Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Nostalgia or Good Business?

Those of us that are a bit more long in the tooth than most, have fond and maybe rose tinted views of the beers of the past. We remember clearly when someone would say "Let's go for a pint in the Dog and Duck" and the first response would be "Whose ale is it?"  We may not have been that knowledgeable about hop varieties or styles - indeed, broadly, there were only two styles, mild or bitter. Our minds were completely untroubled by IBUs or indeed IPAs and if terms such as "craft", "barrel aged" or "sour" were presented to us they would have been as incomprehensible then as would have been the internet or computers. But whose beer was on sale was important to us. We did have one relatively geeky word though - "traditional" for that is what we called real ale then - or cask as it is so often now described. It was trad beer that we sought.  We knew it to be better. And we knew what we liked. A darts match in a Whitbread House would have us beating an early and agreed retreat to a more conducive venue - a place with better ale, where we didn't have to dilute keg Trophy with a bottle of Forest Brown to make it drinkable.  It would quite often be a Higsons' house.

Matt Curtis , in a very good piece has written, yesterday I think, about the second wave of brewing, where sleeker, better equipped operations such as Mondo Brewing and Cloudwater with state of the art German built breweries and brewers who actually have training, are likely to make a big impression on the brewing scene. Some seem to look down on this, but Matt makes the very valid point that while lots of brewers can produce decent enough beers, what we need is consistency. As Matt puts it,  "Dependability goes hand in hand with sustainability."  While I may not agree entirely that brewers such as Magic Rock and Beavertown are on their way to becoming regionals, there is evidence that great plant and good brewing technique can grow a business. Not a million miles from me, Moorhouses is a perfect example and in deepest Staffordshire, Joules is another.  Though their plants are nearly as shiny and modern and capable, their business model is a million miles from the urban keg forward models Matt is used to, but this merely underlines Matt's point. The second wave of breweries is growing and diversifying, even if they are in some cases, producing not Alts or Double IPAs, but cask conditioned bitters and golden ales. Matt's point still remains perfectly valid and if you want a decent growth strategy, there is certainly merit in going bigger from the start.   Therein too lies your exit strategy should you want one -  and everyone should.

This brings me neatly back to Higsons. I read with interest in the Liverpool Echo that a new Higsons Brewery company has applied for planning permission to build a new brewery "The planning documents say the primary business would be the “production and sale of craft beer (including draught beer, bottle beer and spirits)” but the facility would also include a bar/cafe and “an upper floor beer hall where visitors can also enjoy a selection of ‘grazing’ food”.  Significantly, the plan includes "a state of the art, highly engineered, German-manufactured beer production plant which will occupy the majority of the available ground floor".  This sounds ambitious but this business model does have legs as outlined above. I do hope though that they can bring back Higsons Bitter in a recognisable (cask conditioned) recipe. And, of course, do other things too. Mixed cask and keg is good.

Liverpool is a very sentimental place and the name Higsons still resonates.  It needs a beer it can call its own.  Fingers crossed, Higsons can be synonymous with Liverpool once more.

Bringing back dead beers can be a good thing. Joules is an example of existing success and Roger Protz has been tasting Charrington IPA at Burton.  You need to have a receptive audience though.

It still astonishes me that many "beer drinkers" have never gone into a pub and asked for "A pint of bitter please.".


Erlangernick said...

What's with German brewing kit? Is it just the weak Euro? Isn't the main difference just a lack of wood cladding (which is there for what purpose, anyway?)?

Tandleman said...

It works.

Matt said...

I wish someone would bring back Wilson's Mild, keg or cask.

Matthew Curtis said...

Thanks for highlighting my post Peter. Couple of things I should highlight: The breweries aren't German made, just based on existing German systems. Mondo's is Hungarian in manufacture and I believe Cloudwater's kit is from China.

In relation to Beavertown and Magic Rock on their way to becoming regionals, I was talking with long-term expectations. Based on their growth since they both established in 2011 I can see them hitting regional status around 2020 if they were to continue growing at their current rates.

Matthew Curtis said...

One more thing! Both Magic Rock and Beavertown produce cask ale of course - admittedly Beavertown only do it for special events but it's worth seeking out when it's available.

Tandleman said...

Matt: Fair point but German made, German designed or just German inspired, the point remains that investing in serious plant will likely, if you do other things right, bring you a better chance of success.

I do know of course that Cloudwater do some great cask. I've had it. My point was more that with the same basic premise, you can go in different directions to achieve a similar but different result.

Of course that doesn't always work. Look at Skipton Brewery. Great plant, good beers, but I assume, a poor business plan or at least, poor execution.

Curmudgeon said...

I'm not sure that reviving old brewery names has all that much traction in today's market. Any drinkers who remember the original Higsons will now be at least in their mid-forties, and their fond memories are probably as much about the pubs and the good times they had than the beer itself.

If old names are revived, I'll certainly give them a try, and attempt to work out how close they are to the originals. But basically I'll judge them on their own merits, not on some hazy memories of thirty years ago. A good business will succeed, and a poor one fail, regardless of the brand name.

Tandleman said...

I agree Mudgie, but if you want to go for sentimental attachment, trust me, Scousely is the place. Why else would a hard headed business do so?

Jimbuad said...

When Liverpool Organic brought back their version of Higson's (2010/2012?) everyone (including me) when fucking apeshit for it. The Ship and Mitre would only order kils, which wouldn't last an evening.

Once they got the cease and desist from the brands legal owners they renamed it "Bier Head". No-one bought it.

Andrew said...

@Jimbuad. According to the Liverpool Echo, the brand's owners approached Liverpool Organic to brew Higsons "The Higsons name became available towards the end of 2009 and the people who purchased the intellectual property rights wanted the beer to still be brewed in Liverpool,” explains Mark Hensby, managing director of Liverpool Organic Brewery, which has now resurrected the iconic brand.
“They knocked on our door and had a chat and we decided it was worth our while. We knew a couple who had worked for Higsons and had the original recipes which we tried to assemble."

So who are the brand owners? A company called CCHC which has held the rights since 2000. (And which renewed them in 2015 for 20 years) https://www.ipo.gov.uk/tmcase/Results/1/UK00002251173

Who's behind CCHC? The company is majority-owned by Fiona Crawley believed to be the wife of one Stephen Crawley. Stephen Crawley is the owner of the new Higsons Brewery. He's the former Wirral-born cricketer turned brewer who became MD of Caledonian Brewery in 2001 before stepping down in 2013.

Birkonian said...

Liverpool organic still brew Bier Head. It's not a bad effort but lacks the sulphur snatch and doesn't provide the next morning headache that the original did. That was supposedly down to the impurities in the water drawn from a well that the brewery used. Don't know if there is any science to that commonly held view.

Andrew said...

The brand owners actually approached Liverpool Organic with a deal to brew the beer. I believe the reason that they withdrew the licence is that they now want to brew it themselves. Mark Hensby of Liverpool Organic Brewery said "“They knocked on our door and had a chat and we decided it was worth our while."

Who's behind the new Higsons? One Stephen Crawley, the Wirral born ex-boss of Caledonian Brewery.

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