Tag Archives: Greene King

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.”

Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look
The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

Continue reading Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Why Rooney Anand is talking rubbish on minimum alcohol pricing

I was disappointed and angry to see Rooney Anand, chief executive of Greene King, calling in the Daily Telegraph last week for minimum unit pricing for alcohol. Disappointed because the arguments for minimum unit pricing have been totally debunked, and Mr Anand should really have known he was talking rubbish – or his advisers should have told him. Angry because I cannot understand why he is using his position as boss of one of the largest brewers and pub operators in the country to promote the agenda of the neoprohibitionists for whom minimum unit pricing is but a small step on the way to totally restricting the sale of alcohol.

“Binge drinking continues to adversely affect our nation,” Anand cried, insisting that we have a “growing culture of irresponsible drinking”. And yet since 2004 there has been an 18.9% fall in alcohol consumption per head and consumption is now at its lowest level this century. Violent crime linked to alcohol has fallen by 32% since 2004 and by 47% since 1995. Where is your evidence for a “growing culture of irresponsible drinking”? Since 2005 the number of men “binge drinking” (a dubious concept in its own right, as I pointed out here) has fallen by 17%; the number of women binge drinking has fallen by 23%; and binge drinking among 16 to 24-year-olds has fallen by 31% among men and by 34% among women. In 2012-13, alcohol consumption in England and Wales fell by 2.1% year-on-year, to its lowest level since 1990. “When it is possible to walk into a shop and buy a bottle of beer for less than a bottle of water, it is no surprise that, as a nation, we are moving in the wrong direction in our relationship with and consumption of alcohol,” Anand asserts. So a fall of almost a fifth in alcohol consumption in the past ten years is a move in the wrong direction, Rooney? Or do you not actually know that consumption is falling? Incidentally, that fall of nearly a fifth in alcohol consumption is actually far more than its proponents claimed would have been achieved by introducing minimum pricing. Oh, and it’s NOT possible to buy a bottle of beer for less than the price of a bottle of water, and never has been, unless you are talking about the most expensive designer water.

The first mash at the new Greene King brewhouse, Bury St Edmunds, 1939
The first mash at the new Greene King brewhouse, Bury St Edmunds, 1939

Anand goes on to claim that a 50p minimum unit price “could” reduce the costs to the NHS caused by alcoholic overindulgence by “as much as” £417m a year. Ignoring the two sets of weasel words there – “could” and “as much as”, the use of which sucks all the veracity out of his claim– it’s a pathetic claim anyway. £417m equals 31p per household per week. Big swing.

Next up, Anand references “a recent study by the University of Sheffield” which “indicated that minumum unit pricing” would have a larger positive impact on those in poverty, particularly high risk drinkers. Allegedly, minimum unit pricing “targets those prone to binge drinking, with their consumption expected to fall 7% through raising the price of approximately 30% of units sold to harmful drinkers.” But as Paul Chase, author of the excellent book Culture Wars and Moral Panic: The Story of Alcohol and Society (I’ve nicked all the stats here from him), has pointed out, “the Sheffield minimum pricing model is based on absurd assumptions, such as the belief that heavy drinkers are much more price-sensitive than moderate drinkers, and assumptions made about the price-elasticity of demand for alcohol that are at odds with what economic research and common sense tell us about the relationship between price and consumption.” To fill that out: there is no evidence at all that making drink dearer for heavy, problem drinkers will stop them drinking as much as they already do. Indeed, it seems more than likely that what will happen is that they will cut down on expenditure elsewhere in order to find the money to carry on drinking as much as ever.

Anand calls the failure to introduce a minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland “disappointing”. But Scotland’s attempt to introduce minimum pricing hasn’t gone through because it is currently the subject of an investigation by the European Court of Justice, which is likely to give its decision on whether the proposal is legal, or breaks EU competition law, only at the end of 2015 or early in 2016. Expert betting is that it will be ruled illegal.

It is hard not to assume that Anand is backing the idea of minimum unit pricing because he thinks that it makes him appear on the side of the “good guys”, despite being a producer of “demon alcohol”. Perhaps, too, he thinks that minimum unit pricing will hurt the supermarkets more than it will the brewers and pub owners, and for that reason it’s a Good Thing. But he really needs to think about who he is getting into bed with by promoting minimum unit pricing. These are people prepared to lie and distort to promote their aims – the claim that “up to” 35% of A&E admissions are “alcohol-related”, for example, which is completely made up, of the equally preposterous claim that “Alcohol misuse hands a hefty annual bill of £21bn to UK taxpayers”, which is, again, based on unverifiable guesses and false reasoning. But the anti-alcohol lobby genuinely doesn’t care if its statistics aren’t true. It only wants to see its policies adopted, because it thinks it knows best what is good for all of us. To quote Paul Chase again: “Public discourse on alcohol is dominated by an absolutist, loony-left dominated, alcophobic public health movement that has become a vehicle for Big Business bashing.” Really, Rooney, do you think you should be promoting a policy these people want?

