Thursday, 2 March 2017

Summit of ambition

I’ve praised Hawkshead Brewery several times on here, both for brewing some excellent beers and for successfully straddling the divide between the craft beer movement and traditional real ale. Indeed, this month’s Opening Times column sings their praises as a brewery that has developed sufficient reputation that people will order their beers off the bar on name alone.

I was rather taken aback by the news that Hawkshead had agreed to sell a majority stake in the business to Halewood Wines and Spirits, which seemed to come completely out of the blue and, on the face of it, appeared an unlikely suitor. However, looking at it in a wider context, it’s not hard to understand the reasons behind the move.

The craft beer movement is often viewed as “sticking it to the man” and representing a revolt against big business and corporate interests. Thus there is often a sense of disappointment, sometimes verging on betrayal, whenever any independent brewer sells out to a larger firm. However, as I wrote here, at the end of the day, every business start-up needs an exit strategy, and very few can realistically hope to reach the broad sunlit uplands of being a large, well-financed, independent business.

Hawkshead founder Alex Brodie will celebrate his 67th birthday this year, so it’s entirely reasonable that he should seek to realise some return from the business. He’s done a great job both in brewing distinctive, high-quality beers and in growing the company, so I say good luck to him. There’s a good article about what makes him tick here.

Halewood, owners of Lambrini and Crabbie’s Ginger Wine, may not seem at first sight a good fit for a company such as Hawkshead. However, as they’re not already involved in brewing in the UK, there would seem to be a better chance that Hawkshead will maintain its distinctiveness, as compared with being taken over by one of the existing international brewers. It could be seen as comparable to the Restaurant Group, owners of Frankie & Benny’s and Garnfunkel’s, taking over gastropub operator Brunning & Price. So far that has led to a significant expansion of the estate and no obvious dilution of the brand values, so let’s hope the same proves to be true of Hawkshead. Just don’t decide like Thornbridge to put all your mainstream beers in those daft little 330 ml “craft” bottles!

One thing is for certain, though – the idea that distinctive, high-quality beer can only be produced by rugged individualists ploughing their own furrow becomes less and less true as time goes by, if it ever was in the first place.

12 comments:

  1. Ever the optimist, eh? Completely understandable as you say but, as always, there's nothing that the customer will gain from this and plenty for them to worry about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, it's rare for me to be accused of undue optimism about anything! But one obvious benefit is wider distribution of Hawkshead beers.

      And it's a fact of life that successful startups, in any industry, generally end up being bought out. if you were in Alex Brodie's shoes, what would you do?

      Delete
    2. I wish the shops around here would stock more of Hawkshead's beers than just Lakeland Gold. On visits to Cumbria and Lancashire I look forward muchly to buying bottles of their Red in Booth's supermarkets. Haven't seen any of their beers on draught though - I don't know if they do any.

      Delete
    3. Lots of draught from Hawkshead - I think something like 65% of the current output is cask.

      Delete
    4. Hawkshead's cask beers are often seen in Wetherspoon's around here. And the Petersgate Tap in Stockport has Windermere Pale as its fixed house beer, which seems a very good choice. I rarely see the standard Bitter, though.

      Delete
  2. I reckon you have the right of it Mudgie.I spoke to Alex yesterday and I don't think I'm giving away any secrets when I say it was done after a lot of soul searching.

    Like all of us, he isn't getting any younger and he points out that he has to bear the financial load. There is no Sugar Daddy footing the bills. The brewery (when expanded) will still be in Staveley and he will still manage it.

    I don't blame him one bit.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My guess is that we'll see more of these exits. There must be few guys who led the early small brewer movement e.g.Burton Bridge is up for sale. The guys who left the big brewers and those who moved on from home brewing must be reaching an age where having a quiet drink beckons.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good point. The Burton Bridge guys will be very careful over who they sell to, and as far as I know are in no rush to come to a decision, but they are both past normal retirement age.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd say Burton Bridge will be much less attractive to corporate investors as it isn't perceived as "craft", and has little, if any, presence in the off-trade.

      Delete
  5. Halewood also own the Tsintao uk beer brand. Perhaps we will see a Tsintao lakeland collaboaration brew --Tsinging in the rain!

    ReplyDelete
  6. If I had to pick just one, Hawkshead would be my favourite brewery. Fingers crossed, the new owners do not try to change their beers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's an odd takeover. I know little about the economics of brewing, other than, like the restaurant trade it isn't a straightforward path to riches for anyone, though often a straightforward path to ruin for many.

    Hawkshead always struck me as a business run sensibly with a huge passion for its product. Let's hope this is allowed to continue. If it were AB-InBev or Heineken I'd be more concerned.

    All that said I don't blame anyone for selling up at a good price. I can't pretend I wouldn't (though tbh I'd probably then eff off and buy a Scottish island or something).

    ReplyDelete

Comments, especially on older posts, may be subject to prior approval. Bear with me – I may be in the pub.

Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man.

Any obvious trolling, offensive or blatantly off-topic comments will be deleted.

See this post for some thoughts on my approach to blog comments.