Sunday 21 April 2024

Another brewery sadly bows out

So, just a couple of posts after my disclosure that I wasn’t a massive fan of Cellar Head beers, news broke that the company, had ceased trading, with immediate effect, and would be going into administration. Founders Chris & Julia McKenzie posted the news on social media, thanking their team, their supporters and everyone who, over the years, had bought a pint of Cellar Head over the years, or spent time with the team at the brewery tap room.

According to the statement the pair put out, they had spent time over the past few weeks trying to find a buyer for the business, but whilst there had been plenty of interest, no one willing to take the risk necessary to move the business on to the next chapter, could be found. This means Cellar Head, now join the growing band of small, independent brewers that have hit the buffers in recent months, blaming the financial climate, vastly increased production costs, plus a market that was already struggling.

It's always sad when a business goes under and whilst Cellar Head beers never really did it for me, I know that they did for numerous others. The company was founded in 2017, and seemed to hit the ground running, as suddenly their beers seemed to be everywhere, along with their distinctive logo of a ZZ Top look-alike, cool dude. Cellar Head cask beers are un-fined, which means they carry a natural haze and are also vegan-friendly. In addition, they do not filter or pasteurise their bottled beers and neither do they artificially carbonate them. Instead, they undergo a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle which, they claim, results in a gentle, light fizz which gives a more refined texture and mouthfeel.

In 2019, Cellar Head moved to new premises at Flimwell, on the Kent- Sussex border, and in April of that year I visited them in their new home, with a party from West Kent CAMRA. We were on our way back from a visit to Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, and the tour organiser thought it a good idea to call in at Cellar Head as well. The brewery was holding an open day, a function they used to hold once a month. Having just visited Harvey's, I was a little bit beered-up to fully appreciate what Cellar Head had on offer that day, but as  I wrote at the time, the rural setting of their brewery, and the family audience they attracted, reminded me of the visit I made the year before, to the Vanish Woods Brewery in rural Virginia, USA.

During 2023 the number of UK breweries going bust, tripled compared to the year before, as consumers looked for cheaper due to the cost-of-living crisis. This combined, with rising overheads, has led to a wave of insolvencies, and the trend looks likely to continue as we move into the second quarter of 2024. The craft beer market, in particular, has become heavily overpopulated over the past decade, and many of these brewers find themselves fighting for a place in a shrinking market.

I know that I am not the only industry observer who thinks that the number of new cask ale and craft beer brewers is unsustainable, and yet despite all the warnings new start-ups continue coming out of the woodwork. The rate of new brewery openings does seem to be tailing off, but despite this CAMRA continues its unqualified support, by loudly cheering on each new start up.

I haven’t got time today, but when I’m a little less rushed, there are a couple of stories I could tell of ill-advised start-ups, and of well-meaning advice ignored, all for it to end in tears. In the meantime, lovers of Cellar Head beers will have to look for a substitute tipple, although with at least two new breweries that have come on the scene locally, during the past year, they won’t have to look very far.



Stafford Paul said...

With never having drunk Cellar Head beer I'm clearly partly to blame.

retiredmartin said...

Thanks for the helpful post which filled in quite a bit in my knowledge gap, Paul.

I didn't know Cellar Head were quite so new (2017) but looking back at my own posts I see they've only popped into my consciousness this century.

It's probably due to having a caravan in Rye and passing Flimwell and seeing their van so frequently of late that they've acquired such instant brand recognition with me. It reminds me of how quickly the (new) Lacons have grown in East Anglia.

But looking back at those posts, particularly this one,
which I wrote after encountering their beer in dreadful condition in Rye last year. I see their problem.

The sort of upmarket dining pub (see also : Queen in Hawkhurst) that sells their beer alongside Harvey's Best is rarely a pub that sells a lot of cask, or much cares about it.

Unless you have your own pubs to showcase your beer, you're at the mercy of pubs who care little about your product. And then you're forced to sell to Spoons cheaply.

Paul Bailey said...

