far behind in third place on just 10 per cent. In 1982 one of Japan’s leading banks, Sumitomo Group, which held 12 per cent of Asahi’s shares, sent in a bank executive specialising in corporate turn-arounds, Murai Tsutomu. Murai made the brewery conduct market surveys which came back with the message that 98 per cent of beer drinkers surveyed wanted Asahi to change the taste of its beer. Drinkers said they wanted a beer that was rich but left no aftertaste. Asahi’s brewers told Murai that was not possible. Murai insisted that it had to be done, and the result was Asahi Super Dry, stronger, at 5 per cent alcohol, than most Japanese mainstream beers, generally 4.5 per cent, but with less sugar, sharper and with no aftertaste. It became instantly popular, particularly among younger drinkers. The launch doubled Asahi’s share of the domestic beer market in a year, and sent it to 37 per cent by 2001. This was the only Japanese brewing initiative to have any impact overseas, with US and European brewers also introducing “dry” beers: by 1990 there were more than 20 “dry” beers on sale in the US market.

Japan’s brewers had been protected for many years from new entrants into the market by a law that required a minimum annual output for anyone wanting a brewery licence of 20,000 hectolitres. In 1994 the country’s Ministry of Finance cut that requirement to just 600 hectolitres, making it viable at last for new microbreweries to start up. The first opened in Japan in 1995, and by 1999 the country had 242 new small breweries. In an attempt to head off this new competition, in 2001 Asahi opened its own “microbrewery” operation, Sumidagawa Brewing, a brewpub in Tokyo.

Super Dry was launched Canada in 1994 and the United States in 1995. It went into in 12 European countries in 1997, and in 2000 Asahi struck a deal with Bass in the UK for a Czech subsidiary of Bass to brew Super Dry under licence. But with the UK becoming the biggest market for the beer in Europe, in 2005 production was switched to Shepherd Neame in Kent. Meanwhile at home beer sales were falling, with the “big four” of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory suffering a volume decline between them of 23 per cent between 1994 and 2000. At the same time, sales of the cheaper happoshu were climbing, hitting 30 per cent of the Japanese beer market in 2001, the year Asahi finally launched a happoshu of its own. Two years later sales of happoshu for home consumption passed those of “real” beer.

Asahi had regained the number one spot among Japan’s brewers in 1998, and its share of the “real” beer market rose past 50 per cent by the end of 2008, though its share of the total “beer-like” market was only 37.8 per cent, barely ahead of Kirin on 37.2 per cent. Domestic beer sales were badly hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and took several years to recover, but Asahi was seeing big rises in sales to China, where increasing affluence was powering what was becoming the biggest market for beer in the world. It began acquiring shares in five Chinese breweries in 1994 and 1995, and entered into an agreement with the then largest brewer in China, Tsingtao Brewery, to build a brewery in Shenzen, near Hong Kong, which opened in 1999. In 2009 it bought a 19.9 per cent stake in Tsingtao Brewery, reviving a link from before the Second World War, when Dai Nippon Beer Company owned Tsingtao.

An Australian craft beer brewery, Cricketers Arms, in Melbourne, was acquired in 2013, followed by a second in 2015, Mountain Goat Beer in Richmond, Victoria. The next year, as part of the fall-out from AB InBev’s acquisition of SAB Miller, Asahi bought SAB Miller’s beer business in Western Europe, including Peroni in Italy, Grolsch in the Netherlands, the St Stephanus “abbey” brand from Belgium and, in the UK, Meantime Brewing Company, for a total of $2.9 billion. Meantime, based in Greenwich and founded in 2000, had only been bought by SAB Miller two years earlier, for £125 million. Early in 2017 Asahi swallowed SAB Miller’s Eastern European business as well, including Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic; Dreher Breweries in Hungary; Ursus Breweries, the biggest beer brewer in Romania; Tychy and Lech in Poland; and Šariš in Slovakia, for another $7.8 billion. The deal made Asahi the third biggest brewing company in Europe, with 9 per cent of the market, after Heineken and Carlsberg. The same year it sold off its interest in Tsingtao for $844 million, as part of a general pull-out from the Chinese market to concentrate on Europe.

Earlier this week it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing assets of the London-based craft ale specialist, family brewer and pub and hotel owner Fuller, Smith & Turner, for £250 million. The deal includes the brewery in Chiswick, but not, it is speculated, the entire brewery site. It gives Asahi ten breweries in Europe, against the eight it runs in Japan, including the Hokkaido brewery in Sapporo, opened in 1970; Ibaraki, on the coast north-east of Tokyo, opened in 1991; and on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, opened in 1998. It is currently the biggest brewer in Japan, fifth biggest in Asia and seventh biggest in the world.

Asahi makes massive vote of confidence in future of cask ale with £250m purchase of Fullers’ beer business

The Japanese beer giant Asahi has made a massive vote of confidence in the future of the real ale sector in the UK with its £250m purchase of Fullers’ beer business.

And if that’s not the angle you took away from the story, you’re not thinking this through properly.

The beer business earned Fullers £10.6 million before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the 12 months to March last year. The net cash going into Fullers’ pockets after the deal with Asahi is completed is expected to be around £205 million. So the purchase price means, effectively, Fullers receives all the earnings it might have got from the beer business (assuming nothing had changed) for the next 19 years, until 2038, in one lovely big cheque, right here and now.

At the same time, Asahi has to cover its £250m payment for the business out of the profits it expects to make from it, and preferably in not too long a time: its current return on invested capital (ROIC) is apparently 7.34 per cent, which would pay off the purchase price for the Fullers beer business in just under 14 years. In other words it expects that business to be at least as profitable as it is now for at least the next decade, in order to cover the cost of buying it, given the returns it normally gets.

Nobody bungs a quarter billion big ones at a business unless they think that business has a future, and they’re going to get a decent return on their money. Fans of cask ale, and Fuller’s beers, should be cheering until the pint glasses rattle on the shelves at the confidence Asahi is showing in the sector.

