Much has been written already about the 1989 beer orders: about how they caused a seismic shift in the UK’s brewery and pub scene. The orders didn’t just open the door for new UK microbreweries, today numbering over 1000, they completely reshaped British brewing from the top down and reinvented the nation’s pubs. And one company more than any other capitalized on the opportunity…
At the time of the beer orders the ‘Big Six’ (Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Met, Scottish & Newcastle and Whitbread) controlled around 80% of all UK beer production and over 50% of Britain’s pubs. For 30 years or more they had been moving away from traditional cask ale production to cheap mass-produced keg beer, particularly pale lagers, and they were using their tied pub estates to force it down the throats of British beer consumers with devastating effect.
Even the smaller regional brewers and the independent pubs followed suit – they had to just to stay in business. Left unchecked cask ale would almost certainly have disappeared from our pubs and we would be left with nothing but the disgusting mass-produced yellow Euro-fizz that has become so firmly established here in the UK since the Big Six were acquired by the global brewing conglomerates.
As the Big Six were forced to divest their pub estates to the new Pubcos they became targets for takeover and today none of them remain. They have been absorbed into the global brewing empires of Heineken, Carlsberg, AB-InBev, SAB Miller and Molson Coors.
Standing against this overwhelming ‘lager tide’ was a small handful of independent brewers including Greene King of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. With their single brewery and a tied estate of around 200 pubs dotted around East Anglia they were perfectly positioned: large enough to have the resources to seize the opportunity; not so large that they fell foul of the beer orders. Greene King’s response: they opened their cheque book and they went shopping.
They started out in the 1990s quietly buying a few regional tied pub estates but then in 1999 they got everyone’s attention by buying one of Mr Fueled by Beer’s local brewers, Morland of Abingdon-on-Thames, with its recently acquired Ruddles Brewery, and a sizable estate of more than 400 pubs.
Both Morland and Ruddles added award-winning ales to the Greene King portfolio: Old Speckled Hen and Ruddles County. Before this Greene King had virtually no presence in the Thames Valley. As Morland had done previously to Ruddles, Greene King closed the Abingdon brewery and moved production to Bury St Edmunds.
Acquisitions continued in the 2000s, including Scotland’s Belhaven Brewery, and most recently Hardys & Hansons. And of course they each contributed large tied pub estates. Together all this acquisition has created the Greene King footprint we see today which numbers over 2000 pubs across England, parts of Wales and into Scotland. And what’s really impressive about all this: Greene King has done it without incurring a mountain of debt.
Love them or hate them, early on Greene King recognized the beginnings of a consumer-driven shift away from beer-led traditional pubs to food-led ‘destination pubs’ and they reinvented their pub divisions accordingly. There are examples of each Greene King brand in the Reading area and they all compare favorably with other area pubs whether destination or traditional, tied or free.
The Reading pub scene of Mr Fueled by Beer’s youth was always dominated by Courage and Morland tied-houses and beer.
And while the demise of John Courage is a sad story all by itself Morland however lives on as part of Greene King. The excellent Morland ales still figure prominently in the Greene King portfolio and the former Morland pubs around here live on too – as one or other of the various Greene King pub brands.
As Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer visit their local Hungry Horse, Meet & Eat, and Flame Grill pubs, reviews will be posted here: Greene King: Locations In And Around Reading…