North West Focus: brewers forum

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Adam Withrington, drinks editor of The Publican, chaired a discussion among brewers in the North West, including:Oliver Robinson - marketing...

Adam Withrington, drinks editor of The Publican, chaired a discussion among brewers in the North West, including:

Oliver Robinson - marketing director, Frederic Robinson

William Lees-Jones - managing director, JW Lees

Sudarghara Dusanj - joint managing director, Cains Brewery

Brian Jenkins - sales and marketing director, Daniel Thwaites

David Grant - managing director, Moorhouse's

David Safirrudin - marketing diector, Hydes Brewery

How have so many family brewers in this area lasted so long?

William Lees Jones​: Look at the region's history: Greenalls and Matthew Brown were always very strong. There has always been strong competition in the North West without any one dominant brewer. And you only have to go to any town where there is only one dominant brewer to discover that where there is no competition the standards fall and people take the consumer for granted.

In the North West there has always been such competition. Smaller brewers here are punching at a pretty serious weight alongside big national breweries. For example, up the road from here in Moss Side in Manchester you've got the second biggest Foster's brewery in the UK.

David Grant​: I think that's right. I think one of our biggest strengths is that we are owner occupiers of breweries - we are all family brewers round this table and that wasn't how it always used to be and yet we are the ones who have survived. Also most of us have got a good pub estate which gives us a good solid market to sell the beers. Some others didn't have that and now they are gone.

Oliver Robinson​: The Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) has established quite a strong relationship between the family brewers anyway. But the North West brewers have that more than anyone.

I remember during Cask Beer Week a few years ago a number of people round this table got together, we cycled to each other's breweries, we shared the reception in the pubs - we really helped each other. There is a common ground for all of us - we all want to brew cask beer and have a great retail experience in our pubs. I want my experience in a Hydes or Lees pub to be as good as it is in a Robinson's pub.

David Safirrudin​: We are in a slightly different position as the Hydes family are very much in control of the shareholding and therefore dictate the direction of the business. We are all steeped in heritage and history and there is a very clear passion from among the family to stay with the business, even through difficult times. They are fiercely independent and it is up to us to carry the flag for that.

Is there something culturally about the area that makes you all so fiercely independent?

WLJ​: We are sitting 200-300 yards from the old Free Trade Hall in the part of the country that spawned the Industrial Revolution. There are more patents registered in Manchester per head of population than any other city in the UK.

DG​: I think that pride has always existed because there are so many local beers and breweries that have disappeared - take Wilson's, Chester's and Dutton's to name three. People still talk about them today. We certainly don't want to see any more disappear.

What are the big local issues facing you?

Brian Jenkins​: I think the big issue for our business is how we can push our beers outside of our heartland. We do find it a touch difficult to get our beers taken down south - and I'm sure a southern brewer would say the same thing about the northern market.

It's the age-old issue of keeping the mash tuns open and alive and that is about selling beer in our pubs and in the wider freetrade.

Sudarghara Dusanj​: For us it is about being involved with Liverpool, which is going through such a massive change with next year's European Capital of Culture and then using that as the catalyst to take Cains forward.

DS​: We've all had to live through changes in manufacturing. There has been a long tradition of factories closing and then pubs reliant on factories closing as well. These people have now migrated away to new areas.

WLJ​: The most recent challenge has been the introduction of Progressive Beer Duty (PBD). Even a complete idiot could make £50,000 a year on the back of the benefit that the Chancellor is giving them.

People love our beer brands in the region but when we submit our beers for guest beer lists, if one competitor has a £50 per barrel discount over the rest of the competition you just sit there and think 'this is cheating and not fair competition'.

DG​: There is a bigger issue, which is the declining freetrade market. There are now only 20 per cent of pubs that are pure freetrade - there used to be 40 per cent. They have been swallowed by companies who have been able to put a full tie in. The thing with PBD is that if a brewer wants to stay below a volume threshold to get more relief then they are never going to properly compete in the market because they will simply not produce enough. That is why we are trying to grow.

WLJ​: The problem I have with PBD is simply the growth in people who simply see brewing as a leisure business - people who have no interest in growing the business.

BJ​: Particularly the brewers who are introducing beer of varying quality into the market. We, like many others, want to see cask beer as the UK's speciality beer and therefore alter cask beer's price point so it demands the price of some of these imported lagers. But to do that the quality has to be right and I'm not sure a lot of the quality of some of the smaller microbrewers is right. I come across these people day after day.

WLJ​: Particularly in the cellar where it's your cellar cooling system and handpump you've paid for and a line you've paid to put in.

SD​: I think the biggest challenge here, by some distance, is quality. The smaller brewers who churn out beer of poor quality don't realise that it knocks the category as a whole.

OR​: I think another issue is that some big brewers are just as guilty of price reductions, namely nationals with their big lager brands being sold at ridiculous prices. And all this does is reduce everyone's margins. I think the people who are complaining about PBD should sit up and look at themselves - because some of those who are going on about discounts are just as guilty as some of the smaller brewers when it comes to selling cheap beer.

How do you best sell your brands outside of the North West?

BJ​: We are in the process of trying to build a national brand, in Lancaster Bomber, and we have had some success - 30 per cent of our cask volume is sold outside of our heartland. The problem is our heartland was a 3.5 per cent ale area and it has proved very hard to get 3.5 per cent ales onto guest ale lists. So we have had to start from scratch in building a premium ale portfolio, which we didn't have 10 years ago when I joined Thwaites.

SD​: Our approach has been to look at the beer category as a whole and then how our brands can sit across that whole portfolio. You've seen that happen in North America, companies like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, which have launched lots of brands and different styles. We're in the beer industry - whether it be lager, ale or stout. And we want to get that message out under our brand name.

DG​: There is a huge issue over route to market. One of our big markets is inside the M25 and over the last year some of the competition in the south has priced us out of the market.

OR​: There are lots of people who want to increase volumes but not margins. We're concentrating on growing our margins and the service we offer.

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