In this, the first of a two-part series looking at the business of British booze, Huffington Post UK explores the rise of UK breweries, and asks what hurdles it faces in the coming years.
Pubs may be closing at the alarming rate of two a day, but beer production in Britain is booming.
The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra now estimates there are 1000 breweries in the UK, with the average pub stocking between one and two permanent ales, and rotating three to four guest ales.
Beer is experiencing a resurgence in popularity; Cask Matters’ Cask Report 2012, published in September, showed 53% of adults have tried real ale, 50% of all pub-goers agree the provision of good quality cask ale is an important reason for visiting the pub, and 58% of ale drinkers first tried it between the ages of 18 and 24.
There are also now more female beer enthusiasts – driven by the desire to drink something with natural ingredients, to support a local, British industry and because there was more taste variety than with lager.
However, the evidence suggests that even if there are more ale drinkers, we’re drinking of it. Ten thousand pubs – in which beer accounts for around 60% of alcohol sales – have closed across the UK since 2000 and in a poll by the Guardian at the start of the year, 66.2% of readers said a pint was now a “luxury” rather than a “necessity”.
So how are the beer producers coping in this challenging environment? And are they able to sustain the recent rosy-looking numbers?
Brits are best
One of the reasons why the UK’s breweries remain successful, even during a deep recession, is because of the heritage attached to our beers, and the growing demand for home-produced goods.
“People are more interested in food and drinks miles than they have ever been and it has resulted in a more discerning beer drinker who is interested in the provenance of their drink,” Edward Mayman, managing director of Staffordshire-based Freedom Brewery, told the Huffington Post UK.
Meantime Brewery has just opened a new site in Greenwich, London, which will help it produce 100,000 hectolitres of its draught and bottled craft beers annually – that’s the equivalent of 1.5 million pints a month.
For chief executive Nick Miller, one of the primary attractions is the history associated with British beer.
“Beer is part of the British psyche, sustained through years of history,” he told Huff Post UK.
A typical British pub
“Field brewers used to follow the troops during the early wars with the French, and although some of the styles have been lost since then, some of the older brands – India Pale Ale, London Porter and so on – are all born in the UK and doing well today.
“We’ve chosen to make London the home of Meantime Brewing because it used to be the brewing capital of the world and we want to pioneer a movement that will see us regain that mantle.”
Another reason British brewers are beating their overseas rivals is because beer doesn’t travel well.
John Palmer, chairman of Dorset-based Palmers Brewery, told Huff Post UK: “The advantage of being a British producer is that we produce a living product that has a short shelf life and is ideally suited for supplying into the local market.
“Transporting draught beer long distances is very expensive and not very successful.”
Cask ale – those kept ‘live’ in casks, rather than metal kegs - creates beers with a deeper flavour and a creamy head, popular with British drinkers.
Few Casks are wooden nowadays, 99% are aluminium or to a lesser extent, plastic.
The difference between Cask and Keg is largely the shape (typical barrel shape, wider round the middle vs a straight cylindrical shape) and the dispense system (simple tap vs pressurised syphon connector).
Nick Folkard, co-founder of Black Iris Brewery, said: “We really have no foreign rivals. The product is unpasteurised and unfiltered and must be kept under carefully controlled conditions.
“Even then it has a limited shelf-life; anything equivalent produced abroad would probably be undrinkable by the time it was on the bar in Britain.”
Lessons to be learned
There are some lessons we can learn from overseas brewing cousins.
Michelle Kelsall, director and head brewer at Offbeat Brewery, only began trading in 2010. She said: “In some ways our heritage has held us back, Camra ensured the survival of British brewing in the 1970s but it's also created a dated and staid image for beer.
“Putting anything into a keg rather than a cask and serving the beer under pressure is still frowned on by many and yet its something our worldwide brewing compatriots have been doing very well for years.”
And Paul Sullivan, sales director at Wiltshire’s Wadworth said there’s much more to be done with marketing and advertising.
“European brewers seem to be good at advertising and US brewers have amazing online and social media following. We’re very trade-orientated in Britain and as such haven’t attracted as many drinkers to the category as we deserve,” he said.
Black Sheep's MD Rob Theakston leading a brewery tour with son Jo
A lack of innovation was cited by a number of brewers - Rob Theakston, managing director of North Yorkshire’s Black Sheep brewery, noted the US was still home to the world’s best craft brewers – small, independent brewers who often experiment with different flavours - although a raft of new entrants are starting to address the balance.
Duncan Sambrook, founder of London craft brewer Sambrook’s, agreed and told Huff Post UK: “The UK has been slow to follow this trend, but this is now changing. Innovation in the USA has driven consumer and industry interest over here.
“BrewDog is a good example of a craft brewery that now exports into the USA with beer styles that are not too different from the styles of beer US brewers are importing here.”
Larger brewers are also producing ale using craft methods in a bid to keep up with the microbrewers.
Of the 12 brewers Huffington Post UK spoke to, half were already exporting their beer overseas and another two were hoping to start in the next 12 months.