Inevitably, of course, the usual army of whingers has come out and shown the usual failure to understand how business works, and what the strategies of the two companies involved in the deal are. Some seem to think Fullers should have turned the Japanese offer down: this would, of course, have been both stupid and illegal. It’s the job of a company’s board to maximise the returns for that company’s shareholders: if they are offered a risk-free way to bring in today all the earnings a part of the company might see for two decades, and they push it away, they would rightly be sued for not acting in shareholders’ best interests. In Fullers’ case, the division it is selling represents only 13 per cent of operating profits. It intends giving between £55 million and £69 million of the cash from Asahi to its shareholders straight away, and putting a bung into the company pension scheme as well, but that still leaves a substantial sum – over £120 million, certainly – to spend on new pubs and hotels, which bring in much more money than brewing does. The City is certainly clear on what a great move Fullers has made: the shares closed up 15.5 per cent, and Douglas Jack, a vastly experience City analyst, declared: “This transformative deal provides the foundation for many years of strong growth. We are moving our recommendation from ‘Add’ to ‘Buy’.”

Asahi clearly thinks there is profit to be had in the business of supplying beer to British pubs,. With Fullers’ emphasis, still, on cask beer brands it obviously believes buying the rights to brew cask beer is worth a substantial wodge of corporate cash and there is a hearty future ahead. Meanwhile, on the “oh no the accountants will ruin London Pride” front,  as part of the fall-out from the AB Inbev-SAB Miller merger, Asahi ended up with Pilsner Urquell and Meantime in London, among other Western beer brands. I’ve heard no moans from either of those two concerns about how the Japanese are treating them. If you pay a lot of money buying a product that sells on its premium image, you don’t mess about with that image.

The keyboard warriors who wave their anti-corporate credentials, declaring that now Fullers’ beers are going to be brewed by a multinational conglomerate they won’t be drinking them, are particularly nauseous: they’re typing their rants on a computer, or a phone, made by a multinational, using electricity from an energy supplier that is probably also a multinational. A fair few years back I was in the wood-panelled boardroom at the Griffin brewery, all heavy oak tables and oil paintings of bewhiskered Fullers, Smiths and Turners from Victorian times on the walls, and I asked Michael Turner, then the company’s managing director, later its chairman, if he didn’t occasionally feel oppressed with all these ancestors staring down at him. “Frankly,” he said, in his forceful Old Etonian accent, “I don’t give a fuck.” I would be confident that, whatever the whingers are saying, Fuller’s is currently not giving a fuck all the way to the bank.

Finally, let’s offer many congratulations to Twickenham Fine Ales, my local craft beer brewery, which finds itself, just 15 years after it started, now London’s oldest independent brewer. That won’t be something founder Steve Brown ever expected to happen.

Twickenham Fine Ales, now at 15 the oldest independent brewery in London

There is no such thing as the ‘craft beer community’

Of all the multiple nonsenses written about the acquisition of a minority stake in Beavertown Brewery by Heineken International, perhaps the stupidest came from someone called Kirk Hilton on Twitter, who declared this week that Logan Plant and his crew had “chosen to turn their back on the craft beer community” and “should know about the effect” its “sell out” had had on “the community as a whole”.

Let’s be clear. There is no “craft beer community”, any more than there is a “Stella Artois community” or a “Nescafe community” or a “sourdough bread community”. I drink craft beer, whatever “craft beer” is, but I certainly don’t regard myself as part of a “community” as represented by Kirk and his pals on the Facebook UK Craft Beer Forum, where, as part of the general tedious posturing, cask beer is regularly dismissed as “twiggy” and “boring”. That’s not a “community”, it’s a group of snobby elitists with their heads so far up their bottoms they can probably see their own tonsils. The laugh is that the hop-laden brews they love (and indeed I love many of them too) sprang from beers developed originally by people like Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam and Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada that were themselves inspired by the “twiggy” bitter beers of England: Anchor’s Liberty Ale, the first highly hopped Cascade-driven West Coast pale ale, sprang directly from a visit Fritz Maytag made to Keighley in Yorkshire around 1974, where he sampled Timothy Taylor Landlord.

What is particularly crass about the reaction from Hilton and the rest of the UKCBF crew is their demand that Beavertown must stay small, or else it is guilty of “betraying” the “craft beer community”. What they ought to be doing, of course, is cheering until the rafters shake at the success of one of the best four or five start-ups in the UK beer business, which will now be able to bring its beers to even more drinkers.

Logan Plant, like all successful businessmen, wants to see his business grow even larger: only a fool, frankly, sits on something that could potentially become massive and declines to allow it to grow as big as possible. (The reason why that’s foolish, in case you can’t work it out, is because what will happen is that someone else with fewer scruples about making a fortune will come along and replicate what you’ve done, overtake you, steal your market because they’ve grown big enough to have the marketing clout to do so, and put you out of business.)

However, like others – Meantime, Camden Town, even BrewDog – Plant discovered that there are few or no ways to bring in the money required to step up to the next level without shaking hands with Big Capital. The £40m Heineken is pumping into Beavertown will enable it to build (if the  Caterer’s figures are correct) a 275,000-barrel (450,000hl) brewery on three acres of land, tn tims the size of their current plant, creating 150 jobs. For a company founded only in 2012, that’s fantastic. But as Plant told the Caterer, when he first looked at how to get the cash for that project, “Crowdfunding simply couldn’t achieve the funds we need, so that option came off the table quickly. We then started looking at private equity, which initially looked solid. However, the more we looked at the offers, it became clear that it was only an option for the short to medium term.

Logan Plant: ‘sensible and stable’

“That was when we concluded that the most sensible and stable option was the one that sat furthest away from our minds at the start of the process, one that at first glance felt alien but on closer and more detailed inspection offered us boundless opportunities to grow and develop in the right, safe business manner: finding another like-minded brewery as a partner.”

The finance people Plant used in the negotiations with Heineken, incidentally, are Arlington Capital Advisors of Georgia in the United States, who were the same gang that advised BrewDog last year when the Aberdeenshire lads sold a £213m stake in themselves to TSG Consumer Partners, the $5bn San Francisco-based private equity firm that owns Pabst, the American “industrial” lager brand. You might think that as a result James Watt is being a tad hypocritical in declaring that BrewDog will no longer stock Beavertown beers after Heineken bought a minority stake in the East London firm – I couldn’t possibly comment.

