The Big Interview: Richard Westwood, Marston’s Beer Company

By Robyn Black

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Beer, Brewing

Marston's managing director Richard Westwood interview
Marston’s Richard Westwood and Robyn Black chat over the thorny issues of defining craft beer, why microbreweries pose a problem and why people don’t believe Pedigree is the same now as it always was.

Like a beery Bisto kid it was the waft of wort that led Marston’s Richard Westwood to a career in brewing.

Growing up just five miles from the Wolverhampton & Dudley Brewery (W&DB) in Wolverhampton he was the only one of his friends who loved the malt and hop aroma that permeated the town.

Following his nose, he joined the business straight from University as a lab technician and 38 years later is still there, albeit with some changes: the business is now known as the Marston’s Beer Company and Westwood is its managing director as of last September.

“For me, on balance being a Marston’s man through and through is a positive. I think that experience means I really understand the DNA of the business and I think that probably overshadows any potential benefits of having gone elsewhere.”

Commercial concerns

For a man who had always wanted to be a brewer the change to a more commercial role should have been an uncomfortable one, but the process was aided by the acquisition trail the brewery went on through the 1990s.

“By then I was head brewer and that role just gradually expanded until I was not just head brewer for one brewery but the director of brewing for five breweries. Then two years ago I took on the take-home operation and then the commercial director role.”

But as well as the opportunities offered by the expanding business, acquisition also posed its problems.

“When W&D bought Marston’s it was taking over a company of similar size and stature and that integration process was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever been involved in. It was the first really big acquisition for me and it was an aggressive takeover.

“So there was quite an acrimonious period which seemed to go on for months and months. Then, in the middle of that, we bought Mansfield as well, so in the space of two years we were integrating three businesses all of a similar size.”

Once it was all done, the “eyes of the world” were on Westwood, who was now in charge of beers like Pedigree, which was seen as something of a national treasure.

Beers with Pedigree

“Anyone who knows anything about beer knows that the Burton Union system (the system of fermentation in which beer is circulated through a series of casks that is synonymous with Pedigree) is a pretty expensive way to produce beer, so automatically people thought we were going to stop doing that. We actually changed nothing at all, but of course people didn’t believe us.

“I remember one couple from a pub in Litchfield who were absolutely convinced that we had changed the hops, the yeast, that we weren’t doing the Burton Unions and in the end we actually invited them to the brewery and showed them around and they saw it all and they still didn’t believe us.  In fact Pedigree is still brewed the same way today as it always was.”

Less proud moments came with closures, however, which Westwood describes as “always very, very sad.” The big one was the closure of Mansfield in 2001.

“It was a great brewery with a lot of great people wedded to the idea of brewing great beer but commercially it just didn’t work for the business as a whole to keep it going.”

Equally Marston’s has, of course, kept breweries open. The business strategy is to drive two national beer brands, Pedigree and Hobgoblin, underpinned by five regional breweries or “brand families,” namely Jennings, Banks’s, Marston’s, Wychwood and Ringwood.

Family of brands

“We would like to see those two national brands be even bigger, of course, but those regional brands are also very strong in their regions. So, it’s getting the balance right between all those brand families and allocation of marketing expertise, and spend, and sales focus, and how you build that portfolio as opposed to concentrating on just one or two.

“If you look at our national footprint we have 13 depots dotted around and that does allow us to get all those regional beers around the country very efficiently at, what I suspect, is the lowest distribution cost amongst the regional brewers.  That gives us a huge strength.”

In the next few years on-trade growth is likely to come via national pub groups, an area in which Westwood says the business is weak – 65% of the beer company profit comes via the freetrade.

“We need to target the likes of Punch, Enterprise, M&B and Whitbread and a lot of the initiatives we are doing right now are looking at that particular trade channel. In reality Fastcask should help us to open up that particular market and it is in fact doing so, but we are still under indexing there.”

Fastcask

Fastcask, launched in 2009, may well be Westwood’s greatest achievement and his legacy.

The system uses beads of yeast that allow beer to “drop bright” almost immediately. This means it can be served from upright casks, moved around at will and therefore opens up new avenues for cask beer.

It has undoubtedly been a success – accounting for one third of Marston’s cask beer volumes now and - as reported in the PMA in November -  there are plans to take it to the next level by licensing it to other brewers.

Nevertheless, its success thus far has not been what Westwood had anticipated.

“It’s probably done more in areas of the industry where it wasn’t really meant to go. It’s in areas that could actually take traditional cask beer but customers are beginning to see the benefits of it and a lot of that is the convenience factor, so in that respect it has surprised me a little. But it has also opened doors for cask in Warner Hotels, Butlins and De Vere Hotels for example.

“We are also looking to exploit it more to boost our export business over the next year. We’re already doing well in markets like Russia, Canada and the US with kegs and bottles but we’ve done a few trials with Fastcask and it can work there for us too.

“We are also looking at smaller version and are in discussions with a big cash & carry to hopefully put in a Fastcask variant for potential cask beer at home.”

Bottling line boost

The off-trade, then, is another area Westwood is targeting for growth, and while Fastcask will be one way, bottled beer is another – boosted by the recently opened £7.4m bottling plant.

Currently Marston’s has just under 25% market share of the premium bottled sector but Westwood says he aims to reach 30% by 2017.

“The new bottling line will underpin that, which is why we bought it.  Our bottle sales are up just over 19% year-on-year in take home and the success has really been in mixed packs, where we can genuinely claim authentic beers from five different breweries. It’s something most of our competitors can’t do and I think you’ll be seeing more of that.”

What is craft beer?

There are obstacles to Westwood’s ambitions of course, including the rise of microbreweries and craft beer, which are taking market share from traditional real ale.

“Microbreweries have done a lot of good in that they have forced brewers like ourselves to become a little bit more inventive, so in that sense I think they do a good job.

“My main concern though is Progressive Beer Duty. I believe in it as a concept, because I think there is probably a need to level the playing field in terms of economies of scale, but I think it has been tilted too far the other way.

“If microbreweries were using that additional benefit for investment and all the rest of it then fine, but we know that a  lot is being circulated back into lower prices and that is creating a competitive situation which is unfair.

“When not even a business of our size can compete, then the pendulum has swung too far in their favour on a pure cost basis.”

As for the craft the company has dipped its toe in the market via a collaboration with American brewery Shipyard last April to create American Pale Ale and launched a craft lager under its new Revisionist brand in June.

But Westwood takes issue with the way “craft beer” is seen in the UK.

“For me craft is less about size and more about quality raw ingredients; about the expertise that goes into creating something beyond that which someone could do in their back garden; does (that product) have an essence about it that is different?

“For me the ultimate craft is cask ale.”

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