Theakston's must cut S&N link

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My first visit to Theakston's Brewery in Yorkshire was in the late 1970s. I arrived in the remote Dales town of Masham to be greeted by Michael...

My first visit to Theakston's Brewery in Yorkshire was in the late 1970s. I arrived in the remote Dales town of Masham to be greeted by Michael Theakston with the cry: "Welcome to our Mickey Mouse brewery". I preferred "charmingly old-fashioned". Little has changed at Masham, as under Scottish & Newcastle the site became more of a brewing museum than a production centre. The bulk of the beer was brewed at S&N's Tyneside plant while Masham's heritage site offered traditional mash tuns, coppers and high-sided wooden fermenters. There is even an on-site cooper fashioning wooden casks for the pleasure of visitors who are oblivious to the fact that most of Theakston's beer leaves Tyneside in metal containers. A number of people have described the decision by S&N to return Theakston's to family ownership as a "bombshell". I suspect that little will effectively change at Masham. The bulk of the beer will continue to be brewed on Tyneside, S&N will distribute the brands, and visitors will be beguiled into thinking they are visiting a truly independent small brewery in Yorkshire when in truth, S&N, which will retain a financial stake in the company, will continue to call the shots. By sheer coincidence, I heard of the sale of Theakston's when I arrived back from a visit to Kronenbourg in Strasbourg. Kronenbourg has been owned by S&N since 2000 and the British group is pouring enormous resources into the brand, which accounts for 41% of the French beer market and is now one of the leading lager beers in Europe. The brewing site at Obernai, which has replaced the original plant in Strasbourg, has three brewhouses that produce 30,000 hectolitres each per day, with a new brew every two hours. S&N is developing new versions of Kronenbourg, including a dark lager and a beer made with fresh whole hops from the farms of Alsace. When you are producing a wide range of mainstream lager beers for both the British and mainland European markets, it's not surprising that S&N can't be bothered with the day-to-day running of a self-styled "Mickey Mouse" ale brewery in the Yorkshire Dales. And S&N has fingers in other pies. I discovered when I was in Russia earlier in the year that the biggest player in the booming Russian beer market is a group called Baltic Beverages Holding, a consortium run by Carlsberg and S&N. Between them, they own two giant breweries under the name of Baltika and a second substantial site in St Petersburg called Vena. From being the Mr Nobody of British brewing, S&N ­ which also owns the Beamish, Courage and Foster's brands ­ is now the biggest producer by far. It was rumoured back in 2000 that when S&N bought Kronenbourg from the French Danone group, it contemplated renaming itself after the French lager, such is the importanceof the brand name to the company. That didn't happen, but you can understand why ­ when you are one of Europe's biggest brewers with a vast stake in Russia and the Baltic states ­ that running a small-volume ale brewery doesn't sound all the whistles and bells in the finance and marketing departments. The problem for the Theakston family is one of credibility. They cannot brew their beers only at Masham because the plant is too small. This means the bulk of the beer will continue to be made on Tyneside, which undermines the image of quaintness and tradition that Masham attempts to foster. One suggestion this week is that eventually Theakston's will merge with the neighbouring Black Sheep Brewery, run by Paul Theakston. This would enable the Theakston beers to be brewed at one site in Masham and get away from the Tyneside factory. That is unlikely. Paul Theakston walked out in disgust when his family company was sold to S&N. He has built Black Sheep into one of the most successful small independent breweries in Britain and he is unlikely to let go to return to the bosom of the family, especially when Theakston's will still be subject to diktat from S&N. Theakston's needs to work out a strategy to break the link with S&N and it should do it without delay.

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