Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2011
Can an international brewer be a sympathetic steward of a craft ale brewery?
IN RECENT YEARS, the major international brewers seem to have largely withdrawn from the cask ale market in the UK. So it came as something of a surprise to learn that Molson Coors had acquired Sharps, the rapidly growing Cornish micro-brewery best known for Doom Bar Bitter, which, although not maybe the most distinctive of beers, is extremely popular in the South of England.
At a time when mass-market lager is a declining and increasingly commoditised business subject to severe price competition, it makes sense for a major brewer to seek to get into the higher-margin section of the market aimed at the more discerning and generally better off consumer. Very often, it is much easier to do this by acquiring existing businesses operating in that segment rather than building your own brands from scratch. You can see parallels with Cadbury buying Green & Blacks, and Coca-Cola acquiring a stake in Innocent Smoothies. But you have to be careful that you donít kill the golden goose by eroding the qualities that made the brand a success in the first place.
The profile of beer overall would benefit from Molson Coors and the other international brewers becoming strong competitors in the cask and premium bottled markets. Molson Coors have already taken the most positive attitude towards cask beer of all the ďBig FourĒ, investing in a dedicated cask brewing plant at Burton-on-Trent, launching Worthington White Shield and the paler, lower-strength Red Shield on cask and announcing a wide range of guest ales.
However, if we look at what happened to Ruddles after being taken over by Grand Metropolitan, to Theakstons after going to Matthew Brown and then Scottish & Newcastle, or to Boddingtons after being swallowed up by Whitbread, the precedent of big brewers buying smaller ones for their brand name is not exactly encouraging. Itís not impossible for large corporations to be conscientious stewards of respected ďauthenticĒ drinks brands Ė this has certainly been the case with Scotch malt whisky distilleries. It never seems to happen with beer, though, but letís hope this time I am proved wrong.
Wall-to-wall football isnít in the interest of the pub trade as a whole
A FEW WEEKS ago, the Manchester football derby was held on Saturday lunchtime. All of my local pubs were showing it on satellite TV, which effectively made them no-go areas for anyone who just wanted a quiet pint. Undoubtedly televised football has a strong following and draws many customers in, but on the other hand not everyone is a fan. Licensees seem to take the view that if they donít have it, they will lose trade, but across pubs as a whole many potential customers will be deterred, and of course Sky Sports costs pubs a huge amount of money. Itís a case of waiting for the other guy to blink first. As with many other things, surely a diversity in offer is in the interests of the pub trade as a whole, rather than everyone trying to appeal to the same segment of the market.
Itís also noticeable that many of the people who come in to watch the football are never seen in the pub at any other time of the week. Pubs might be pleasantly surprised by the amount of business generated if they made a positive virtue of not having Sky rather than simply keeping quiet about it.