Sunday, 1 July 2012

How Pubs Evolved – The Big Six

No part of the recent history of UK brewing and the pub trade is more significant than the growth and behaviour of the Big Six combines that, by the 70s, dominated the industry. They owned and ran tens of thousands of pubs, and their attitude to traditional beer was uniformly hostile. On their watch, whole tied estates were turned over to keg and bright beer and national brands promoted over all else.

Yes folks, it really existed once upon a time

More or less in order of size, the Big Six were Bass Charrington (later just Bass), which at its peak had over 10,000 houses, Allied Breweries, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, and Scottish and Newcastle. The last named did not have the largest tied estate, but did enjoy a significant presence in the free trade. They were the result of post-war mergers and acquisitions on a huge scale.

Bass combined Charrington of London, the Burton brands of Bass and Worthington, Mitchells and Butlers in the West Midlands, and Tennants in Scotland. Allied retained some individual identity for its three largest constituents, Tetley (formerly Tetley Walker), Ansells and Ind Coope. Courage had taken over John Smiths of Tadcaster who in turn had bought out smaller players like the Barnsley Brewery.

Whitbread was a curious mixture of subsidiaries bought up outright, and investment by Colonel Whitbread, the latter often to protect small regional brewers from hostile takeover (Boddingtons being a well known example). But, over time, those protective investments led to total assimilation. Scottish and Newcastle was the amalgamation of William Youngers and the Newcastle brewery.

So what was hotel chain Grand Met doing there? Well, it had taken over the amalgamation of Watney Mann and Truman, later just Watney’s, which had also acquired smaller players such as Websters and Wilsons in the north, and Ushers in the west country. Watney’s, apart from brewing the most reviled national keg brand known to mankind, had the dubious distinction of having invented keg beer.

How successful were they at wiping out cask beer? John Smiths had gone all keg as early as 1970. Newcastle was by the mid 70s a “beer desert”, as not only the Newcastle brewery, but also the Federation clubs brewery had been turned over to tank and keg production. Traditional beer was a rarity in Bass and Grand Met pubs, and Younger’s free trade presence just meant more national keg brews.

Regional brewers weren’t immune to this tendency: Greenalls, Greene King, Matthew Brown, Mansfield, and yes, even Fullers turned significant parts of their estates over to keg beer. And in support of this move was the relentless use of advertising to promote fizzy beer of dubious quality as some kind of lifestyle choice, while in reality it was there to ramp up profits.

So that’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past 40 years, then. More later.

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