Dorset brewer Hall and Woodhouse continues to grow across the South. Lorna Harrison reports.
As a visitor to Horsham, West Sussex, you couldn't fail to notice the forlorn looking demolition site which was once the great home of regional brewer King & Barnes.
The boarded-up plot in the middle of the town centre is now earmarked for some 80 flats and stands as a constant reminder to real ale enthusiasts that yet another regional brewer has gone down the pan.
Yet at the same time, Horsham residents will have noticed a revival in some of the former King & Barnes pubs. Several have undergone makeovers thanks to their new owner Hall & Woodhouse, a regional brewer based 100 miles away in Blandford St Mary, Dorset.The Hall & Woodhouse estate of 256 pubs, including 147 tenancies, is largely made up of traditional destination pubs, most of which have a strong emphasis on real ale and food.
The purchase of King & Barnes' 55 pubs was a good strategic fit for the company as most outlets share the same values and, according to Hall and Woodhouse's managing director David Woodhouse, have a "beer aura" about them.
They have also filled an empty pocket in the company's geographical area which stretches across the South as far as East Sussex and up into Berkshire.
To the former King & Barnes tenants, it's very much business as usual, according to Mr Woodhouse, and as for the local residents - they're now benefiting from new investment into previously under-funded pubs as well as a new, popular range of real ales.
"I think the tenants are genuinely glad it was us that took over rather than anyone else," said Mr Woodhouse. "The fact that we are an independent family company that has a pretty good relationship with its tenants has helped."
Hall & Woodhouse tenants benefit from continued investment in the pub estate and, being "a people-focused company", training and development plays a key part.
So it appears the dust has settled on the deal which stirred up controversy in the brewing industry little over a year ago. Kent brewer Shepherd Neame was originally set to take over King & Barnes after making a hostile bid, and maintained the brewery would be kept open. Sheps increased its bid to £23.63m - 50 per cent more than its original offer - and became more reticent on its plans for the brewery. Finally, Hall & Woodhouse stepped in from nowhere with a slightly higher offer of £23.75m and confirmed it would have to shut the brewery.
The news of the impending brewery closure prompted furore from the Campaign for Real Ale and, for a while, Hall & Woodhouse's name became a swear word among its members. That is until it became clear that the Neames would have had to close the unviable brewery in any event.
"You can't run an uneconomic brewery and whoever won would not have been able to keep brewing at the site," said Mr Woodhouse.
Despite the forced brewery closure in Horsham, Hall & Woodhouse is 100 per cent committed to brewing. Its brewing arm, Badger Brewery (pictured), has matched King and Barnes' Sussex bitter and its own Tanglefoot and Festive are proving to be popular choices in West Sussex. It is even continuing to produce very small volumes of King & Barnes' Mild to keep its small but committed fans happy.
Exiting from brewing has never been considered by the company which was founded in 1777. With the fifth generation at the helm, the shareholders are from the Woodhouse family tree.
Hall & Woodhouse is an active supporter of the tie maintaining that its loss would see the demise of over half of Britain's independent brewers "overnight".
The recent boost to its pub estate has undoubtedly bolstered the brewing side of the company and, although Mr Woodhouse remained cagey about further expansion plans, he said: "In the modern world you can't sit still. Acquiring 55 pubs made a major volume impact and we are keen to grow."
The company is actively on the lookout for individual pubs or packages and "cash is not an issue" - the location and type of pubs are.
Although pubs will always continue to play a major part in the company's overall success, Hall & Woodhouse is better known nationwide in the take-home market. It supplies all major supermarkets with branded or own-label products and has major contract businesses with national companies including Scottish Courage, Bass and Guinness UDV.
While Mr Woodhouse predicts that over the next five years many other brewers will halt production he also sees small micro-brewers growing. His own company plans to grow and develop and has its sights set on becoming the top regional brewer in the South (it's currently ranked as the third biggest private company in the South-West).
"It is a long journey but we are making some substantial improvements," Mr Woodhouse said. "We are concentrating on our core business - pubs and brewing. We will continue to invest in and rationalise our pub estate and continue on our path of being world class."
Hall and Woodhouse Ltd
The Brewery, Blandford St Mary, Dorset, DT11 9LS
No of pubs:
109 mgd, 147 tens
£88.9m (March 2001)