One of London’s oldest brewers, Fullers, has been brewing for more than 350 years and exports to 60 countries worldwide.
Richard Fuller, sales director at Fullers, told Huff Post UK beer was being sent as far away as Qatar, Trinidad and Tobago and the far East.
“Our top six markets are the US, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Finland and Russia,” he said. “We’ve recently exported out 10 millionth pint abroad.”
An array of Fullers pumps
St Austell Brewery, which turned over £99 million in 2011, entered the export market last year. The Cornwall-based brewer exported bottled and draught beers to 15 countries including most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, China and Japan.
“It’s still a very tiny proportion of our business, around 3,000 cases per month, but growing fast. We are continually looking for new importers to work with,” said a spokesman.
S A Brain has also seen a rapid rise in overseas sales – seeing double digit growth in the past three years.
But it’s not just the big guys – Sambrook’s only employs 13 staff and expects to make £100,000 pre-tax profit this year, but has already started exporting.
“It has taken us a while to reach this point due to the complications of understanding the import requirements for different territories around the world,” said Sambrook.
“So far, we’ve delivered our first orders to Canada, Norway and Ireland. We hope to increase the volume going to each of these markets and increase the number of countries we’re exporting to over the next 18 months.”
While the last five years haven’t been easy for beer producers, they’ve weathered the storm well. Figures from insolvency trade body R3 showed the percentage of beer manufacturers considered to be at a high risk of failure was less than 2%.
Introducing seasonal beers, allowing try-before-you-buy initiatives and cutting back on expensive products have all been used to great effect.
However, the closure of 10,000 British pubs since 2000 – and an appallingly wet summer - has hit brewers hard, particularly those who specialise in draft beers.
Fullers’ Richard Fuller said: “It has been a tough time during the recession, but we are focusing on making sure people get the best quality for the money they pay, and that is about service as well as our products.
“There has been a lot in the news about pub closures, but we are investing in quality pubs and hotels to add to our 386 sites we currently have.”
Microbrewers have found it easier to streamline business processes and focus on core brands.
“We found the market is strong and we can easily sell large quantities of beer despite being based in Derbyshire, which has the highest concentration of microbreweries in the country,” said Black Iris Brewery’s Folkard.
But by far the biggest challenge facing the industry is the increasing beer duty applied by the government.
The beer duty escalator, introduced by the Labour government in 2008, increases duty on alcohol by 2% above inflation each year. Pint for pint, British beer drinkers now pay nine times more in beer tax than the French, and 13 times more than the Germans. In the EU, only Finland slaps a higher tax on beer.
Can this man be convinced to lower VAT on beer?
“To give you an idea, we currently pay just over 50% of our total company turnover in various taxes to the government. Our business turns over about £20m a year,” explained Black Sheep brewery’s Theakston.
A petition to stop the escalator has now passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a parliamentary debate, but as of today, no debate has been had.
Palmers Brewery’s chairman John Palmer told Huff Post UK: “The duty escalator has been extremely damaging… and has led to the demise of many thousands of pubs within the UK industry.
“There is a considerable amount of work being undertaken to prove that reducing VAT within the hospitality industry could lead to substantial job creation for young people.”
Tax relief is offered to those producing less than 30,000 barrels a year, but Black Iris’s Folkard warned the continued duty rate increases could still force many of the smaller breweries to close down.
“The continued ability of supermarkets to push down prices and put on special offers, when people’s budgets are already squeezed, may lead to more people drinking at home,” he added.
Other problems facing the industry include other inflationary costs, such as diesel prices, energy costs and utilities.
Increased competition is also making some of the established brewers sweat; Paul Sullivan, sales director at Wadworth, said: “There are a lot of new entrants in the market and we have to remind drinkers that new isn’t always better.
“When you have 125 years of experience you can make a good product and be able to move with the times too.”
Brains' craft brewery
Luke Hearn, sales manager at Loddon Brewery, also highlighted the unhelpful scrap within the industry between ‘real ale’ and craft brewers.
“Beers that are kegged, rather than cask-conditioned, are not recognised by Camra as real beer. As a result of this, breweries producing keg beers are not allowed at the great British Beer festival,” he explained.
“This has led to an unnecessary divide in the industry. We’re all producing great beers, regardless of how they’re stored or dispensed, whether they’re fizzy of flat, crystal clear or un-refined. Choice for the consumers is always a positive thing. There’s no point in-fighting when we’re all on the same side.”
All the brewers were agreed that the most important area for the government to act on was stopping the duty escalator and to introduce initiatives to support British pubs.
S A Brains’ communications executive Laura Overton said: “A typical British pub in now burdened with £66,500 of duty and VAT on beer every year. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) found this year alone the policy is costing 5,000 jobs.
“The policy makes no economic sense - the £35m extra duty collected by the Treasury this year is wiped out by the loss of revenue through job losses, lost VAT and other taxes, and the added cost to Britain’s hard-pressed beer drinkers, pubs and brewers.”
It remains to be seen if chancellor George Osborne will listen to the brewers’ pleas, but for the time being at least, it appears the industry of British brewers is alive and well.