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 (unofficial) 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.

13 thoughts on “Picketing Fuller’s EGM is like picketing your ex-girlfriend’s house

  1. A pedantic note: Hartley’s Brewery was in Ulverston – which is not in the Lake District. Many of its pubs were inside the boundary of the national park though. I parked near the site of the near-derelict tower brewery only last week.

  2. All well put. I respect CAMRA greatly but the era of protests at closures, for pubs too, really is past. Better to focus quality beer and where you can get it.

    Viz closures, it is curious so many great tastes are lost while even with so many new breweries,
    truly distinctive tastes in bitter and mild seem harder to find. I tasted so many at GBBF but they seemed rather uniform, especially at lower gravities.

    Something to do with standardisation of yeasts, perhaps.

  3. The trouble with analysis like this is that it treats economics as if it is some natural system entirely divorced from politics. That it makes perfect sense for Fuller’s to sell their brewery and brands to Asahi is because of political decisions that shape the economic system we live under. So it’s perfectly reasonable to think that political change could stop brewery sell offs like this. Mind you, anyone thinking picketing an EGM is going to bring this about is pissing in the wind.

  4. It is so sad that people think business is JUST about money. There are intangibles too. Should we as consumers follow their thinking and Base our choices merely on money too?
    To hear that another independent has sold out is saddening. I am sad too that Martyn thinks as he does. There really is much more to life than money. It makes me realise that I should no longer have any affection for any brands as no matter how they appear they will just sale to the highest bidder.
    Martyn I am disappointed in you,I thought I knew where you were coming from now I realise I don’t understand you at all.

    1. Of course brand owners will sell to the highest bidder, so they should, and I’m puzzled why you think anyone should say: “No, we’ll have to turn down all thsat money, Steve Wilcox wouldn’t like it.” Sure, thee’s more to life than money, but money is what enables you to enjoy those things, and that’s why businesses exist – to make money so the business owners and their investors – and their workers – have the ability to enjoy life’s many pleasures. If you ignore that fact while running your business, you’ll be soon out of business.

  5. I would have thought that anyone who had a passion for Fullers and a well paid job would have bought shares in the company long ago. Then, instead of standing outside on a ‘picket’ chanting slogans, he could be in the meeting with the right to put his points to other people with votes.

  6. I second Ed’s comment. There’s a weird reversal of perspective in arguments like the one advanced in this post, treating the real and substantial as weightless and unreal, and vice versa. Let’s start from the beer. ESB in particular is a great beer – one to savour in bottle & seek out on cask – and the Past Masters series has in the past produced some terrific brews. Beers like those are produced through skill & care, sustained by the working culture of the brewery, as well as by following a recipe; in the case of the Past Masters, they are only produced at all because of the presence of people like John Keeling, and their commitment to exploring and reviving the heritage of beer – and because of the relationship Fuller’s has built up with loyal drinkers over the last couple of decades.

    All of those things are now at risk, it seems to me. The beer range itself, the quality of the beer, the culture and expectations at work in the brewery, the personnel, the care and skill with which they work, the reputation of Fuller’s as a brewer of remarkable beers: all of this may be sustained under new management, but there’s good reason to fear that it won’t. The result could be that we lose some excellent beers.

    Certainly it’s a good thing for Fuller’s shareholders to maximise the monetary value of their assets – I myself generally prefer ‘more money’ to ‘less money’ – but that positive needs to be set off against the negative, in just the same way as we’d set off the positive of saving a few pounds on the groceries against the negative of having to drink own-brand Value Lager.

  7. I don’t know the author – but the Jilted John analogy misses the point. Unlike Julie who can leave John for Gordon of her own free will, Fullers can’t leave brewing without an EGM and the approval of the shareholders – and that’s the whole point Martyn seems to have missed in his “greed is good” analysis.

    CAMRA will be represented inside the EGM via the CAMRA Members Investment Club – the CMIC holds over 300,000 Fuller Smith and Turner shares – their voice will be heard. The purpose of a protest outside the EGM is to influence the fellow shareholders who may well think twice of selling off a profitable part of the business and the key element of the brand in the face of a substantial consumer protest.

    So John Cryne is right – Martyn (to over-egg keep the analogy) is the moron here!

    1. “a substantial consumer protest” – you are having a laugh. The evidence appears to suggest that overwhelming majority of Fuller’s drinkers are unbothered.

      1. With over 191,000 members, CAMRA is now the largest single-issue consumer group in the UK – that is substantial

  8. Does anyone remember Rover? Land Rover? Dyson? Doc Martins? Jaguar?

    Its all very well saying business is business, but selling companies runs the risk that they are either asset stripped, moved abroad, closed and the name just becomes a brandname and produced elsewhere. Either way, you run the risk of loosing what made the product special, not to mention the risk that those workers who worked to make a brand special will see production sent elsewhere.

    My once local brewery was taken over by one of the big breweries. It had been turning a tidy profit for a trust, but was sold off for a quick win as the big brewery wanted contracts the local brewery had with national supermarkets. Production was soon taken away and the brewery closed, leaving a huge hole in the local economy. Yes profits were made and somebody got a bigger car and house out of it no doubt, but many lost their jobs, a town lost another bit of its identity and a couple of great beers were lost. One can also argue that a local product became less green, as it was now transported an extra 100 miles to reach its market.

    It may have made business sense, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  9. I’m not convinced that the fact that there are now 2000 breweries is relevant. How many of those will last and go on to have some kind of history?

    We’re not here talking about beer because it’s just a matter of economics, are we? If you think we are, and that you are just in this for the money too, maybe we should all go and read someone else’s blog?

    You questioned Phil’s comment, “there’s good reason to fear that it won’t.” Because historically big brewers are not great at preserving distinctive products, they are the enemy of the mass market.

    On family brewers, I expect they will continue to disappear, will we be more upset when it’s Adnams or Timothy Taylors? I must admit to drinking less of these beers than I used to, sometimes too much choice is not a good thing.

    On the other hand, it’s never been easier to get a good beer…

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