Since arriving in 2013 Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have been figuring out how the craft beer business model works here in the UK. We now realize that the Fueled by Beer modus operandi that worked so well for us in Seattle is impossible to replicate over here. Time for Plan B…
When I left England in the mid-80s the UK brewing and pub scene was nearing the end of a period of unrestrained, unregulated, corporate-greed-driven consolidation. Six companies, most with multinational parents, had grown to dominate the marketplace and, as their bean-counters saw it, fortunes lay in switching production to cheap homogenized keg beers, rather than traditional cask ales.
Through clever marketing these mega-brewers managed to con the drinking public into believing that, for example, John Smith’s Yorkshire Bitter and Courage Best were different beers. The reality was that they were exactly the same product – manufactured on a massive scale for nationwide distribution in the colossal Worton Grange plant beside the M4 near Reading – notice I don’t use the terms brewed or brewery.
In order to cater to the differing preferences of northern versus southern drinkers, Imperial Tobacco Group, as the company now was in actuality, had their tied pubs up north simply attach a John Smith’s pump clip to the handle and push the beer through a sparkler whereas down south the pump clip was Courage with no sparkler on the swan neck. And they were getting away with it: the “Big Six” produced around 80% of all beer consumed in the UK leaving fewer than 100 regional brewing companies struggling to compete for a constantly shrinking slice of the pie.
In addition to dominating beer production the Big Six also controlled distribution. They owned or otherwise controlled more than half of Britain’s pubs and, through their “tied houses,” the Big Six swamped Britain with so much cheap homogenized keg ale and lager that the future for traditional British cask beer, or “real ale” was in serious jeopardy. The regionals, struggling to distribute through fewer and fewer “free houses”, were no match and slowly but surely they were losing their battle for survival.
This is the environment that spawned a consumer backlash, most notably in the form of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. And, although I was unaware of it at the time, there was a response from Her Majesty’s Government too. This all came to a head shortly after I left with the “1989 Beer Orders” which began to transform the UK beer and brewing scene in ways I am only now beginning to understand. And it is partly due to this transformation that Fueled by Beer UK needs a Plan B.
Put simply, the beer orders forcibly separated the Big Six from their tied pubs. While implementation since the beer orders were issued has been somewhat watered down (pun intended) nevertheless among Britain’s pubs today fewer than 30% remain tied to a brewery. More than half now belong to a large pub operating company or “Pubco” while roughly the same number as before remain as an independent “free house”.
This transformation, together with radical changes in taxation (progressive beer duty), opened the door for start-up microbreweries to get their cask ales into the glasses of Britain’s pub-goers as never before and they have not squandered their opportunity: the total number of UK microbreweries in 2013, as recently reported by CAMRA, and by SIBA, in separate reports, has passed 1000.
These new microbreweries, of which almost 70% are less than ten years old, are primarily geared up to distribute their fantastic real ales to the roughly 75% of British pubs that, thanks to the beer orders, are now accessible to them. They have little interest in operating expensive tasting rooms, restaurants, brewpubs, etc. And therein lies the problem for Fueled by Beer UK. Of the 20 or so local breweries that comprise the Fueled by Beer hit list fewer than half are geared up for visitors, and fewer still are easily accessible on foot or via transit.
However what is accessible on foot or via transit are the farmers markets and farm shops, and CAMRA LocAle accredited pubs where most of the local microbreweries’ production is being distributed. Hence Plan B: a modified Fueled by Beer UK modus operandi that will incorporate brewery visits wherever possible, CAMRA beer festivals, and mooching around farmers markets and farm stores, and beer sampling at local free house pubs.
So, armed with Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer’s shiny new CAMRA membership cards, let’s start checking out some local brews…