Paul, the blame - if there is any, lies with too many breweries trying to out compete each other, in a shrinking market. Cellar Head didn't do anything wrong - on the contrary, they created a strong brand, or at least a strong and memorable image, with their ZZ Top look alike logo.

With hindsight, they should not have chased after the posh dining pub market which, as Martin illustrates so well, with his post, meant they were on a hiding to nothing.

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion about high-end dining pubs, and the lip-service they pay to cask beer. The other Saturday, at the unashamedly upmarket Vineyard, I appeared to be the only customer drinking cask, at least in the part of the pub we were seated in.

The Harvey's was in good form, but then it's a safe brand, and one that's familiar to those who only occasionally indulge in cask. It's sheer folly, not so much for the brewery, but for the pub itself, to expect the casual drinker to stray from the path of familiarity, and try something different for a change.

Your last point hits the nail, firmly on the head, and illustrates the problems faced by breweries, such as Cellar Head.

Stafford Paul said...

I don't know but suspect that Cellar Head might have had more customers thinking a cloudy pint is faulty and so not bought the beer again than customers buying the beer because it's vegan.
Unknown beers are so risky.

Anonymous said...

Never heard of Cellarhead so obviously their distribution was rubbish.
I'm guessing another glorified homebrew operation producing beers no-one wants to drink but at least they go down fighting as being ethically right-on.
A quick look at their website confirms all you need to know.
A tip for future craft brewers - no-one gives a shit about this stuff when all they want is a drinkable beer.

Ingredients: Ethical sourcing, Local sourcing policy, Sustainable sourcing

Packaging: Biodegradable packaging, Compostable packaging, Recyclable packaging, Recycled packaging, Reusable Packaging

People:Living wage employers

Waste:Recycled waste product

Anonymous said...

" Sustainability:

Minimising your carbon footprint, being good global citizens and giving back to the community – we are here to help you achieve these goals.

As an organisation representing the local independent food and drink sector in Kent, sustainability is at the core of our mission. We want to be a driver of sustainable development in the county, showcasing the fantastic initiatives undertaken by our members in the area of operational sustainability, and encouraging other members
to follow their example.

We acknowledge that we are not perfect, but we are committed to make the transition to a responsible organisation and create a better and greener future for the next generation."

Perhaps if they'd spent less time wanging one about how wonderful they are and more of actually thinking about their business they'd still have one today.

" We are governed by a Board of Directors comprising representatives from Kent County Council and Produced in Kent membership. Board meetings are held quarterly. " Yes, but did they have any experience in running a business ?

" Our role is to promote local and seasonal produce and provide support and services to our Members." - Everyone says that until they realise the cheapest raw ingredients are found at Aldi and Lidl.

Pickled on Tramp Juice said...

I quite agree Anon. A few rickety picnic tables outside an industrial unit, do not constitute a route to market. I still can’t quite believe there are so many of these small breweries without an established estate, whether that be owned or free trade.

Paul Bailey said...

Paul, I’m still wading my way through Des de Moor’s book on Cask, and the issue of cloudy pints continues to divide. Personally, I feel that being hazy adds nothing to a beer, as people, quite rightly, drink with their eyes. No matter how good the beer is purported to be, a glass of murk, isn’t going to cut it with most drinkers. I gather that plant-based finings are readily available, so if you wish to appeal to the veggie/vegan market, why not use them?

The other mission statement “stuff”, highlighted by the last three commentators, is just window dressing, and is unlikely to offer much in the way of appeal to the average drinker, and again is certainly no reason to choose these types of beers, over an established brand such as Harvey’s.

Despite all this, I imagine Cellar Head’s demise is due to market forces, economic woes, and far too many small breweries, chasing a dwindling market. Unfortunately, they aren’t the first to disappear in this fashion and sadly they won’t be the last.

retiredmartin said...

I suspect I'm unusual in not really having a view on cloudy beer, flat v sparkler, or even cask v the best uncarbonated keg.

But the visual appeal of a pint of Bass in it's correct glass is quite a thing.