When I first became interested in beer, information was hard to come by. The internet had not even been thought about – I had just paid a week’s wages from my summer job in a quarry to buy a pocket calculator, relegating my slide rule to the scrap heap. The Good Beer Guide had yet to start publication so the only source of information was Frank Baille’s ‘Beer Drinker’s Companion’. This invaluable publication listed 88 regional independent breweries, of which I estimate around 53 have now disappeared or linger on in name only. Some people of a certain age still go a little moist around the eyes at the mention of names such as Higsons, Ridleys, Darleys, Shipstones, Home or Hull Brewery. However in the mid 70’s the tide began to turn with the establishment of new breweries pioneered by Martin Sykes at Selby, but soon followed by the likes of Pollards and, down in our part of the world, Woodfordes.
You may be forgiven for thinking that this heralded an end to the times of closure, but it hasn’t. One more from Frank Baille’s list has just bitten the dust with the announcement that Thwaites brewery (the taste of my teens) has largely sold out to Marstons for around £25 million. This is no surprise to many, as the town centre brewery in Blackburn has been deemed surplus to requirements and closed with the intention of a new brewery being built on a greenfield site. With the bulk of the brewing already carried out by Marstons. Since the closure, I guess the move will now never happen and if Wikipedia is to be believed, some of the workers anticipated the worst last year and switched off the letters H, I and E from the illuminated sign on the Star brewery.
And it is not only the long standing breweries at risk. Sharp’s Doom Bar is now almost a national brand, and is well known enough to feature in J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels. It started as a micro-brewery in Rock in Cornwall in 1994, and by 2011 it had grown large enough to be purchased for £20 million by Molson Coors. Nor is Wychwood brewery, famed for their Hobgoblin beers independent any longer. It sold out to Marstons in 2008, for a sum suggested by analysts to be around £10 million. The latest high profile independent to succumb to temptation is Meantime. Started in a lock up close to the Charlton Athletic football ground in 2000, the brewery has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame. It is now housed in the old brew house of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, just next to the Cutty Sark, and is said to be one of only two breweries which operate in a UNESCO world heritage site. The enterprise has just been purchased by SAB Miller for an undisclosed sum, but we can safely assume that it is more than 2s/6d.
Does it matter? Takeovers and closures will always happen, but personally, I am sad to see a long established family brewery lose its independence, especially if it means the closure of one of the grand old Victorian tower breweries. With the newcomers, I am less bothered. There is always the feeling that there will be another one along in a minute and I kind of admire a guy who can start up a micro-brewery and a few years later sell it on for a few million pounds. It suggests that there is hope for all the small entrepreneurs with big dreams.