Saturday, 9 January 2021

Brains on the Brink

 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.

19 comments:

Fred said...


All very sad but probably won't the the last brewing casualty of the pandemic.

What was the big brewery tap in the middle of Cardiff in the 1980s ? The Albert rings a bell ?

retiredmartin said...

You're right, Fred, it was the Albert (then Yard Bar when it moved).
https://whatpub.com/pubs/CAR/052/yard-bar-kitchen-cardiff

Really good read, Tand. I found Brain beers really distinctive in the '90s; I think changing social trends and smoking ban hit wet pub sales more than most pub chains, and the pubs themselves are rarely that distinctive now.

Tandleman said...

Yes the Albert.

Paul Bailey said...

I received Roger Protz’s Family Brewers of Britain, as a Christmas present. I haven’t got round to reading it yet, but I will now read the chapter on Brains.

I noticed in the press that Marston’s had stepped in to take on the leases of the company’s pubs, but it was only the other day that I saw that the deal also included the supply of Brains beers to these pubs. I was aware that Brains had constructed a brand new, state-of-the-art brewery, so learning that this is now likely to be surplus to requirements, is sad news indeed.

I know that life isn’t fair, but to me it seemed as though this family-owned brewery had done everything right, and then along came Coronavirus, knocking at the door. It probably wouldn’t have made much difference by then, but the mealy-mouth attitude of the devolved Welsh government, during one of the reprieves from lockdown, that allowed pubs in the Principality to open, providing they didn’t sell alcohol, can’t have helped.

I’m also with you on this TM, when you expose the hypocrisy of a significant number of so-called “beer lovers” who bleat on about the struggling railway arch brewers, whilst ignoring the plight of their larger, and longer established brethren.

Over the past few months, I’ve had something of a spat with certain of the younger, and more radical members of the local CAMRA branch (I’m no longer a member btw), over the issue of Progressive Beer Duty.

Certain of these more radical members have been calling for a boycott of established brewers such as Adnams, Badger, Harvey’s and possibly Brains as well. Several have even described Sussex’s oldest and finest brewery as “Evil Harveys,” making snide and childish remarks every time the brewery name crops up on the WhatsApp Beer Socials group (of which I’m still a member).

Such behaviour saddens me, and I pointed out that back in 2019, these individuals were willing enough to take participate in a tour of Harvey’s, and drink the copious amounts of foc beer, along with the excellent buffet that the brewery laid on for us.

I’m also very sad about Brains, but I somewhat doubt that the “man in a shed brewery” supporters,” that have infiltrated CAMRA locally, will be crying into their beer over this news.

Pete Drinks said...

While it's certainly the company line, it's not something that can be lain entirely at Covid's door. As you yourself mention, they were already selling off pubs and planning redundancies to plug the gaping holes in their finances back in March - yes, Covid will have hit them hard, but they weren't exactly in great shape before the world went to hell.

On the upside, maybe Tiny Rebel could pick up the Dragon Brewery for a song :-)

Tandleman said...

I don't believe Tiny Rebel are Woke enough - if you read Twitter.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, another unfortunate casualty of lockdown. And remember that in the early days of CAMRA Brains were one of the select band of breweries who offered real ale in all their pubs.

I think they had somewhat overreached themselves by buying pubs outside their traditional trading area, though.

Felinfoel are of course still keeping the family brewer flag flying in Wales. They may be often overlooked and not very highly regarded, but back in the 70s they were of the same order of size as Brains - according to the 1978 GBG 80 pubs as opposed to 100+.

St. Peter's Boy said...

As a Cardiffian I can't help feeling that the writing had been on the wall for Brains for some time. Their beer has been of variable quality for a number of years and their reluctance to sell guest beers hasn’t helped. They seemed to have become an odd combination of a small local brewery which behaves like a dull and dictatorial national pub-co. In recent years I’ve been served poor quality beer on a number of occasions in my local pub, which was often in the GBG. The beer was always changed without argument but often the pump clip was not turned around suggesting a complete lack of interest in the product.
They made some odd business decisions over the years, the move from the old brewery to a site that was far too large for them being the obvious one. Having said that the Crawshay Street site is now being redeveloped and Brains have a 50% interest in the scheme which suggests their long-term interest had become property rather than brewing or operating pubs.
Clearly Covid has been the main contributor in their rapid demise but you can’t help think it might well have happened in a few years’ time.