What too few people in the craft bubble fail to grasp is that the overwhelming bulk of beer sold in the UK – nine pints in 10 – is mass-produced, and if we want that to change we have to cheer on those successful craft beer brewers who are attracting investment to grow larger, and expand the craft beer market. Ah, but as Kirk Hilton tweeted to Beavertown: “You’re not craft beer any more.” Silly Kirk thinks he can spot the change in the taste of a pint of beer the moment someone else buys a stake in the brewer that made it. Fortunately the UK Craft Beer Forum represents perhaps 0.08 per cent of all British beer drinkers, and Beavertown, I am sure, will succeed and thrive without its approval.

Homage to Catalonian beer tourism

Carlos Rodriguez holds his mash fork inside the Agullons brewery, one of the first microbreweries in Catalonia, founded in 2005 at his masia (the typical Catalan farmhouse) in Sant Joan de Mediona. The first thought of any visitor to the gravity-powered brewery, which looks like an overgrown shed alongside the farmhouse, and will make only 500 litres at a time, is: ‘Whoa! Can anything decent be brewed here?’ Fears are driven far away as soon as Rodriguez’s beers are tasted: he may be self-taught, but his English-style pale ales and Belgian-style spontaneous fermentation beers are as good as you’ll find

So there I was at the Barcelona Beer Festival talking to Jason Wolford, a native of Portland, Oregon, about the quantity of chamomile that goes into the chamomile pale ale made at his 8-Bit Brewing in Helsinki, using kit supplied by Oban Brewing of Fort William in Scotland, and thinking: “This is what craft beer is all about.” Except it’s not, of course: it’s also about sitting at a tiny bar in a farmhouse in the small village of Mediona, in rural Catalonia, drinking a hand-pumped cask ale brewed just yards away by a dreadlocked 50-something Catalan called Carlos Rodriguez that, with its straw colour and bitterness, would not be out of place in Strangeways, Manchester. It’s about eating cod ceviche accompanied by a beer brewed with plankton, specially to match the food. It’s about bumping into three separate people I wasn’t expecting to see in the bar at Edge Brewing in Barcelona – a Polish brewer who I had met in Wroclaw four years ago, a young woman from Mallorca I had met on a beer judging course in London, and the English beer writer Melissa Cole, in town to present a session at the festival on beer and food matching. It’s about chuckling at the sight of the pinewood-clad brewing vessels at the Vic Brewery in the Catalan town of the same name, because I last saw them in West London, where they were being used by Twickenham Fine Ales. And it’s about eating delicious goats’ cheese in the bright but chilly open air while drinking equally excellent beer made with the hops grown just to our left and barley from the fields a few hundred yards away below us, malted in the shed behind us, on the farm that is part of the Lo Vilot set-up in Lleida. Plus, of course, much more.

Carlos Rodriguez pulls a glass of his English-style pale ale, slightly cloudy, aromatic and bitter, made with only Maris Otter malt and Sterling hops, and left for a month to mature, in the bar at his farmhouse: were this rural Vermont rather than rural Catalonia, there would be a queue a mile down the road

If beer tourism is a growing business – and the conversation I had with the young woman from Mallorca, who is looking to do a PhD in that exact subject, confirms it is indeed – then even so, Catalonia is probably not yet on most beer tourists’ “must see” list. The Catalan Tourist Board would like very much for that to change, unsurprisingly, which is why they paid for me and nine other beer writers to fly to Barcelona and be whizzed around the countryside in a wifi-equipped minibus on a no-time-to-catch-your-breath tour that took in 10 mostly very different craft breweries, 12 eat-till-your-eyes-glaze-over meals, countless beers (because I lost count – over 120, probably) – and a couple of wineries as well, because Catalonia is also the main production area for Cava, and home to 10 or so wine-producing areas in total (I was not a Cava lover before, but aged Cava, 15 years or more on its lees, I can now say, is very, very fine.) Oh, and a sausage factory. Because sausages. Come on, do you actually need to be given a reason for visiting a sausage factory (llonganissa, to be technical, like chorizo but flavoured with black pepper, not paprika) and marvel at several slatted floors of meaty, porky moreishness, slowly losing half its weight to the atmosphere, and gaining an attractive snow-white mould over its rind, as it hangs up to dry? And eating some while you’re there, since it would be terribly wrong to refuse.

Carlos Rodriguez in the cellar at his farmhouse, where casks of lambic-style beers slumber. Carlos spent time at Cantillon in Brussels learning about spontaneous fermentation, and came back to Catalonia with the intention of creating a local style of wild-yeast brewing. The fresh wort is left for 24 hours in the coolship and then moved into oak casks, where it begins fermenting within two days. The result, after ageing, is sharp and bitter, but with a touch of honey in the background

There is a theory (which I thought up while in Catalonia) that as the craft beer revolution spreads around the world, and people in different countries realise there is more to be drunk than “industrial” lager, those places that react quickest and with most enthusiasm – and skill – to the opportunities for making different, interesting beers are the ones with an existing tradition of “foodiness”, of discriminating palates, dedication to fine eating, to artisanal food production. In the 16 years that the “World’s Best Restaurants” competition has been running, Catalan eateries have won the title seven times, been runners-up seven times, and come third on the remaining two occasions (the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, in the far north of Catalonia, and El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona). Nowhere else comes close to that record. It would be fair to suppose, therefore that Catalans have an excellent appreciation of the gastronomic arts.

All the same, the local craft beer scene has had a long, slow take-off since the Barcelona Brewing Company, the city’s first microbrewery, was opened in 1993 by a wild-bearded expat Liverpudlian, Steve Huxley. It closed after only a couple of years, but the brewing courses Huxley ran inspired a swath of Catalans to become home-brewers and then, in the first years of the new century, to start moving into commercial brewing. Huxley died of cancer in 2015 (his influence is commemorated though his face being on every token at the Barcelona beer festival), but the slow revolution he had helped start was now becoming unstoppable: by 2009 there were 10 or so new small breweries in Catalonia, in just four years numbers passed 40, and by 2016 a survey found more than 100, making in total more than three million litres of beer a year. However, that represented barely 1 per cent of total Catalan beer consumption: Catalans drank just under 37 litres of beer per head that year, but only 40cl of that was locally produced craft – one glass, all year.

The Catalan craft beer glass: only 1pc full, but room to grow

Still, from small beginnings … every Catalan optimist will agree that there is clearly plenty of opportunity for the craft beer glasses to be full more and more frequently. And if the standards generally match those of the breweries we were taken to, all run by dedicated, enthusiastic people, Catalonia can expect craft beer consumption to rise at least steadily, if not rapidly. The problem will be convincing people in Catalonia who only know of industrial brewing, and who regard beer as merely a refresher to help the tapas go down and the conversation flow, that there are beers worth trying for their own sakes.

