Monday, 2 November 2020

Book Review - The Family Brewers of Britain

The Industrial Revolution brought about huge changes, as Britain moved from a largely agrarian economy to a manufacturing one. Brewing, which had previously been a mainly small scale, domestic operation, changed as workers poured into towns and cities and saw demand exceeding supply.  To meet this demand, common or commercial breweries sprang up to meet the need for beer to be produced in volume. As Roger Protz emphasises in his latest book, The Family Brewers of Britain, almost without exception, the new commercial brewers were family businesses.  All the big names from the past, Bass, Barclay Perkins, Courage, Greene King, Truman, Whitbread and Worthington started out this way before becoming public companies.

As time went on, these businesses bought the pubs they supplied, tying them to buying only the parent company's beer, a practice that continues to this day.  Over the years, many breweries were taken over or merged with others. As pub ownership became more and more profitable, merger mania continued until the vast majority of pubs were owned by six giant companies.

Perhaps surprisingly amongst the rash of takeovers which saw many family brewing companies, give up the ghost and cash in their assets, a number of companies stood out against the tide, eventually forming the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) to protect their collective interests. It is these companies that are the subject of this book, which describes in detail how the families had mixed fortunes and how they arrived at where they are today. All had the shared problems of war, deaths, economic depressions and more, but while some overcame these by good management and internal agreement, others saw bad management, fraternal fallouts, splits, disagreements over money, policy and more. All are faithfully chronicled in Roger's usual meticulous style.

Each brewery gets its own chapter and these are grouped geographically. The oldest, Shepherd Neame, kicks us off. This is one of the more straightforward tales. After a series of partnerships, the Neame family have been in charge since the 19th century, surviving both wars rather unscathed.  The brewery expanded, often by takeovers of local rivals, innovated by introducing keg beers, was one of the first to produce foreign beers under licence and is now a vibrant and successful company producing nearly 200,000 barrels of beer a year.

Others weren't so lucky. Family fallouts abounded, including Samuel Smith, Batemans, Theakstons, JW Lees and Mc Mullens. All survived family disputes, or the ever present question of selling out to rivals, but often at financial and personal cost. In the case of Batemans, huge loans were taken out and pubs sold, while at Lees, Dick Lees-Jones, a renowned philatelist, sold his valuable stamp collection to help buy out other family members. In each case the wish to remain independent was the driving force and it is this striving for an autonomous future that is perhaps the common thread that links these businesses.

Roger also highlights the role of women family members. While many a boardroom is adorned with bewhiskered Victorian gentlemen, with doubtful haircuts and grim expressions, in some cases it was women who ruled the roost. Hester Parnall, the matriarch of St Austell, so scared the workforce, that when she visited the brewery, a warning was tapped through the pipework to advise employees to be on their best behaviour. That was child's play however compared to Mary Ann Lewis, who ran Felinfoel Brewery in Llanelli in the 20s and 30s. She actually carried a big stick and wasn't averse to clobbering recalcitrant workers with it. It is still on display in the brewery, as Roger wryly remarks "as an example of different times and attitudes to employee relations."  Other women who ran breweries such as Thwaites and Robinsons seem to have managed more conventionally, including the remarkable Annie Hyde, who ran Hydes Brewery for an astonishing 56 years.

Given that so many families are involved, it isn't at all surprising that many diverse tales occur throughout. A rescue of a prisoner in the Tower of London; an inveterate gambler, who shot himself at his brewery desk; long serving staff;  German bombs; unexpected deaths; innovative thinking; idiosyncratic behaviour; takeovers of rivals and much more. Interestingly too, the book explains that many of these old companies have now left their original, grand - but expensive to maintain and inflexible in brewing terms - Victorian sites, despite their sentimental value and moved to greenfield sites.  The business and its longevity means overcoming emotion.  This isn't just a dry tale of business so much, as an exposition of a particular way of life. 

When you read this book you can see that with twenty-nine member companies, producing over half a billion pints a year, owning over 4,000 pubs and sustaining nearly 70,000 jobs, that family brewers are still a force to be reckoned with. The history of each, clearly laid out by the author, weighs heavily on each family.  They see themselves as custodians for future generations and in almost every case there is another generation ready to take the baton from the current one. Having seen off their rivals, resisted the blandishments of others, they are in this now for the long haul. As William Lees-Jones, Managing Director of JW Lees explains "When we look at buying a pub, the first question we ask is will it be good for at least 50 years?"

The book itself is well laid out, with side panels and boxes breaking up the text, an explanation of the background to modern British brewing and a nod to the future with mentions of newer brewers such as Titanic. Inevitably there is a potted explanation of how beer is brewed. The book is lavishly illustrated with old photos and beer adverts throughout and is written in a clear, easy on the eye, font.

This book is a valuable contribution, not only to the beer lover's bookshelf, but it cleverly pulls together a vital part of our brewing heritage and puts it in context.  In this excellent book, Roger Protz, with his extensive knowledge of Britain's brewing history, has been the ideal conduit for this distinct group of breweries to present their own narrative in a cohesive way.  

This book will no doubt become a "go to" source for beer historians and should be set against the wider background of a country, which for all our current problems, is still one that identifies strongly with beer, pubs and breweries. 

ROGER PROTZ is a campaigner and broadcaster and the author of more than 25 books about beer and brewing. He was the editor of CAMRA's market-leading Good Beer Guide for over two decades and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the British Guild of Beer Writers and the Society of Independent Brewers.

Published by CAMRA Books. 9th September 2020. Hardcover 224 pages.
ISBN-101852493593
ISBN-13978-1852493592

Roger's book is available from CAMRA Books










 

9 comments:

Dave said...

What a great comment “ the first question we ask is will it be good for at least 50 years?". Not a common question in today’s world. Gives one hope.

Jim said...

Totally agree with your description of this excellent book...and just in time as a gift for family beer-loving/history-loving friends and relatives.

Anonymous said...

Get the book, an excellent memento of things that used to be.

Ian Worden said...

It sounds like an interesting book, although no doubt you have to tread carefully around repetition of 25 books worth of what can now be cliches. I would take issue with your opening comments since I don't think that the concept of the public company as we now know it was around until c1890 - a lot of brewers went public at that time since it gave access to cheap borrowing by issuing debentures on the Stock Exchange.

I would also not agree with the re-invented history about a 'tide' of takeovers - businesses are taken over because they want or need to be and whilst in a fairy tale world there would not be a pile of breweries with clapped out equipment in a post war environment, or family members that could make more money elsewhere, that is what happened in reality and it does not seen that Roger has addressed these points - I hope to find myself wrong once I get round to reading the book.

Tandleman said...

By the very nature of a book review, it is a bit of a précis. In essence what is written by me is so, but Roger does go into a lot more detail to explain the background. To go into chapter and verse in a review would do the author a bit of a disservice. My comments are a shortcut.

As for takeovers, there was a tide of them. The reasons are various and include what you say.

You will find all the detail there when you read it. You'll have to take it up with Roger if you don't agree, though my money's on Rog.

Cheers and thanks for commenting.

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Anonymous said...

If I’m not wrong, Shephard Neame has actually inspired more of the classic beer brands in the UK. My grandpa tells me about how it was the blueprint back in the day. Like, that analogy has led Britain to be a flag barrier for many outstanding things. Kind of like, how the best british essay writers impose histories about the native land on my sheets. They even discussed Shephard Neame’s legacy on one of the pieces.

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