Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Probably NOT the best beer deal in the world

I am rather surprised that so few bloggers and beer writers picked up on last week’s story, concerning joint venture between Danish brewer Carlsberg and British brewer Marston’s. Under the deal, the Danish firm will own 60% of the new Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company with Marston’s holding 40%. The Burton-based brewer will also receive a cash payment of up to £273m.

This cash injection, whilst welcome, won’t go far towards easing Marston’s massive £1.39 billion debt; a burden they were planning to clear by selling off some of their less profitable pubs. Then, along came Corona-virus.

The merger casts doubt on the future of the other breweries and brands owned by Marston’s, in particular the Wychwood Brewery—home of Hobgoblin beers, plus well-regarded regional brands like Jennings and Ringwood. Veteran beer writer Roger Protz described the deal as “alarming,” adding he was worried about the fate of the Jennings Brewery in Cumberland, as well as the future of Draught Bass, which Marston’s contract brew, in Burton, on behalf of AB InBev. 

When approached, a spokesperson for Marston’s declined to be quoted, but denied there are any plans to close breweries. This is despite the two companies pointing to £24 million worth of savings said to come from streamlining brewery operations, logistics efficiencies and other reductions in overhead costs.

Marston’s’ pub business is not part of the deal, but written into the agreement is the guarantee of a supply arrangement for Carlsberg brands. This has prompted concern among many small brewers, that they will be squeezed out of the market.

The new business will offer a mix of Carlsberg’s mass-market lagers and Marston’s cask ale brands such as Hobgoblin and Pedigree, and will also be able to feed Carlsberg beers into Marston’s estate of around 1,400 UK pubs.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA, warned the deal could make it harder for independent beer firms to get their beers into pubs. Their chief executive James Calder, said “This merger is the latest in a series of consolidating measures within the UK beer market, and has the potential to impact negatively on small independent brewers by further reducing the access to market they receive.”

Marston’s is the third national cask brewer to have been snapped up by a multinational corporation in barely a year—each time at a discount due to turmoil in the British economy. In January 2019, Asahi bought Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million, while Hong Kong property firm CKA paid £2.7 billion for Greene King’s brewing arm and pub estate last August.

The value of the pound has remained low since June 2016, when the U.K. foolishly voted itself out of the European Union, making these types of  transactions even more attractive to foreign investors. So much for taking back control! The fall in Marston’s share value, following the ongoing fallout from COVID-19, made this merger even more attractive from Carlsberg’s point of view, although they have since surged by 36%.  

Until this deal, Marston’s was the last remaining brewing group of any size, left in UK hands. Now, that honour has apparently passed to those Aberdeen-based upstarts,  Brewdog!

Saturday, 23 May 2020

On your bike!

As we look forward to a long weekend (for those of us still working), which will be followed by the 11th week of lock-down – assuming I’ve done my sums right, I just wanted to add a few observations, gleaned mainly from my drives to and from work.

The first is a particularly unpleasant and disturbing one which raised its head very early on during the restrictions. I was appalled one morning by what can only be described as “fly-tipping,” admittedly not on the scale that makes the local headlines, but enough to really annoy me, and spoil my drive into work.

It was if someone had driven along and ejected their household rubbish, for that is what it was, out of the vehicle. Pizza boxes and plastic bags containing domestic detritus, littered the normally pleasant country road, for a couple of hundred yards, causing me to really question the mentality and intelligence of the individual(s) concerned.

Fortunately, this appears to be a “one-off” incident, and thankfully most of the litter has gradually disappeared – the hard-pressed local council may also have removed some of it. Even so, such behaviour does little to restore one’s trust in human nature.

This brings me on to the next set of observations which relate to an increase in people using a reasonably busy country road as part of their regular exercise routine. Now I am all in favour of the population at large taking more exercise; and for the government to encourage them to do so is one of the real positives to come out of this situation. 

But country roads have blind bends aplenty, as well as places where they narrow  and if, as a motorist, you suddenly encounter someone huffing and puffing along the wrong side of the road, or worse a family with young children on bikes, wobbling along a road which, in normal times, they wouldn’t dream of using they and, by extension, you could be in all sorts of trouble.

I am writing this as someone who doesn’t drive particularly fast and who has been tailgated in the past by the odd lunatic, frantic to get ahead in order to arrive at his (it’s always an alpha-male), destination that few minutes earlier. 

To be fair, during the first few weeks of the lock-down, the roads probably were sufficiently quiet to permit both safe walking, running and cycling, whilst still observing a degree of caution and common-sense. This still does not apply to allowing young kids to wobble all over the road on their bikes; wearing a safety helmet is not much protection from being hit by a car, even when it’s travelling at normal speed.

As the weeks have drawn on though, traffic has steadily increased; particularly the number of vehicles belonging to builders and other contractors. We are not quite back to levels seen in mid-March although, if the trend continues, we are probably not far off them. 