Unsurprisingly, since the US has been leading the growth in craft beer for the past two decades, the American influence on Catalan brewing is strong to the point of getting close to too much: imperial stouts and NEIPAs are nearly ubiquitous, and former Bourbon barrels, now filled with ageing beer, could be seen stacked in almost every brewhouse we visited. I love a good imperial stout, but they’re almost too easy: push the strength, roastiness, hops and sweetness all up to 11, and you’ll have something that will be cheered by practically anybody, craft beer noob or not. Around a quarter of the current “Top 100 Beers in the World” on RateBeer are imperial stouts, suggesting that making a popular super-strong black beer is not very difficult. (Making a great imperial stout IS difficult, however, and even then will not get you automatic recognition: just look at how comparatively poorly Harvey’s Imperial Double Extra Stout is rated.) But I suppose that if you’re trying to get your local drinking public to become craft beer aware, it’s easier to entice them into the tent with something not too difficult to understand. And imperial stouts do match very well with crema catalana, the local version of crème brûlée …

Sausages. And why not?

However, our quick zoom from the plains of Taragona to the foothills of the Pyrenees suggested there are plenty of Catalan brewers attempting to forge a truly local indigenous brewing culture, using locally grown produce – hops, barley, other grains, fruits, even grape must, to make “grape ales” – and locally found wild yeasts, and using resources such as barrels previously containing local wine, sherry, local spirits and the like. It’s also clear, from the amount of shiny kit we saw, that a great deal of money has been pumped into the Catalan craft beer scene in the past three or four years.

Barcelona now has enough top-rate craft beer bars to be easily worth a long weekend at the least: our own shoot round four or five venues was less a pub crawl than a pub gallop, but I would be very happy to go back and spend much more time (and my own money) in Garage, a long, thin city-centre bar with its own brewery right at the back, which produces a hazy IPA in cans called Soup, or BierCab, another long, thin bar with a fine beer range and an attractive-looking menu, or Naparbar, a mixture of ‘industrial’ and old-style, with 200 beers in stock and an emphasis on lambic and stout.

Before the Barcelona Beer Festival opened on Saturday morning, we were given a quick ‘speed dating’ session with three Catalan brewers each presenting a couple of their beers. This is Josep Ramon Prats García of Soma Brewing in Girona (named for the drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), pouring Pomba, which was only the second New England IPA in Catalonia. Soma, which started four years ago, began canning one year ago, though the striking and effective plain-and-simple cans can only be found in bars: the brewery has its own refrigerated storage and wants to ensure its beers stay chilled right through until the consumer drinks them. Soma makes only IPAs, and adds hops only 10 minutes before the boil ends, and again in the whirlpool: no early bittering hops are added at all. The idea, Josep says, is to get more fruity aromas, fewer herby and resiney ones from the hops: ‘I’m tired of old-fashioned beers, super-bitter and super-piney. I’m looking for fruit and flavour.’

You’ll have to wait a year now for the next one, of course, but the Barcelona Beer Festival is definitely one of Europe’s best, with a strong selection this year of almost 500 beers (not all on at once) made by more than 275 breweries, from Moscow to California, an excellent gimmick in “guest festival” stalls, this year featuring the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Big Craft Day from Russia, Bières et Saveurs from Quebec and Craft Beer Perkelei! from Finland, and a series of talks and presentations ranging from meet-the-brewer sessions to beer-and-music matching to demonstrations of beer cocktails. If you can’t wait, Carlos Rodriguez organises a beer festival every year in his home village called Mostra de Cervesa Artesana de Mediona which will be on its 13th iteration this June, and which  looks to be a cracker.

Pep Andreu McCarry of Marina Cervesa Artesana in Blanes, on the Costa Brava, pours Kremat, a 10 per cent abv imperial stout with ‘peber vermell’ – red pepper – from Kampot in Cambodia, eight different malts, flaked oats and muscovado sugar. Marina also produces Sour Skull, a blend of 75 per cent ordinary stout at 5.56 abv and 26 per cent imperial stout which spends three years in red wine barrels, by which time it reaches 7.8pc abv, and becomes sharp and, to my palate, just a little too far out

Seven craft beer breweries in Lleida, the westernmost of Catalonia’s four “provinces”, have put together the “Lleida artisinal beer route”, with a passport scheme that, when stamped by all seven, entitles the passport holder to “a special gift from the Association of Artisan Brewers of Lleida” – nature of gift unspecified. Unfortunately, the  website is entirely in Catalan, and entirely unhelpful about the best route to take to get round all the breweries, and all the promotional material appears to be only in Catalan as well. Nor does it look as if anyone has updated the website since 2016. The Facebook page shows some more recent activity, but this looks like an excellent idea that is failing through lack of dedicated effort.

Our last speed-date brewery was Cervesa Guineu (which means ‘fox’ in Catalan), at ten years old one of the longest-established small breweries in Catalonia, who put up beers including Black Barley, a 14 per cent abv beer given a three-hour boil, which accounts for the colour, enough hops and added hop resins to give 100 IBUs and a long fermentation and then aged in Oloroso sherry barrels and bottled completely flat. It had a really rich, oily mouthfeel and a lovely long finish

I never put my hand in my pocket the whole trip, so you may decide to regard me as an unreliable traveller for accepting a massive freebie. I don’t believe being given something free compromises you from telling others about it, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t be able to give some deserving people some publicity, or let you know some of the interesting stuff that’s happening in a part of the world you might not associate with advances in great beer. If you like beer tourism, Catalonia should definitely be on your “check it out” list. If you’re going to Catalonia on holiday anyway, don’t miss out on the beer scene. As yet, to my knowledge, no one has written a guidebook to the craft beer bars of Catalonia, but if you contact any of the brewers I’ve mentioned here I’m sure they will make recommendations in their local areas.

Many thanks indeed to Ariadna Ribas and Elisabet Pagès of the Catalan Tourist Board for all their considerable hard work in organising this trip, and look after everybody so well,  it was a great experience, and grateful thanks to all the brewers, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers for their hospitality and generosity – may you all continue to thrive and prosper.

