It was inevitable that my first blog post of the new year would have a Covid-19 connection. No it isn't about the Governments somewhat irrational fear of pubs and their other many blind spots, though those in themselves deserve a post or two; it is about the likely demise of Brains Brewery.
For those that know it, particularly if you are Welsh, Brains is not only a small independent brewer, but somewhat of an icon. A couple of its brands, Brains Dark, a smooth and luscious Mild and SA - a well-balanced, drinkable best bitter of a type that used to be common, are very well thought of indeed, though perhaps oddly, its biggest cask seller is the Reverend James, a beer inherited from the takeover of a local rival, Buckley's Brewery of Llanelli.
I have somewhat of a soft spot for Brains. My work took me
to Cardiff frequently, usually staying in Cathedral Road, which then had a
Brains pub at each end. Naturally I spent time in both. I also worked for one
of two weeks at a time in Gabalfa near the centre and enjoyed nipping over to a nearby Brains
pub after work. I clearly remember too supping in the Brewery Tap when
the Old Brewery was still open and have no hesitation in mentioning I'm
rather partial to a pint or two of Dark. Their pubs too always seem friendly and welcoming.
SA Brain - commonly referred to as Brains - was founded by Samuel Arthur Brain in 1882. It brewed firstly and for over 100 years in the centre of Cardiff and though it built a second brewery just outside, the original outlasted it. The Old Brewery remained Brains HQ for over 100 years, until the company reluctantly decided it must leave the cramped site, which was by then, bursting at the seams. They bought the closed and larger Hancocks Brewery - a rival owned by ABInBev - near the railway station and Cardiff Arms Park. This move lasted 20 years until a new ultra modern brewery, The Dragon Brewery, was built in 2019 in Cardiff Bay.
The significance of Brains to Welsh Brewing cannot be underestimated. Roger Protz in his recent book on Family Brewers of Britain devoted nine whole pages to it. From humble beginnings, it saw off all its Welsh rivals, to become the sole major survivor today. I recommend you read what Roger has to say and of course, my review of the book, which is here.
So what has happened? In short, Covid-19 has happened. Wales has been particularly hard hit by restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic causing "significant financial pressure" to Brains. The company had already concentrated business on a core number of around 160 pubs with the remaining 40 or so being closed or sold off in March 2020. Clearly this wasn't enough to stave off problems, as this was followed by an announcement before Christmas that rival pub chain Marston's was to take over on 25-year lease, 156 Brains pubs in a bid to save 1,300 jobs. The deal includes a supply agreement to continue the availability of Brains brands in the pubs, which will be leased to Marston's at an annual rent of £5.5 million. Brain's managed houses will also be run by Marston's.
It is entirely clear from the details of the deal and comments in the financial press that this is the end of Brains as a vertically integrated family brewer. John Rhys, chairman of Brains said the deal with Marston’s “enables Brains to recapitalise its balance sheet and continue its long heritage as an independent entity”. Effectively this turns Brains into a property management company according to quotes in the financial press.
Ah, but what of the spanking new brewery in Cardiff Bay I hear you ask? It seems this is unlikely to open again under Brains ownership. According to Wales Online the future looks bleak. Chief executive of SA Brain, Alistair Darby, said that all options were now being considered for the new modern facility in Cardiff Bay. He said whatever the outcome, under the supply deal with Marston's, Brains beers would continue to be served when the pubs reopened. He said the consultation about the future of remaining staff was regrettable, but Brains could not afford to have a support centre without its own pubs.
"The brewery is clearly not operating at the moment, and we have to sadly work out whether it makes economic sense for us to continue to run the brewery. "What we cannot do, in any shape or form, is continue running operations that don't a make a positive contribution to the business. I cannot sugar the pill."
So what of the supply agreement? If Brains do not operate the brewery to supply the pubs, they will have to find another brewery to do so. The unthinkable is speculated upon in the Welsh Press. That is that the iconic beer brands will be brewed in England under licence, though there is little doubt that would severely dent the credibility of a name that graced Welsh Rugby shirts for years. Who would do this? Well, Carlsberg Marston's Brewing isn't exactly short of breweries, so seem the most likely candidate if the brewery doesn't stay open.
This is a sad state of affairs for all concerned. The company has effectively lost its pubs, built up throughout the course of its history. Its brewery, a very modern 45,000 barrel facility, looks to have a doubtful future as it appears to be up for sale as well, but with no takers so far. While the company will continue to provide a (very decent) living for the owning family, I have little doubt that these have been the bitterest of pills for them to swallow.
We often read of the parlous state of affairs in the hospitality trade today. It is no doubt dire indeed and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the problems faced by small brewers everywhere. Sadly in social media there has been too little by the way of comment or concern about Brains, but I'd gently suggest that this is the biggest casualty so far. A company with over 160 houses and a history going back around 140 years has been brought to its knees by this pestilence.
A reminder surely that it isn't just small companies in railway arches and the like that are affected by Covid restrictions. We assume at our peril that bigger companies automatically have the wherewithal to survive. Brains proves this isn't so. Let's hope there aren't any more. We still need a volume independent sector in British brewing.
It may be to some that they as long as Brains beer, wherever it is brewed, is sold in pubs branded as Brains, then all is well. I doubt that. When a brewery owns pubs, its house style and company ethos pervades the estate. How long before that declines?
I have no doubt too, that the company acted to ensure that their employees were affected as little as possible. I do hope the brewery stays open to supply the pubs. I wonder too what will happen to the brewing contracts that Brains had? Worthington beers and Mackeson among them.