Most walkers seem to have disappeared. After all, given the preponderance of footpaths and attractive countryside locally, why would you choose to walk along a potentially dangerous road anyway. Also, with dry weather throughout April and most of May, conditions underfoot are ideal for a cross-country ramble.

The suicidal runners (the ones who ignore the rule about facing on-coming traffic), have also largely disappeared, which just leaves the over-weight cyclists, riding in small groups, huffing and puffing as the line of cars builds steadily behind them.

It’s true that as a nation, we have failed pitifully to provide proper and safe off-road facilities for cyclists. A visit to the Netherlands, four years ago which did include an opportunity for off-road cycling, proved to me just how inadequately our provision for two-wheeled transport is. 

It is rather ironic then that bike sales should have soared during the current crisis, and the government are now belatedly, looking at increasing facilities for off-road cycling, but in the meantime, whether you’re a cyclist a car-driver or both, please take care out there. 

So, will the current exercise fad continue once things slowly return to normal?  I would like to think that it will, and as long as people are sensible about it, and take their exercise well away from moving traffic, then that can only be a good thing. 

We were fortunate in the UK that outdoor exercise has been permitted by our government, unlike Italy and Spain, for example, where people were incarcerated in their homes for weeks on end, and only allowed out for essential shopping. With luck we will end up with a fitter and healthier population, meaning some good will have arisen from the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Whitstable - bringing it all back home

This post follows on from a thread which developed on Retired Martin’s blog. It concerned breweries that, whilst named after certain towns or villages, are not actually situated in that location. 

The example that came up was Whitstable Brewery, which was mentioned as being in Maidstone. In the discussion that followed, I responded that the company’s production site is at Grafty Green, a tiny hamlet to the south of Lenham, which puts the brewery as roughly halfway between Maidstone and Ashford. In other words, it is still nowhere near Whitstable.

The Whitstable name relates to the brewery being owned by the renowned Whitstable Oyster Company (WOC), who have a history stretching back to the 15th Century.  The company had a long and rich history of farming the famous Royal Whitstable Native Oysters, but by the late 1970’s had hit hard times. Oysters had fallen out of fashion, and years of over-harvesting had laid the famous oyster beds practically bare.

The company was rescued by two partners, who invested heavily in both the business, and the oyster beds, by introducing sustainable methods of production. The old oyster stores on Whitstable seafront, were turned into a fish restaurant which is now regarded as one of the finest seafood eateries in the country.

Buying its own brewery was the obvious next step for the company, so when the equipment of the defunct Swale Brewery came up for sale, along with their site at Grafty Green, the WOC stepped in, and the Whitstable Brewery was born. The company brew some extremely good beers, including several different bitters and a range of lagers. East India Pale Ale ranks as my favourite of their cask beers, whilst Whitstable Pilsner and Oyster Stout tick the right boxes, as far as their keg range is concerned.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, a brewery with "Whitstable" in its name that is situated 25 miles away from that famous seaside town, was always going to sound a little incongruous, so it came as no surprise to learn that the WOC are planning to relocate the brewery to somewhere much closer to home. 

They have chosen a site in Herne Bay, just along the coast from Whitstable, and in the shadow of the famous Reculver Towers. Plans show the new brewery will have 11 fermenting tanks, plus a bottling and canning plant. A bar area will also be built at the site, giving visitors the chance to sample freshly brewed beers and take part in tours. 

The application is subject to planning permission, and was submitted pre-lock down, so whether Coronavirus will impact on these plans is anyone’s guess, but the move to the north Kent coast is a logical one for the company and makes sound economic sense.

Around 10 years ago I visited the Royal Native Oyster Stores, whilst in Whitstable for a CAMRA regional meeting. Several years prior to that, some friends and I called in at the East Quay Venue, which acted then as the Whitstable Brewery tap. 

Located directly at the end of the east quay in Whitstable harbour, and situated practically on the beach itself, this bright and airy establishment occupies one of Whitstable’s oldest buildings.  A beer festival, showcasing the best of Whitstable Brewery’s beers, was in full swing, at the time of our visit, allowing us to enjoy a selection of the company’s excellent ales.

Regrettably, I am unable to find any photos from that visit, but the ones shown are from 2010, and from December 2018, when the Bailey family spent an afternoon in Whitstable and enjoyed fish finger sandwiches on the beach.  

Whitstable is now rather upmarket and is totally different from the town I knew whilst growing up in East Kent. It has become second home territory for an increasing number of affluent Londoners, with the inevitable rise in property prices.   

Ten years ago, I wrote, Whitstable isn't quite Southwold (yet), but it's fast becoming so. I'm certain this is good for local businesses and, hopefully, local people, but when such "gentrification" takes place then I can't help feeling that much of the local character and individuality (the very things that attracted the newcomers in the first place), disappears. 
By moving brewing operations to the town,  Whitstable Brewery were obviously planning to cash in on this boom, and once lock-down ends, I feel certain that, given their record to date, they will succeed in this aim.