The edgy entrance to Edge Brewing in Barcelona, voted number one new brewery in the world by Ratebeer members in 2014
Robin Barden, left, ‘ambassador de cerveza’ (I am so stealing that title) at Edge Brewing, who has a doctorate in tourism, and Riley Finnigan, right, Edge’s current head brewer. Barcelona, Robin says, has ‘a strong beer scene, a strong music and arts scene, and craft beer fits right in.’
Bourbon Milky Way, an ‘imperial bourbon barrel aged milk stout’ that is a collaboration between Edge and J Wakefield Brewing of Miami. Every Friday Edge opens its bar at the brewery for tastings, and on the Friday of the Barcelona Beer Fesrtival it has become THE place for brewers from around the world to meet up
The exterior may look hipstery, but the interior is as professional as you’d want: all the kit was brought from the US to Barcelona by Edge Brewing’s co-founder and former head brewer, Alan Sheppard
Of the many carefully thought-through pairings of food and beer we were offered, El Racó del Cesc (‘Frankie’s Corner’) in Barcelona, where the chef is Tony Romero and the beer sommelier is Edgar Rodriguez, just about pulled off the most interesting of all, starting with this cod ‘esqueixada’ ceviche along with a beer brewed by Marina containing plankton, to bring a salty oceanicity to the glass. The first iteration of the beer was apparently green – too much plankton …
Next course, egg cooked slowly for 20 minutes at 50ºC (which keeps the yolk runny) and then fried, with pork belly and potato cream, and a witbier from the Gruut brewery in Ghent
Monkfish with tuna ‘callos’ and peas, served with Indiana, an ‘IPA Catalan’ made with carob flour and dry-hopped with Cascade
Veal cheeks lacquered with old mustard, sweet potato purée and roasted cocoa bean served with Doppelgänger, a Doppelbock from Cervexa Menduiña in Galicia
Catalan foam cream with caramel ice cream, served with the justly revered Xyauyù Barrel run barrel-aged barley wine from the Italian Birrificio Baladin
Under the big skies in the hop garden at the farm run as part of the Lo Vilot brewery, in Ponent, the far west of Catalonia, with, right to left, Oscar Mogilnicki Tomas, an engineer, who designed the brewery’s kit, Quiònia Pujol Sabaté, a biologist by training, and a gentleman whose name I thought I had recorded, but now cannot find … apologies to him. Quiònia and Oscar, who started brewing just three years ago, have tried out nine different varieties of hops, and discovered that while American C-hops – Cascade, Centennial – do well in the local climate and local, high-alkalinity soil, others, such as Goldings, won’t grow. The idea is to eventually be entirely self-sufficient in produce, with all the hops and barley for the brewery’s beers grown on the farm.
The combined steeping tank, germinating vessel and malt dryer at the Lo Vilot farmhouse, designed by Oscar Mogilnicki and built to his specification. It supplies all the base malt for the brewery, with only speciality malts having to be brought in.
Psicocherry, a sour fruit beer made with local cherries and fermented with lactobacillus as well as normal brewer’s yeast – delicious with locally made goat’s cheese. The brewery makes other fruit beers using local apricots, quince and so on. Lo Vilot wants to make a beer cheese, but the cheesemaker is worried about contaminating his own bacteria …
CTetze, which is another Catalan brewery only two years old, makes seven different beers, including Solana and Obaga, a golden ale and a brown ale respectively, named for the local expressions meaning the sunny side and the shadow side of the mountains; Fallos, a blonde ale named for the local midsummer festival, with half the boottles showing a man in traditional local costume and half showing a woman; Impala IPA; and Mr Owl, an American pale ale, paired here with pork and rosemary. Why the English name? Apparently the Catalan word for ‘owl’ is also a rude and somewhat sexist slang expression …
Joel Bastida, one of the founders of the CTretze brewery in La Pobla de Segur, a village 1,700 feet up in northern Catalonia, in sight of the Pyrenees, and named for the C13 road, which passes through the village. If they don’t make a collaborative beer with the N17 breweery in Sligo, also named for a local road, there’s no justice …
‘Licor Cervesa’, a 24 per cent abv pale ale liqueur made by CTretze in co-operation with a local liqueur maker, and flavoured with mint and other herbs
Haul away, me bucko: emptying a mash tun at Cerveses La Pirata in Súria, central Catalonia. That grain was from a mash that will eventually be an imperial stout, hence the dark colour, and it was still surprisingly sweet. It will be given to local farmers for their horses. The brewery would have you believe that pirates are so called from the Greek ‘πῦρ’, ‘fire’, because they set fire to the ships they robbed, to eliminate any evidence against them. Pirate IS a word of Greek origin, but it’s ‘πειρατής’, ‘someone who attacks or assaults’. La Pirata actually gets its name from not being entirely legal when its founder, Aran León, began selling his home-brewed beers to friends a decade or so ago
Aran León in the bar at La Pirata, which is open every Friday: the operation was a gipsy brewery until 2015, when it finally opened its own production plant with kit from Premier in the United States. Some 40 per cent of production currently goes abroad, to France, Italy, Belgium, Poland and the UK, and only 20 to 30 per cent of sales are in the Barcelona region. Production was 2,000 hectolitres last year, and is growing by 70 to 80 per cent a year.
Aran was a sociologist before he became a brewer, and some of La Pirata’s beers have names from sociology: Panoptica, from Jeremy Bentham’s ideal prison, and Liquid Fear, the name of a book by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman
A giant Johnny Rotten looms sneeringly down from the wall of the brewery in Sant Joan de les Adadesses in Girona, north-west Catalonia, called La Calavera (‘The Skull’) Brewing Coop
La Calavera specialises in barley wines and wood-aged beers. Sedition (historians of punk will recognise Seditionaries as one of the names given to the boutique in the King’s Road, Chelsea where two of the Sex Pistols had worked) is a 6.2pc abv sour ale brewed with Brettanomyces and aged in Rioja wine barrels, hence the pink tinge, with the final bottled version a blend of 18-month-old and nine-month-old beers
The ‘First Aid Kit’ set of three imperial stouts, one ‘plain’, one blended with vodka and the last blended with Bushmills whiskey (and called ‘Irish Republican Stout’, though you won’t meet very many republicans in the village of Bushmills, which has a population of around 1,300, more than 1,250 of whom are Protestants …)
La Calavera, which was founded in 2012, is linkd to a restaurant in an old farmhouse just down the road called La Barricona
In the former farm store at La Barricona are the barriques … just some of the casks in which La Calavera is maturing different ales
No Gods No Masters, a kettle-soured red ale which is soured again with Flemish red ale yeast as it is aged in the cask before being bottled
One of the rather natty tasting glasses used at La Barricona
The Vic brewery, in the town of the same name halfway between Barcelona and the Pyrenees, is based in an old mill, El Moli del Llobet, hence the brewery trademark, a millwheel
The line-up of Vic beers: nicely informative labels. Half the 180,000 litres a year the brewery currently produces goes into keg, half into bottle, and half of all production goes abroad, to France, England, Finland and the Czech Republic. The co-owner’s brother is a wine-maker in the south of Catalonia, which has helped get contacts with distributors.
Jordi Padrosa, co-founder with Rafael De Haan of the Vic brewery, stands by the kit I last saw being brewed on by Twickenham Fine Ales in West London. Before that it was in use at the Springhead brewery in Nottinghamshore, which makes it around 30 years old – and still making good beer …
Cervesa del Montseny, named for a mountain range (and national park) in the centre of Catalonia, started with second-hand kit from the Wolf brewery in Attleborough, Norfolk, and ten years later brought a whole new kit from Premier Stainless Systems in the United States.
If you’re going to barrel-age beer – and most, if not all, Catalan breweries do – it makes sense to put your name on the barrels …
Montseny’s excellent chestnut brown ale includes toasted chestnuts from 1,000-year-old chestnut trees in Montseny National Park in both the mash and the boil. A touch of smoked malt helps brings lovely aroma to a 7.8pc abv beer that would pair with a wide range of foods, from cheeses to game to sausages to desserts
Portrait of a Spanish beer drinker, from the office wall at Montseny
Can Partegàs, another lovely old Catalan farmhouse saved by being turned into a brewery, Art Cervesers, in Canovelles, not quite 20 miles north of Barcelona. The team behind the brewery had problems at first getting permission for the conversion, because the attitude of the authorities was that beer was not a rural product. However, eventually, helped by the fact that they added a strong element of education to their offer, which helped bring in government grants, they were able to open. It claims to be the only craft brewery in Spain not buying in yeast: Art Cervesers has its own yeast bank, and each of its beers is made with its own specific yeast.
Art on the walls … the brewery bar, inside the high-cielinged farmhouse
The Art line-up: the ‘steam pilsner’ is started with Californian Common yeast at 15ºc, with the fermentation temperature then lowered to a more ‘classical’ level, and the beer is dry-hopped with US hops. The Orus is designed to be a ‘classic’ Märzen, while Blanca, the wheat beer, has 25pc of Catalan spelt in the grist, adding to the lovely banananess brought by the yeast. Indiana is a ‘Catalan eyepa’ (sic), more like an English IPA in style, despite the name
More lovely shiny new kit …clearly a great deal of money is available for those looking to expand into craft beer in Catalonia
Personalised brewery drain covers … there’s posh

