Message in a Bottle

The jolting news last Friday that Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick, U.K. (not the pubs and hotels) was sold to Asahi, the large Japanese brewery, is still reverberating through the international beer community.

Asahi has expanded impressively in recent years through strategic acquisition. It holds Dutch Grolsch, Czech Pilsner Urquell, Italian Peroni, Hungarian Dreher, and now the historic Fuller brands among other international names. (Fuller’s pubs and hotels will retain full rights to various trade names of Griffin Brewery at Chiswick in a unique, dual-usage arrangement, but outside the pubs and hotels the brands have been sold).

During my recent extended sojourn in Florida I saw first-hand how Asahi is actively promoting premium brands in its stable, Peroni in this case. The image below is an example, at an Italian restaurant outside Delray Beach. The beer in the glass is not Peroni, but you see the counter “talker” or tent, and there were other, more prominent point of sale notices for Peroni in the eatery.

To my best recollection, there was also a related promotion to pair Peroni with different Italian dishes.

Similar treatment will follow for Fuller’s brands, the official Fuller announcement (see its website) said as much. This is good as far as it goes, but I have less confidence that the real ale traditions at Griffin Brewery in Chiswick will continue as before.

First, given the apparent value of the land purchased with the brewery, pressure to sell it for development seems inevitable and with that a move, in time, to another location. Perhaps to Meantime, an Asahi craft beer unit further to the east in London, or elsewhere.

It may be a matter of time too before the marquee ales will be filtered and served under top pressure, 5 lbs PSI or more to reduce premature oxidation. Such beers can still be pulled through a handpump, giving them a cask ale mien. It may start with non-tied houses and other pubs outside the Fuller pub and hotel network and migrate finally to the Fuller pubs and bars.

This is speculation: maybe none of this will happen, but it is speculation I would not have made before the deal. I have other reasons to think off-shore ownership – any country’s, not just Japan’s – is less than favourable to the cask tradition at the heart of Griffin Brewery.

The increasing market share of craft beer in Britain, most of which is chilled and fizzy, will increase pressure in that direction, quite literally.

Why didn’t part of the family sever links with the pubs and hotels and buy the brewery? Why didn’t another British business, venture capital or a new flotation say (so not a major ale competitor) buy the brewery? We can’t know the answers, and the families must have canvassed the alternatives.

What the saga shows so far – of this we can be certain if nothing else – is that the romance breweries create through advertising and promotion, to a willing audience to be sure, has limits. Yes, brewing can be handed down through the generations. Yes, the descendants care about tradition. Yes, they probably believe it when they say, sometimes in a product ad, they will never “sell up”, in the clipped British phrase. (Somehow, “sell up” has a jaunty ring. Contrast with the blunt American “sell out”).

But at the end of the day, or century, or what have you, business has an iron logic. The occasional, rude manifestation comes as a shock for many.

Of course, nothing is ever 100% predictable. Maybe someone in the families controlling Fuller, with an uncommon love for traditional brewing, might have made the difference. One thinks of the late George G. Bateman’s inspiring struggle years before to keep his regional brewery alive and independent. Read in his own words how he did it, from the brewery’s website.

Sometimes, it works out, from the beer enthusiast’s point of view, that is. More often, it doesn’t.



4 thoughts on “Message in a Bottle”

  1. Don’t worry too much. With brexit, there will probably be a shortage of compressed CO2 and real ales will flourish again. Along with candles, horses and pails. 😉

  2. CAMRA would come down on them like a ton of bricks if they started serving filtered and pressurised beer through handpumps, so that idea at least is, I think, a non-starter.

    • In a few years from now, CAMRA may not have the influence and size it has now. We’ll see, but I hope you are right.

      Looking on the bright side (sorry), perhaps Asahi will take a proactive stance to renovating the current cask line. I’ve suggested before, as have some others, it can stand improvement.

      Gales’ HSB is a great prospect for growth and promotion due to its excellent taste yet retaining 100% English character. ESB, and Pride IMO, could stand improvement in the hop character and blend.

      Anyway new blood from far away is in charge now. We will see what they do.

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