You will probably have seen by now the news that Fuller’s has sold the entirety of its brewing business to the Japanese beer giant Asahi for £250m.
My immediate reaction to this was surprise — this was a sale it seemed no one had seen coming — which swiftly curdled into sadness and wary trepidation.
Some commenters are more bullish. Martyn Cornell for instance sees the deal as a multinational’s vote of confidence in the future of cask beer. I’m not so sure I agree. I think business is (or at least should be) about more than just maximising shareholder value. And I don’t think that beer is just another commodity to be shifted in so many units. Not all the time, anyway. Sometimes it is freighted with extra cultural significance.
I grew up in West London not so very far from Chiswick where the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery has sat, like a landmark, for what seems like time beyond time.
As I started drinking beer, beyond introductory bottles of French supermarket beer with my dad, my first pints were more often than not Fuller’s beers. As I got to know pubs under my own steam, rather than being taken there as a kid when my parents fancied a weekend pub lunch, they were more often than not Fuller’s pubs.
London Pride. ESB. Chiswick Bitter. These beers were the standard against which I judged other brews. They were the Aristotelian ideal conjured up in my mind at the mention of the word. They were beer to me.
London’s a big place with more pubs than you could ever hope to visit, so of course it wasn’t long before I looked further afield and left Fuller’s pubs and its beers if not behind then at least lower down the itinerary. But a few of them remained old favourites that I returned to when I got the chance. They were always there, waiting.
The Griffin was not the only large brewery in West London at that time. The brewery at Mortlake was even closer to my home — I could smell them mashing in — but by then it was brewing Budweiser rather than a local beer. The Ram brewery at Wandsworth was just that bit further away; I’m not sure I even noticed when the brewing stopped there.
Fuller’s was special: a traditional, family-owned brewery that had remained independent through the worst ravages of consolidation in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, a process that reduced the brewing industry of this great beer nation to a homogenised boil-in-the-bag version of its former state. There were only a handful of breweries left that retained their independence, their heritage, their sense of place. Fuller’s was one of them.
I was just a kid learning to navigate life outside full-time education and enjoy some beer along the way, so it took me some time to appreciate how important that was.
When craft beer came along Fuller’s started to look a little bit fusty if I’m honest. Some of the pubs were a bit shit. But some of them were still great, and the beer was still good. Fuller’s represented what seemed a solid middle ground between faceless big beer and the rolling boil of microbreweries which was exciting but not always dependable when it came to quality or longevity.
Now that middle ground is being squeezed hard, and the UK risks losing something irreplaceable as a result. Britain has a unique place in history as one of the world’s few truly great brewing nations. We still have direct links to that rich heritage, but they’re fragile. If you look at craft beer our brewing future looks bright, but less distinctly British than the beers that inspired it all in the first place; beers including ESB and London Pride.
When buyouts happen it’s often said that most drinkers won’t know or care about brewery ownership. They are interested in one thing: does the beer in their glass taste good? Will it be any different with Fullers? It’s probably too soon to say, but some early signs as reported by Boak and Bailey suggest this buyout is on Joe Public’s radar.
The beers we’ve come to love will continue as brands but to imagine they will stay unchanged is at best a hugely optimistic assumption. London Pride will endure, and maybe even taste the same. But who can be so confident about London Porter, or Chiswick Bitter? The pubs we’ve come to love will continue, but without the link between publican and brewer that made the best of those pubs special in the first place.
To be a brewer in London today must feel like working in an industry under siege, as more and more of its breweries are bought up by companies from elsewhere. This is the litany of deals done over the years: Meantime bought by Asahi, Camden Town Brewery sold to AB InBev, London Fields brewery sold to Carlsberg, Brixton Brewery bought by Heineken (a minority stake), Beavertown Brewery also bought by Heineken (again a minority stake, for now), Fourpure bought by Lion (who in turn are owned by Kirin); and now Fullers by Asahi. It makes you wonder who’s next.
No other city in recent years has seen so much of its homegrown brewing acquired by global corporations. No other city has had so much of its market shaken up. No other city has endured so much of the profit being funnelled elsewhere rather than directed back into the economy that generated those profits in the first place. You have to ask what will be left once these foreign companies have finally had enough.
Back in June last year, writing about the Beavertown buyout, I set out why I think it matters when multinationals buy up independent breweries. You might want to check that post out too, particularly the parts from the heading “Who cares, it’s just beer” onwards.
And here are a few selected links to articles elsewhere not already mentioned above.
- Fuller’s website
- Good Beer Hunting
- The Guardian
- The BBC news website
- Pub Curmudgeon
- Just Drinks
A few people reckon that a look at the company’s latest annual report highlight the business rationale behind the deal. I’m including the link here if you feel inclined to check that out for yourself.
One final note with regard to the third paragraph above: Fuller’s have actually been brewing at the Griffin since 1845 — which to a kid is already forever ago — but brewing on the site goes back to 1654.