A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery

Whatever you think of Camden Town Brewery’s beer – and enough people like it to swallow more than 300,000 pints of Hells lager, Gentleman’s Wit and the rest every week – the company’s expansion in under seven years from nowhere to third-biggest brewer in London, with two of its beers, more than any other craft brewer, in the list of top 100 pub brands is hard not to hail.

Camden Town Brewery’s new Enfield plant: not your usual boring box, at least

Now it has made the biggest investment in a new brewery in London since Guinness revealed its Park Royal plant in 1936, 81 years ago. On Saturday Camden Town let the public have a first look round its 57,400 square feet production facility in East London which actually started brewing a month ago, and is capable of producing 200,000 hectolitres a year (122,000 barrels in Fahrenheit), more than ten times as much as the original railway arches brewery in Wilkin Street Mews, NW5, opened 2010, and with the potential to rise to 400,000hl a year. Several hundred people covering the spectrum from hipster to sceptical elderly real ale fan (he knows who he is), including families with toddlers in buggies, took advantage of the free tickets, and the offer of bars, food stalls, music, games, beer at £4 a pint and trips round the brewery (with one free beer), and ignored the rain, to travel to Ponders End to see what £30 million of shiny German stainless steel and other assorted high-tech beer-making equipment actually looks like. Continue reading A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery

Fanboy investors put £50m into UK craft breweries: but is that money down the drain?

A total of £50m has been raised in the UK over the past four years in crowdfunding efforts by more than 40 different craft breweries, and half a dozen craft beer retail operators who have tapped tens of thousands of – overwhelmingly male – investors.

More than half the money raised went to just one company, BrewDog, the maverick Scottish brewer, recently valued at almost £1 billion, but other big beneficiaries of the remaining £23 million raised include Chapel Down Group, owner of Curious Brew, which gathered a total of £5.66m; Camden Town Brewery in North London, which raised more than £2.75 million from 2,173 investors via Crowdcube before being sold for £85 million to the international giant AB Inbev in December 2015; Innis & Gunn of Edinburgh, which raised £2.2 million from almost 1,800 investors; and the Wild Beer Company of Somerset, which brought in £1.8m from just over 2,000 backers.

The money is continuing to roll in: Redchurch Brewery in East London recently closed its second fundraising drive through the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, raising another £433,000 from 688 investors to add to the £497,000 it brought in last year. Also on Crowdcube, The BottleShop, a craft beer importer and distributor with, currently, three bars of its own and plans for more, has just closed its own equity crowdfunding campaign with £403,000 in funding from more than 380 investors

Top 10 UK brewery crowdfunding efforts

But how many of those investors will ever see a decent return on their money, other than the warm glow of owning a small slice of the maker of their favourite beers? With three quarters – 18 out of 25 – of the companies involved for which financial records have been published reporting losses for their last financial year, the answer is likely to be: “Not many, and even then, not for quite a while”. The UK’s financial watchdog, the FCA, warns in the section on crowdfunding on its website: ” It is very likely that you will lose all your money. Most investments are in shares or debt securities in start-up companies and will often result in a 100 per cent loss of capital as most start-up businesses fail.” Earlier this year the Guardian quoted figures from the Insolvency Service showing that 19 drinks manufacturers went sternum to the sky in 2014, 23 in 2015 and 24 in the first nine months of 2016.

