Radical rightsizing repositions Charles Wells

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Ian Jones, operations director, Charles Wells

Charles Wells’ brewery in Bedford dates back to 1876 but a long history was no deterrent to the family selling it last year to Marston’s in what could well be the first of a number of drastic manoeuvres taken by regional brewers.

It reflects the tough environment in which they now trade, according to Ian Jones, operations director at Charles Wells, who says the challenge coming from an army of new smaller brewers paying reduced tax and selling “cheaply made beer” was making it a difficult marketplace.

Like other long standing brewers Charles Wells was operating on old kit – 40 years old in its case – that needed further investment and greater volumes being pushed through it. “It was becoming unprofitable. We tried to get the volume by buying legacy brands. But it was clear we needed to do something drastic,” says Jones.

He joined the business in 2016 on the premise that a sale of the brewery would take place by 2019 but it came much quicker following an approach from Marston’s. “It needed a lager brewery and the Charles Well’s brands fitted well into certain regions [in which it operated] and so it bought out all the contracts on beers like Estrella, McEwan’s, Courage and Bombardier,” explains Jones.

Although the sale raised around £55 million this largely went on paying down debts. With a clean brewing slate the plan has been for Charles Wells to instead focus on its tenanted pubs and managed houses. But Jones says the family has always insisted that they would also have a brewery in the mix. “You get a better return from pubs but a brewery is at the heart of the company.”

What will change is that the new £13 million brewery will be a 30th of the size of the old Charles Wells operation – at around 30,000 hl. It will have a 30 hl brew length compared with a much bigger 250 hl at the former brewery. The plan is to brew five-times per day although it will be possible to crank this up to nine-times.

What Jones will be brewing is undecided – apart from the two Charlie brands it has retained, and two John Bull beers that are sold through the company’s pubs in France: “I’ve no idea what I’ll be brewing. There will be three core cask, two core keg, and two core lagers. Quite how big any of them will get I’m not sure.”

With 175 tenanted pubs (and only 12 managed) he says many pubs do not have to take Charles Wells beers and so ahead of the new brewery opening Jones has been on a ‘Wandering Brewer’ initiative involving him brewing a wide variety of cask beers with different brewers including Hop Stuff, Titanic, Black Sheep and Woodeforde’s. This mission also encapsulates keg and a series of four beers are being produced with London’s Fourpure over the next 12 months.

“It’s a mission to educate tenants and customers as well as ourselves. We want to highlight to them the change that is coming. We’ve got 90 pubs signed up to receive the Wandering Brewer cask beers. Providing our pubs with more contemporary cask is the biggest opportunity for us. We want them to have good refreshing beer with a bit of hop [character] rather than just being brown ale in a glass. We need to make more flavoursome, contemporary beers,” he explains.

As for keg he says the two Charlie brands have done well but he admits that for the Charles Wells pub estate craft keg is “a bit more out there”. So far 49 pubs are taking the Wandering Brewer kegs on a rotational line that has been installed. The most recent brew is Rucksack Pale Ale (4%), which will be followed in October by an Appalachian IPA (4.7%), then in March an unfiltered German Rhine Pilsner (4.7%) and finally in the series a Bavarian Helles.

This will take Jones beyond the point when the new brewery should be open (April 2019). “We’re all set to go. We’ve got all the plans submitted and agreed. We just need to get the land purchased. We’re all lined up,” he says with much anticipation.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider