Thursday, 31 January 2013

Is the Brewing Bubble About to Burst?

A week or so ago, Boak and Bailey wrote an article on their blog asking "Is the end of the beer boom nigh?". They had a lot of responses, and I was going to comment myself, when an article in our local newspaper prompted me to write a post of my own The newspaper article confirmed something I already knew, but did give a few more facts and some background to the story The story is, as follows:

Back in December, rumours started to circulate that the Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery (RTWB) had ceased brewing. We were a bit concerned a couple of months previously when the brewery almost failed to deliver their order of  beer for the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, which had been organised in conjunction with ourselves at West Kent CAMRA. Brewery owner, Simon Lewis, finally came clean about the situation, just before Christmas, and confirmed that, for the time being at least, RTWB had stopped brewing.

Looking back, we weren't really that surprised. Simon is a busy man who, as well as running the brewery, has the lease on one of  Tunbridge Wells's premier alehouses, the Bedford, opposite the railway station. He is also involved with running his own drinks consultancy business. In addition he was reported to be working on a venture with Purity Brewery up in Warwickshire; Purity certainly seem to be embarking on a major expansion programme at the moment. To make matters worse, the brewery manager upped sticks last year and moved across to neighbouring Sussex to help set up the Long Man Brewery at Litlington on the South Downs.

It's small wonder then that Simon hasn't had much time to concentrate on his own brewery but, as mentioned above,  he appeared in the local paper last week to give his side to the closure of Tunbridge Wells' only brewery. He said that at the moment he wants to "re-evaluate the business", but admitted the loss of manager Jamie Simm hadn't helped matters, and added that the rising cost of  ingredients, such as malt and hops, had also impacted on the profitability of the business. His main gripe though, and here I share his disappointment, was that pubs in the town never really took to the company, with very few outlets prepared to stock the brewery's award winning beers. Simon stated that "there are some people who think they won't be successful unless they sell a particular brand".

I know what he is talking about. and feel it's a shame that so many licensees just want to play it safe when it comes to choosing which beers to stock. I also believe Simon's assessment that it seemed like Tunbridge Wells never really owned the brewery to be correct as, apart from his own pub, I recall very few outlets in the town taking his beers. Contrast this to neighbouring Tonbridge, where a significant number of the town's pubs have been keen to support local concern Tonbridge Brewery, which was established round about the same time as Simon's.

RTWB are not the first brewery though to cease brewing in this area. Earlier last year. Moodleys of Penshurst ceased production in order to concentrate on the supply of home-brewing ingredients. It could be argued that Moodleys were a special case in so much that they traded solely in bottled beers rather than supplying draught ales to pubs. Their products were perhaps aimed at a very small niche market for un-fined, bottle-conditioned ales and I think to be honest  they struggled to establish themselves in this market.

The same could not be said of Ashford-based Abigale Brewery - "A Big Ale" - who ceased production last autumn. I'm not certain of the reason for their demise, but I wouldn't mind betting that despite a strong brand, and some equally distinctive beers, the company struggled to find sufficient outlets willing to stock them.

Back in June I posted an article celebrating the fact that Kent could now boast 25 breweries, but even then I was asking the question was there sufficient trade for them all?, especially as they were all competing with one another. This brings me on to the main point of this article, namely are there now too many breweries chasing fewer and fewer accounts?, and are we now starting to see the first signs that the weaker players in the game are starting to fall out?

Actually that last statement certainly doesn't apply to  RTWB, as Simon concluded his newspaper interview by confirming he was looking for new investment in the business or an entrepreneur who could offer a fresh approach, and way forward for the brewery. He was certainly hopeful that things could be back up and running within a couple of months.

However, like in every business, along with centres of excellence there are a handful of companies involved in brewing who's beers are so bad that I am surprised they are still trading. Two such concerns, that were quite local, did actually cease brewing a few years ago, but I can think of at least one in this part of the country that is still soldiering on.

To sum up, like with every boom the one in brewing will eventually run its course. I just hope that at the end of the day it will be the companies producing poor beer that fall by the wayside, rather than those who take the trouble and have the skills to produce a superb product. After all we all hope the way can be left open  for the latter to survive and  prosper.


Curmudgeon said...

Some breweries do seem to prosper without making particularly distinctive beers, probably because of good branding and an efficient sales and distribution process.

A couple of examples in this part of the world are Coach House and Northern/Blakemere.

It's not enough just to brew good beer and expect the world to beat a path to your door.

Tyson said...

Yes, exactly what PC said.

Paul Bailey said...

No, it's not enough just to brew good beer and expect the world to beat a path to your door, but equally there's a limit to what even the best salesperson in the world can sell when the product they're selling is indifferent, or even out and out crap.

I suspect breweries that fall into this category survive by offering substantial discounts. I remember this being the case from my own time in the trade.

Bailey said...

Interesting point about the willingness of a town to 'own' its brewery.

Penzance has two very local breweries (well, based in villages outside town), and a substantial number of freehouses, but their beer is rarely to be seen except in the pubs they own themselves. St Austell pubs aside, it's all Doom Bar and (oddly) Bass.

Given a fairly strong 'think local' tendency in these parts, it always seems surprising to us that there isn't more pressure on publicans from customers.

Paul Bailey said...

More pressure on publicans from customers, Bailey. A great idea, but I wonder how many customers would do this? Most, I fear, are quite happy to carry on drinking the likes of Doom Bar, or Harvey's in this area (nothing wrong with Harvey's though!). Also, many (but by no means all), licensees seem to possess a blinkerd attitude when it comes to deciding which beers to stock, and this can sometimes even border on arrogance.

David, Little Omenden Farm and Nursery said...

I was soory to read about the demise of Royal Tunbridge Wells and Abigale: I'd only come across them at beer festivals or beer tents:never in a pub,which leads me to wonder how free landlords are to support micros, especially those renting from a pubco? I've noticed this reluctance of customers from trying something new or strange.This probably, at least in our nearest village with three pubs, stems from the fact that the choice was Courage, Courage or Courage.

Denzil Vallance said...

As the local ale market matures this will become less of a problem. West Yorkshire has hundreds of micros and the scene has been going for many years. It's easy to sell beer there if it's really good. If it isn't, that's why you hit the skids.

Denzil Vallance said...

PS I kinda just blogged about this myself.

@MikeMcGWirral said...

@PubCurmdgeon & @Tyson, I used to work with one of the breweries you mention & have heard that in the past year or two they've increased sales, expanded production, taken on new staff & perhaps most importantly engaged a very experienced brewing consultant to oversee changes in plant & practices to increase capacity & improve quality. I've tried some of their beers recently & they were great.