Continue reading Fanboy investors put £50m into UK craft breweries: but is that money down the drain?

Why the clear glass bottle question means I’m not bothered Marston’s is buying Charles Wells

Estrella believes in the power of the brown bottle: it’s a pity a few more British breweries don’t

Yesterday’s announcement that Marston’s is acquiring the Charles Wells Brewing and Beer Business for £55 million and loose change (or “working capital adjustments”), at a pretty conservative 5.5 times ebitda, adds another five historic old brewery names, Courage, McEwans, Young’s, William Younger’s and Wells, to a portfolio that already reads like the line-up at a quite good small beer festival circa 1990: Marston’s itself, Banks’s, Jennings, Thwaites, Ringwood, Wychwood, Brakspear, Mansfield, Mitchells (with Lancaster Bomber) and, if you include beers Marston’s brews under licence, Bass and Tetley.

It will give the company six working breweries, and more than 50 “ale” brands, from Bank’s mild to McEwan’s Champion. That’s around twice as many as its closest rival, Greene King, which runs just two breweries, its own original home in Suffolk and Belhaven in Scotland, and continues brewing under the names of just five vanished brewers: Morlands, Ruddles, Ridleys, Hardy’s & Hansons and Tolly Cobbold. On the retail side, however, Greene King owns around 3,100 pubs and bars, making it the third biggest operator in the country, Marston’s “just” 1,750 or so, meaning it vies with Mitchells & Butlers for fourth place.

So what’s with Marston’s policy of adding ever more seemingly pretty similar “twiggy brown bitters” to its line-up? I interviewed the company’s chief executive, Ralph Findlay, two years ago, right after Marston’s had acquired Thwaites’s beer portfolio and made those beers available to all its pubs, and he was pretty specific about the desire to increase further his already considerable ale offer: “Choice is where the market is at,” Findlay said. “Range is something you simply have to have, both for licensees and their customers.” Even after the Thwaites acquisition, he said. Marston’s would continue to look for “opportunistic” purchases if they came up: “We look at potential acquisitions that are consistent with our strategy and which can contribute to our return on capital. We have had a strategy over the past five years that’s not been reliant on acquisitions, though we’ve made them when it’s been opportunistic to do so, such as the acquisition of the Thwaites brewing business. I think we’re in the fortunate position of having an incredibly strong beer range from the various breweries that we’ve got. It’s a strategy that is undoubtedly working.”

Why not, like others, just buy in beers, rather than buy breweries? Because, as Findlay says, it’s a strategy that is working. Marston’s also revealed its half-year figures yesterday. Own-brewed beer volumes were up two per cent, in a declining market. Sales were up three per cent, to £440.8m. Average profit per pub was up three per cent. Like-for-like sales were up between 1.6 and 1.7 per cent. More City analysts than not continue to have the company as a “buy”.

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve: Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Hall & Woodhouse, all sell some or several of their beers in clear bottles, and even Charles Wells has at least one several of its brands, includingWaggle Dance (originally, history fans, made by Wards of Sheffield Vaux of Sunderland, then Vaux, then Young’s, and thus about to be on its fourth fifth owner) and the Burning Gold iteration of Bombardier (as the Beer Nut reminded me) in flint glass. The commitment by Marston’s to beer quality ahead of spurious marketing arguments about how consumers are supposedly encouraged to buy beers that they can see the colour of makes me more confident that Wells’s brand are in relatively safe hands under the boys from Wolverhampton.

Ironically, or at least I think it’s ironic, one of the brands Marston’s is acquiring distribution rights to via the Wells purchase, the Spanish lager Estrella, has just been running an ad campaign un the UK under the slogan “Darker bottle, better beer”, explaining to consumers that “research has shown that exposure to light damages beer and affects its flavour”, and for that reason it was darkening its bottles by 30 per cent.

I’m slightly puzzled that Charles Wells has said that, while it will now be concentrating on its pub estate, it will also be building a new small brewery in Bedford to brew the Charlie Wells “craft beers” and John Bull range, which it is not selling to Marston’s. Is this continued toehold in the brewing world a way of appeasing the family shareholders (many of them formidable elderly females who, Paul Wells once told me, all had his phone number and would ring him up when they felt the company’s figures weren’t good enough) who might try to vote down the sale of the main brewing operation if they felt the company was cutting off its roots after 141 years of supplying beer to the people of Bedford?

Charles Wells currently brews several beers I’m very fond of, including Courage Imperial Russian Stout, Young’s Winter Warmer and McEwan’s Champion, that will now be brewed under Marston’s control. For probably the only time ever, I’m going to let Tim Page, chief executive of Camra, speak for me: giving a cautious one thumb up to the takeover, he said yesterday: “Marston’s has a positive track record of keeping the breweries it acquires open, in situ, and in many cases investing in the sites to increase capacity, and we urge them to continue that policy. We’d also encourage them to protect the brands that they have acquired and increase the range available to beer drinkers, by continuing to supply them alongside the existing beers produced by Marston’s owned breweries.”

The REAL story behind BrewDog’s ‘sellout’ is that crowdfunding will only get you so far

The real story behind the news that BrewDog is copping more than £200 million from the private equity firm that also part-owns Pabst Blue Ribbon, is not, despite the howls of “hypocrisy!”, that nobody can resist a big juicy cheque, no matter how punk they claim to be. It is, rather more sadly, that crowdfunding will only get you so far, and if you have really big ambitions, you’re going to have to get in bed eventually with The Man.

Crowds of crowdfunders: a scene from the BrewDog AGM in Aberdeen earlier this month

The deal with TSG Consumer Partners, the $5bn 30-year-old San Francisco-based private equity firm, sees TSG acquire “approximately” 22 per cent of BrewDog for what the Sunday Times says is £213 million, split between a £100 million investment in the firm and £113 million paid to existing shareholders.

