Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Greene King and A Brief History of British Beer: Part 5

During the era of precipitous decline in pubs and cask ale consumption in Britain, heritage brewers were struggling to survive. Many breweries had brewhouses that had not been updated for a half-century or more and dwindling markets made it harder and harder to capitalize on economies of scale further cutting into the bottom line. Quite a few breweries were sold off to the more healthy breweries like Greene King. In some instances it made sense to reinvest in the brewery but in most cases the smaller market and the need to maintain scale meant that the brewery was closed and the brand and beer preserved by the acquiring brewery.

In Greene King's tasting cellar - load and loads of real ale...

Greene King was the most aggressive of the acquisitors and bought up a number of breweries on the brink of collapse. But they weren’t the only ones, for example Wells bought Youngs. Greene King has preserved a number of the traditional brands that they acquired like Moreland and Belhaven. In the case of Moreland, the brewery was shuttered but many of the beers continue to be brewed in Bury. In the case of Belhaven, a new brewhouse was built and the brewery continues to make Belhaven been in Scotland. The Green King empire is now expanding and thriving – they have an extensive pub network and are selling more and more real cask ale throughout Britain.

Belhaven Brewery and Head Brewer George Howell

And herein lies the irony. This mix of growth and acquisition that has given rise to criticism of the brewery from the same real ale enthusiasts that started the very wave Green King has ridden to newfound success. To the real ale enthusiasts, it all appears a little too familiar to a time when British beer almost died out entirely thanks to the industrialization of the beer industry. Particularly galling to the CAMRA types is the shuttering of ancient regional breweries. To a businessperson keeping them going didn’t make economic sense and they revitalization of the real ale market has a lot to do with the modernization and quality control that the consolidation has brought. To a CAMRA type, this seems like the very practice they were fighting against in the past and see no reason why beer can’t be made locally.

Greene King is also criticized for the quality of their beer – perhaps unfairly: Green King IPA, their flagship and the best selling real ale in Britain is a subtle yet wonderful beer when fresh. I had a sample right at the brewery and it was fantastic. But I have heard from quite a few Brits that they are not great at quality control once it leaves the brewery. Many complain that Greene King pubs do not treat it well and you are likely to get a pint that is less than ideal. The Moreland branded beers have a bit more character and appear to be an area of concentration for Greene King going forward.

Fuller's Griffin Brewery in Chiswick (London)

And it is not just Greene King that is thriving but other heritage brewers like Fullers in London, Wells and Young, Adnams, Marstons, Samuel Smith and so on are enjoying a resurgence. Fullers, for example brewed about 70,000 barrels of beer annually thirty years ago, but do more than 220,000 today. Their pubs are scattered throughout London and vicinity and their beer is exceptional and attracting a new young and urban sophisticate audience judging from my experience in Fullers’ pubs.

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