GeordieManc said...

I spent best part of 15 years from late 90s to early 2010s working in South Wales at least once a week. When I stayed over (at least once a month), would usually stay in Cardiff, regularly visiting City Arms, Gatekeeper, Prince Of Wales, The Albert and then The Yard, The Queens and others - lets face it, you didn't drink in Cardiff in them days without drinking Brains.

Over those 15 years, I witnessed their beer quality deteriorate first hand as they pushed SA out to national distribution then started down the same route as Bombardier, Hobgoblin and co in producing different beers under the SA "brand".

I remember being quite excited when The Yard opened - with it being a "flagship" pub, they usually had most of the range available (including Dark which was quite rare even by then) and were making efforts to make the beer quality as good as it could be. Five years later I wouldn't set foot in the place the beer was so unreliable - and on the occasions I did look in, it was clear it wasn't just me - the place was nothing like as busy as it had been.

When "craft" came along, they did try to do reposition themselves and launched newer style beers but like many traditional breweries, they did it while also trying to make them appeal to their traditional market (or possibly trying to make them for the same cost as their traditional beers). As a result made beers which neither market wanted to drink.

And as others have said, at the same time, they were overextending themselves by buying pubs over a larger area. So sure COVID is looking like it put the last few nails in, but the coffin was already being prepared long before.

Pete Drinks said...

"Felinfoel are of course still keeping the family brewer flag flying in Wales. They may be often overlooked and not very highly regarded."

They are here; I'd rather have a Double Dragon than a Brains any day of the week and happily my local agrees. In fact thinking about it I see more Felinfoel around here than Brains, despite the brewery being twice as far away.

Curmudgeon said...

I like Felinfoel beers, but a lot of people are a bit sniffy about them, and they're not well known outside their local area.

I actually bought a mixed case of Felinfoel beers during the last lockdown. All variations on the theme of BBB, but that suits me :-)

electricpics said...

If Marstons had still been a brewing concern this would have been a simple takeover, with Rev. James and SA joining the national portfolio and the state of the art brewery surviving. The best that can be hoped for is someone with deep enough pockets and vision to start or expand a craft brewery with a brand new almost turnkey 50HL plant at what I'll assume will be a significant saving on the new cost.

Tandleman said...

I am usually a bit sceptical about deteriorating beer quality from this or that medium sized brewer, and while it may be so in some cases, it is rarely reflected by the actions of those locals who actually drink it. They carry on supping.

I'd also venture for good measure that ale accounts for rather a small percentage of Brains turnover.

The craft beers brewed by Brains were actually very good - I was fortunate to get quite a few from the Beer Writers do and found them well-made, but not by any means cutting edge. They also kept well and in fact, I still have a small can of Black Mountain Black IPA in my fridge. Well out of date, but I'll try it at the weekend to see how it is.

I suspect Brains problems are over extension, a worryingly bad balance sheet - evidenced by their own Chairman's remarks and by those of Marstons and exacerbated by Covid, as far more likely frankly.

It also reflects that medium brewers like Brains are squeezed from big beer at one side and small beer on the other. This is a heresy in some circles, but not less true for that.

Arn said...

I think Brains have had a few problems for a few years now, they've had some criticism in Welsh press/beer circles for spending large sums on modernisation of some of the pubs in their estate, the 'gastro' ones, whilst a large part of their other pubs are in poor repair and left untouched.
I certainly know a few which that fit that bill. The two in my area have had either multiple landlord changes over last few years, and/or lack of TLC. Yet a small new micropub opened and absolutely thrives, showing the interest in good beer is there.
Rev James still a good cask beer when last had, but that was a few years ago. They have had a habit of 'smooth'ing a few of their core range, found them so bland myself.

Sarah Sami said...

You just recalled my everyday routine. Since I provide thesis editing and proofreading services, I have to give some relaxation for which I spend 2 hours daily at Brain's pub. Brains is quite underrated to be honest if you ask me and it deserves much more respect.

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