Saturday, 26 January 2019

Selling off the family silver

It was a message yesterday morning on one of our West Kent CAMRA WhatsApp groups, which alerted me that something involving Fuller’s and Japan had taken place, so after quick Google search I saw the shock news that Fuller’s are selling their beer and brewing business to Japanese brewer, Asahi, for a sum of £250 million.

The sale includes the historic Griffin Brewery, close to the River Thames at Chiswick, all the Fuller’s beer and cider brands, plus the associated distribution business. Fuller’s will retain ownership of their 400 or so pubs and hotels, and will enter into a long-term supply contract with Asahi.

This news came completely out of the blue, and caught industry observers, as well as casual onlookers, completely by surprise. As a lifelong fan of Fuller’s and their beers, I find this story particularly sad as it brings to an end the involvement of both the Fuller and Turner families in a business which was established in 1845. Now Fuller’s and its beers, will be just another collection of brands.

Now given Asahi's track record so far with their other recent acquisitions (Meantime & Pilsner Urquell), I'm sure they will prove a good custodian of the Griffin Brewery and the Fuller’s brands; at least in the short term. But for the  purposes of this post I’d prefer to leave the fallout from this takeover to other writers, such as Pub Curmudgeon and Zythophile, both of whom put a different spin on the story, and concentrate instead on describing my own involvement with what, until yesterday, was the sole surviving, independent, family-owned brewery, left in London. (I am discounting of course, the 120 small to medium breweries which have set up in the capital, over the past couple of decades).

For this, we need to return to my sixth form days, back in the early 1970’s, in Ashford and a certain school friend of mine. I shan't reveal his real name as we lost touch a few decades ago, and I’m unsure whether or not he is still alive, so for the sake of this narrative, we'll refer to him as RG. Now RG was a friend who went against the grain, because, at a time when most of us were into Prog Rock, motorbikes and chasing after girls, RG preferred to spend his spare time drinking with his parents.

His parents were what I’d call proper Londoners, who had moved to Ashford when it was designated as a London "over-spill" town. Pub-going was a way of life with them and they spread their drinking around a number of rather traditional (old-fashioned) pubs, in Ashford. 

I had developed quite a taste for beer; a trait which, much to my mother’s horror, I probably inherited from my maternal grandfather. As I became increasingly interested in pubs as well as beer, RG seemed the obvious person to help me indulge my new found “hobby”. I therefore became acquainted with quite a few pubs, both in Ashford town centre, and in the adjoining suburb of Kennington, where my friend lived.RG's parents still had family and friends living back in “the smoke”, and my friend spoke glowingly of two London brewers, both of which I had never heard of.

The two breweries of course, were Young’s of Wandsworth and Fuller, Smith & Turner of Chiswick. I will leave the story of my initial experiences of Young’s beers for another day, but I first enjoyed a few glasses of Fuller’s beers when I accompanied my friend on a trip up to London, to visit his aunt. RG's aunty lived in Chiswick, in a house which was just a stone’s throw away from the Griffin Brewery, so this was the ideal opportunity for us to enjoy a few glasses of Fuller's.

I only have very vague recollections of RG’s aunt but I have much stronger memories of calling in at the George & Devonshire, close to the brewery and enjoying a few pints of bitter (known as Chiswick today) and London Pride. Both beers were dispensed by “top pressure” as was the norm in most Fuller’s pubs, at a time when only a handful of the brewery’s pubs used traditional, hand-pump dispense. We either stood or sat at the bar, but after 46 years it is difficult to remember which.

I don’t recall much else of what we did that day, apart from taking the underground back to Waterloo, and then the train back to Ashford, but a couple of years later, when both RG and I were home from our respective universities for the summer vacation, we took another trip up to London. We had both  recently signed up as members of CAMRA, and were armed with a copy of the first ever CAMRA Guide to Real Ale Pubs in London.

I have written previously about our little pub crawl, but for those who may not have read that piece, our last port of call, prior to the afternoon closed session (remember this was long before “all day opening”), we visited the Star Tavern, in Belgrave Mews West. This legendary Fuller’s pub had a slightly chequered past, as it was here, in an upstairs room, that the Great Train Robbery was said to have been hatched.

For the beer enthusiast, the Star was one of the few Fuller’s pubs which offered beer dispensed as it should be – by hand pump, rather than under gas pressure. As well as renewing my acquaintance with London Pride, the Star afforded my first opportunity to try the equally legendary Extra Special Bitter (ESB).

