While the country’s new generation of craft brewers sit predominantly in unglamorous railway arches, their more established UK competitors are often housed in Victorian buildings that are things of great beauty – even to non-beer drinkers.
Many were built to a distinctive tower model where the production process begins at the top of the building and takes advantage of gravity as each stage of the brewing process moves down a level. For many long-standing breweries around the UK brewing continues within these structures but with modern methods sitting alongside a few traditional elements.
As well as having great architectural merit these buildings evoke a rich history and deliver the romanticism of brewing by harking back to a time when the UK’s industrial prowess was sold around the world. These structures remain a major landmark in the towns in which they sit, a reminder of past glories.
On my travels I’ve enjoyed numerous visits to Victorian breweries including Harvey’s in Sussex, Shepherd Neame in Kent, Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset, Adnams in Suffolk, Timothy Taylor in Yorkshire, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire and Wadworth in Wiltshire. I could go on but there are far too many to list here. However, the number has been gradually reducing. While they look good, are they fit for purpose today? Wadworth’s recent announcement it will end production at its present site, which has been in operation since 1875, and move to a new-built brewery is not a rare one.
The move follows a trend for long-established brewers to recalibrate their place in the modern-day brewing hierarchy, which typically pitches them between artisanal, small-scale craft brewers and the global giants. What many of these middle-ground brewers are finding to their cost is those Victorian structures aren’t ideal for delivering current business strategies.
In 2012, Hall & Woodhouse concluded its Victorian brewery was unsuitable for requirements and built a £5m facility next door, redeveloping its old site. It was a similar story at SA Brains’ brewery next to Cardiff train station. In 1999, the company moved from its town centre site to the former Hancocks Brewery, which was built in 1889. However, by 2017 Brains decided to move again and build a brewery a mile and a half from the city centre.
Against this backdrop the most interesting company to watch at the moment is Fuller’s, which sold its Griffin Brewery to Asahi earlier this year to focus on its pub estate and building a complementary accommodation component. The move was a big surprise, with initial concerns focusing on the potential loss of brewing at Fuller’s site in Chiswick, which has been producing beer since the mid-1800s.
At the time of the sale Fuller’s admitted it didn’t see the brewery as a viable element of its business but called on the new owners to commit to continuing brewing at the site, which Asahi did.
However, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear an announcement at some point – perhaps soon – that brewing will be wound down at Griffin. As well as the constrained nature of the site, which limits expansion, Asahi’s global capabilities allow it to brew Fuller’s beers at multiple locations should it wish. Meanwhile, the Chiswick site offers high redevelopment value.
While it would be a sad day to see the end of Fuller’s beer being brewed in London, or production reduced to mere token levels, I don’t think anyone could deny there are multiple reasons why Asahi would make such a decision. No doubt other brewers with gloriously evocative structures will be wrestling with such hard-headed, unsentimental decisions about how they move forward.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.