Of the two founders, James Watt is seeing his stake in the firm drop from 35 per cent to 25 per cent and Martin Dickie’s slice goes down from 30 per cent to 22. It’s not clear (to me, anyway) if that dilution is because the pair are selling 18 per cent of the firm between them to TSG, or some of the fall in their percentage ownership comes from new shares being issued: the Sunday Times says one of the motions passed at last month’s BrewDog AGMEGM in Aberdeen saw the creation of a new class of preferred shares, which would guarantee TSG a minimum compound annual return of 18 per cent if the company is bought or floated. There’s a fair bit of dilution, I reckon, or the figures for how much existing shareholders are getting out of the deal don’t add up. But even so, I’d say James is receiving north of £50 million and Martin more than £40 million. Not bad for ten years of being rude about the rest of the UK brewing industry and winding up the Portman Group. Looks like Dr Johnson’s comment more than 230 years ago about selling a brewery being the way to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice is still true. According to Watt, the sums in the deal mean BrewDog now has an enterprise value of £1bn (I make it £968 million, but hey, £32 million is mere loose change), thus making it the first new British brewery “unicorn”.

The most important figure, however, is the £100 million BrewDog now has to play with. That’s four times the amount the company has raised so far through its Equity for Punks crowdfunding schemes, which have given it more than 50,000 shareholders, but taken six years. The company is currently attempting to get $50 million through Equity for Punks USA, though this does not appear to be going anything like as well as its British crowdfunding efforts: the latest figures seem to suggest only $3.5 million or so has been gathered in. That size of sum doesn’t go very far: the hotel and sour beer plant BrewDog is building next to its new brewery in Columbus, Ohio, which finally opened in March, several months late, is costing $6 million. Earlier this month the company announced that it was looking to open breweries in Asia and Australia: based on how much it spent on the Ellon brewery in Aberdeen, that’s £40 million to £50 million that will be needed, in addition to the money required for the planned expansions in Ellon and Columbus. Crowdfunding simply won’t cover expansion of that magnitude.

Tying up with someone like TSG was pretty inevitable, then, if Watt and Dickie wanted to maintain the momentum they have built up with BrewDog. And why should they not? Is it somehow not “punk” to want to be as successful as you can be? Are they meant to say: “No, that’s it for us, really, we’re just going to sit on our arrises from now on”? If you believe in your product, surely you should want to reach as many people with it as possible, however that possibility has to come about? As Watt said in the note that went out to shareholders announcing the TSG deal, it represents “a launch pad for us to turbocharge our mission to make the world as passionate about craft beer as we are.”

Some have declared the TSG deal a betrayal of all the people who bought shares in BrewDog apparently believing that Watt and Dickie would never “sell out”; but this “betrayal” involves a pretty enormous return on those Equity for Punk backers’ investments. As Watt said: “Shares purchased in Equity for Punks I, which closed in February 2010, are now worth 2,800 per cent of their original value. Even craft beer fans who invested in Equity for Punks IV last year have seen the value of their shareholding increase by 177 per cent in just one year.” You don’t get that sort of return putting your money in Nationwide.

Mind, it was perhaps a little naughty of BrewDog to describe TSG as “one of the world’s leading growth funds with successful investments in global brands like Pop Chips and Vitamin Water” without adding that it also has a substantial minority holding in Pabst, purveyor of just the sort of industrial brews Watt and Dickie swore they would never sell out to. I am sure Alastair Hook and the guys at Meantime, whose beers BrewDog withdrew from its bars after the Greenwich brewer was bought by SAB Miller, are smiling sardonically.

No, Heineken, the alcohol-free beer market is NOT going to double in the next four years.

St Peter’s Without Any Redeeming Features

It’s deja bu time again in the world of Big Beer, with the return of excited prognostications for the no alcohol/low alcohol sector. All the marketing “experts” involved in the last round of predictions about how fast sales of no alcohol/low alcohol beers were going to expand have now retired or died, apparently – to be fair, it was 25 years ago – and a new generation is again falling for the fallacy of unwarranted extrapolation.

The Dutch giant Heineken is leading the charge, with the launch in the UK of Heineken 0.0. Currently no-alcohol beer has a tiny one per cent slice of the UK beer market, but David Lette, head of premium brands at Heineken, is popping up in the trade press declaring that he expects to see the alcohol-free beer category double in the next three to four years, and announcing that to make sure Heineken gets its share of this, it is putting £2.5m behind the launch of 0.0, with a £1.5m consumer advertising campaign breaking in July.

If they had given me a tiny one per cent slice of that marketing spend – just £25,000, chaps, very reasonable against what other consulting companies will charge you – I could have saved them all the rest of their money by assuring them that it ain’t going to happen: there will be no doubling of no-alcohol beer sales. And I hate to pour icy water all over young entrepreneurs, but the message is the same for the team behind Nirvana Brewery, East London’s latest, which started at the beginning of this year as the country’s first dedicated no/low alcohol brewery. The no alcohol/low alcohol beer market didn’t take off back in the early 1990s, for a variety of reasons, and for just those same reasons it’s not going to take off now.

In 1987 beer marketeers were even more optimistic about the future of alcohol-free beer, after it had apparently doubled sales in a year, to be worth £45 million, with predictions that it would grow tenfold by 1999. Barbican, the market leader, made by Bass, which had been launched in 1979, was spending £2.5m on an advertising campaign to fight off new entrants such as Kaliber, from Guinness, and Swan Light, from Allied, the first draught low-alcohol beer. Barbican’s first television ad campaign had featured Lawrie McMenemy, then the highly successful manager of Southampton, declaring: “It’s great, man.” McMenemy was later prosecuted for drink-driving, suggesting he perhaps didn’t think Barbican was quite as great as he had been paid to claim. Kaliber had signed up comedians Lenny Henry and Billy Connolly, and the actor Michael Elphick, to act as spokesdrinkers: another example of the dangers of celebrity endorsers, since Elphick was to die in 2002 of a heart attack not helped by his drinking up to two litres of spirits a day.

Thirty years on, that £45 million the alcohol-free beer market was valued at in 1987 pounds is equal to around £180 million in 2017 pounds – which is more or less what today’s alcohol-free beer market in the UK is worth. In other words, in three decades the sector hasn’t grown at all, in real terms. But 30 years ago, David Lette, today head of premium brands at Heineken UK, was studying for his International Baccalaureate at college in Singapore, according to his LinkedIn biography, and he didn’t join Heineken until 2002, thus missing out on the first great failure of non-alcoholic beer to live up to the extrapolations, and probably explaining why he is so optimistic today that the extrapolations for the no/low alcohol beer market are going to come true.

Continue reading No, Heineken, the alcohol-free beer market is NOT going to double in the next four years.