Brewing Tetley's cask outside Yorkshire prompts outrage reminiscent of the Hoegaarden fiasco, says Roger Protz.
You have to admire the sensitivity and public relations finesse of the global brewers. Carlsberg responded last week to a vigorous campaign by licensees and beer drinkers in the Leeds area and brought back the famous huntsman logo that had been the symbol of Tetley brewing in the city for a century or more.
Hosts were agreeably surprised to be given new pump clips, branded glasses and other point-of-sale material featuring the huntsman for the cask versions of Tetley Mild and Bitter. Dave Parker — known as "Tetley Dave" as a result of his passion for the Leeds beers — has been at the forefront of the campaign to bring back the huntsman logo. He owns the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford and was over the proverbial moon last week when the new PoS material was delivered to his pub.
Then came the kick in the kidneys. In the same week, Carlsberg announced that when it closes the Tetley brewery next year the cask version of Tetley Bitter will be brewed by Banks's in Wolverhampton. It almost beggars belief that Carlsberg believes an iconic Yorkshire beer can be brewed in the West Midlands. As Tetley Dave told this paper a few weeks ago: "If you close Tetley's, you may as well close Leeds."
Carlsberg has shown where its priorities lie. The "smoothflow" keg version of Tetley Bitter will move to the Molson Coors' brewery in Tadcaster and will therefore remain in Yorkshire.
The likes of Carlsberg, Heineken and AB InBev have made it clear in recent years that their interest in cask beer is minimal. The cask version of Tetley's Bitter accounts for just 14% of annual production at Leeds. The decline of Tetley's in cask form has nothing to do with lack of interest from consumers. We would drink it if we could find it. Similarly, I would drink Draught Bass and Boddingtons Bitter if I ever fell upon an outlet selling them.
But at least Draught Bass and Boddingtons are still brewed in their places of origin, if not their original breweries: namely Burton-on-Trent and Manchester. There's a terrible danger that Tetley Bitter will lose both credibility and further sales when it's moved outside Yorkshire. Banks's is a fine brewery and I don't doubt it will make a good fist of brewing Tetley's. But it will not appease Yorkshire folk who, never forget, live in God's Own Country.
Carlsberg would be advised to remember the case of Hoegaarden, the famous Belgian "white" or wheat beer. Spiced wheat beers were once widespread in the Dutch-speaking areas of Belgium, but, under the onslaught of mass-produced lager after World War Two, the breweries started to close. The last one, in the small town of Hoegaarden, pulled down the shutters in the 1950s.
But local milkman Pierre Celis, who had briefly worked in a wheat-beer plant, launched a brewery in 1966 and had enormous success with his beer, called Hoegaarden White. By 1985, he was producing 300,000 hectolitres a year, but when his brewery was destroyed in a fire he sought financial help from the major Stella Artois brewery in nearby Leuven.
Stella financed the brewery's rebuilding and took a 45% stake in the company. The arrangement worked well and Hoegaarden sales continued to grow. Then Stella merged with its once great lager rival, Jupiler, to form Interbrew. In 2005 Celis told me that "the accountants took over". They told him to cheapen his beer by using inferior materials and faster production methods. He gave up in disgust.
In 2005, when Interbrew had become InBev following a merger with Ambev of Brazil, the fateful decision was taken to close Hoegaarden, now brewing one million hectos a year, and transfer production to the main Jupiler plant. The decision was breathtaking in its insensitivity. Just as you can't brew a Yorkshire beer outside Yorkshire, neither can you switch a beer brewed in a Flemish-speaking region of Belgium to a French-speaking one.
There was outrage in Hoegaarden. Just about every citizen of the town attended a protest rally. When I visited in 2005, house after house and shop after shop carried the same poster with the simple message: "Hoegaarden brews Hoegaarden".
The move to Jupiler proved disastrous; the beer was awful. A year later, and at a cost of several million euros, InBev moved it back to Hoegaarden.
My advice to Carlsberg is simple: keep cask Tetley's in Yorkshire or suffer the same fate and undignified retreat as InBev. Carlsberg should build a new, smaller brewery in or near Leeds or find another Yorkshire brewer able to take on the contract.
If Carlsberg ignores this friendly advice, then I suggest that other Yorkshire brewers, including such sizeable operations as Black Sheep, Tim Taylor and Theakston, adopt a common slogan: "Brewed in Yorkshire for Yorkshire folk". It could have an impact, felt as far away as Copenhagen.