The four years I spent living as a student, in Greater Manchester obviously kept me well away from the capital, and Fuller’s beers, but I did make the occasional foray back south, and with a university friend who hailed from London, there was the odd opportunity to enjoy a glass or two of Chiswick-brewed beer. It was my move to the capital in the spring of 1978, which once again allowed me to drink Fuller’s, and the Star became quite a regular, after-work meeting place.

Fast forward to a move back to Kent, initially to Maidstone and later to Tonbridge, which saw a vastly improved local beer scene to the one I had left, back in 1973. Fuller’s beers were quite widely available in local free-houses, but I was also fortunate to visit the Griffin Brewery, on a number of occasions, with my local CAMRA branch.

The company’s beers are also now widely available in supermarkets, with the bottle-conditioned 1845, being a personal favourite. My other go-to Fuller’s beer during the winter months, is London Porter. I am enjoying a bottle of it now, as I write, and its blend of dark roasted malts, and the coffee and chocolate notes they impart, combined with just the right amount of bitterness, makes this beer one of the finest available examples of this style.

So it is with much sadness that I continue to digest the news about the sale to Asahi. Fuller’s claim that 87 per cent of their operating profits came from the pubs and hotels side of the business, so from a pure hard cash point of view I can understand the reason for the sale. But from an emotional one, selling your brewery, and your highly regarded beer brands, is akin to auctioning of the family silver – something the UK seems pretty adept at doing.

We will have to see how this pans out, once the dust has settled, although I imagine that, for a while at least, not a lot will change. The longer term concern is that the Griffin Brewery, which sits on a prime area of land in west London,  could be sold off by the new owners and thereby net them a fortune.

Somewhat ironically, I noticed a number of Fuller's bottled beers on promotion at Waitrose, this afternoon. So rather protectively, I picked up three bottles of London Porter for the bargain price of just £5.


retiredmartin said...

Good read. Is the sadness I read about today to do with sentiment, anti-Japanese feeling (not yours) or an expectation that the beers will be stopped being produced ?

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, I think the sadness is mainly centred around the change of ownership, and the fact that Fuller’s will no longer be a family-owned brewery. It should also be remembered that the Griffin Brewery is the last such establishment of any size in London; a city which was once home to some of the giants in brewing (Charringtons, Courage, Trumans, Watneys and Whitbread).

This may not mean much to some, but being a sentimental old so and so, I personally think it’s a shame; even though it will obviously be good for Fuller’s shareholders. I’ve also read that the injection of capital will plug the hole in the company’s pension scheme, so it will be beneficial to the workforce as well.

From my experience of working for a Japanese-owned company, I would expect to see very little difference in the day to day running of the brewery, and little or no tinkering with the recipes. As I’m sure you know, the Japanese place great emphasis on quality, so the beers are likely to remain as good as ever.

Some pundits seem to think the beer range might be pared down, with the former Gales brands taking a hit, but I think it is far too early to speculate on this.

retiredmartin said...

I sense you're right, Paul. I met a Fullers shareholder at the Roger Protz beer tasting who was decidedly conflicted !

Interesting to compare the reaction when Fullers gobbled up a smaller family brewer in Dark Star with the reaction here.

Etu said...

When you get to our age, Paul, we just don't like to lose anything else familiar, do we?

I still haven't got over elm trees.

Russtovich said...

I am of course somewhat saddened when these takeovers happen (though can understand to a point). I still think the takeover by Diageo of Guinness somehow changed the flavour (for me at least).

I see the Craft Beer Connections has already been updated:
(photo #4)

I guess I try not to be judgemental but I must admit it affects my sense of discernment when I find out a beer I like is now part of a multi-national (although, to be fair, I never felt this way prior to 2012 - old age I guess). :)

Thank goodness the number of independent breweries seems to be growing; and let's hope your London Porter doesn't go the way for you as Guinness did for me!


PS - I thought I recognised your comments about the Star and nostalgia but I was mixing it up with the North Star where your grandparents used to drink. :)

Paul Bailey said...

Etu and Russ, it’s certainly true that as we grow older, we don’t like to see change, particularly if that change is for the worse. There’s nothing wrong with positive change of course, and providing we see the benefit to us, we should embrace it.

Unfortunately, much of what is happening in the world at present, is negative change, whether it’s the disappearance of a favourite local brew, or the brewery which produces it being acquired by a new owner.

Opting to change the way an entire country does business, as well as its whole economic structure, on the whim of a populist vote by people who know very little about such matters, is even worse; as is electing a brash, arrogant buffoon to lead the richest and most powerful country on earth.

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