In defence of old men with beards

OMWBAWYIt happened, I’m guessing, about the time that the first wave of Camra members were hitting their late 50s and early 60s, that is, at the beginning of this century. If “real ale” had been pejorated almost from the beginning as the drink of men with beards, generally accompanied by sandals, soon after the millennium the cliché became old men with beards, sitting in a corner of the pub clutching a half-filled glass of something tepid, lifeless and tan-coloured in their wrinkled, liver-spotted hands.

Rooney Anand, viridian monarch at Greene King, seems to have been one of the first to favour the expression, complaining in 2002: “It’s time to explode the myth that real ale is for old men with beards. It’s not, it’s for everyone.”

Since then, the meme has trundled on, gathering speed: “Cockermouth brewer Jennings hopes to use Cask Beer Week to shatter the stereotype that bearded old men are the only ones who drink real ale” (Times and Star, Cumbria, September 2004); “real ale … seen as only for old men with beards and beer bellies” (BBC website, December 2005); “pubs full of old men with beards who drink real ale” (Farmers’ Weekly, April 2008); ” real ale drinkers … smelly old men with beards” (Metro, October 2008); “Normally when people think real ale, they picture old men with far too much facial hair, reeking of pipe smoke” (Metro again, August 2011); “real ale drinkers … crusty old men with beards” Hull Daily Mail, October 2011; “Real ale … for old men with beards and woolly jumpers” (Scotland on Sunday, October 2011); “real ale … a flat, warm brown liquid that old men with beards drink” (Bristol Evening Post, April 2012); you’re getting the idea. Continue reading In defence of old men with beards

And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

Loch Fyne could be finer with decent beer

At the top of the (long) street where we now live is what used to be a pub called the Lord Nelson, the middle one of a trio of boozers with Napoleonic names between Hampton Hill and Twickenham Green. (The other two being the now-closed Wellington and the Prince Blücher, which is named after the Prussian general who pulled Wellington’s derrière out of the hot fat by turning up just in time at Waterloo, and which is a fine Fuller’s outlet.)

The Lord Nelson was well known for specialising in fish dishes, and it had half of a fishing boat outside the main entrance. Soon after we moved to this area, however, it was taken over by Loch Fyne Restaurants and converted from a pub specialising in fish to a proper fish eatery (with, as it happens Loch Fyne’s head office upstairs above the restaurant).

I never got there when it was a pub, though I’ve dined there several times since its reinvention as a Loch Fyne outlet, and the food is well up to the mark: properly cooked (it’s easy to do fish badly) and very reasonably priced. But the beer selection is absolutely dreadful: Beck’s, Stella, some other awful eurofizz lager, and (the only saviour) bottled Guinness.

I had hoped that after Greene King, which has been making some serious nods at beer and food matching (it actually has a website called Greene King Beer With Food, and its Hop bottled beer used to be called The Beer To Dine For) took over Loch Fyne not quite a year ago there would be an improvement. But a trip up the road for our wedding anniversary recently revealed that everything was just as awful as ever on the beer menu.

Not one of Greene King’s beers was available, so, still no ales, though ales, including Greene King’s, go extremely well with fish: Abbot with mackerel, for example, where the beer’s heaviness, slight sweetness and full mouthfeel works well with the oily fish; or XX dark mild with salmon, setting off the coffee/roast notes of the beer against the sweetness of a good wild Alaskan; mussels with IPA; a creamy smoked fish pie with Strong Suffolk; or bouillabaisse with Hen’s Tooth, one of my favourite bottle-conditioned ales.

Continue reading Loch Fyne could be finer with decent beer

Everything you wanted to know about X

This is going to bring me large numbers of search engine hits from people looking for something else entirely, but I’m going to talk about the joy of X, which inevitably means mentioning XX, and XXX of course, and XXXX and so on, right up to Simonds of Reading’s strong stout, Archangel XXXXXXX.

The usual (and only semi-likely) explanation of the original use of X and XX as markings on ale and beer casks, and subsequently as beer names, was that they were used as a guarantee of quality by monastic brewers: Frederick Hackwood’s Edwardian-era Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England says that

in shape the crosses were at first more akin to the crucifix, and served to indicate that by the oath of the monks, ‘sworn on the cross’, the beer was of sound quality, fit to drink.”

though, of course, there is no contemporary documentary evidence given for this, and it seems unlikely, frankly, that monks would use Christianity’s holiest symbol on casks of ale. In any case, † is † and X is X.

Another explanation is that it comes from the habit of excisemen from the middle of the 17th century, when beer was first taxed, marking XX on casks of strong ale or beer and X on casks of small beer. The problem with that idea is that the excisemen’s marks were X for strong beer and T for table beer.

Continue reading Everything you wanted to know about X

Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

Continue reading Come-back for the Burtons