For the younster amongst you, the Big Six consisted of Allied Breweries (Tetley, Ansells and Ind Coope), Bass Charrington, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle, Whitbread and Watney Mann. None are still in brewing.
But, a bit like the fifth Beatle, there was really a seventh member of the Big Six. Which was never lumped with the others. Probably because CAMRA didn't have a beef with them, as they owned no pubs and sold real ale in every pub: Guinness. The Big Six was shorthand for the enemy.
Their dominance of British drinking was based on pub ownership. With the majority of beer being drunk in pubs, owning them was the key to success as a brewer. Which was why large breweries would snap up smaller, run-down breweries. They didn't want the brewing kit or the brands. They wanted the pubs.
Time for some numbers. But, for once "ohne Gewähr", as they say when announcing the lottery results on German TV. I collected these figures a long time ago. When I hadn't learned to always identify the source. I can't remember where I found them. So I can't guarantee their accuracy. They look about right to me.
|Brewer||no. pubs||% of total|
|not brewery owned||20,273||28.00%|
|total full on-licences||72,404|
The Big Six's control of the pub trade was even greater than it appears from these figures. Many of supposedly "Free Houses" were in fact loan-tied to a brewery. Mostly one of the Big Six.That's reflected in their market share, which was larger than the percentage of pubs they owned:
|Market share (%) All Sales|
|S & N||11||10|
|All National (Big 6 only)||83||78|
|All National brewers||82|
|11 Regional brewers||11|
|41 local brewers||6|
|BLRA and breweries|
|1986 Courage estimate|
If you'd told me early on in my drinking career that all of them would disappear within a decade or two, their tied estates be dissolved, their breweries taken over and mostly closed, I'd have thought you were having a laugh. That's understandable. I lacked perspective.
When we're young, we lack historical depth. We think that the present and the immediate past will continue indefinitely into the future. We fail to grasp that the dramatic changes of the more distant past can happen again. That the future is full of surprises.
That always pops into my mind when I read about the inexorable rise if "craft" beer in the USA. And particularly of IPA. Both booming are all that younger drinkers can remember. They expect current trends to extend infinitely into the future. They won't. Because nothing ever works like that. Fashions and beer styles rise and fall, are born and often die.
It was the Beer Orders, to a large extent, that did for the Big Six. Forced to choose between their tied houses and their breweries, they either drifted away from brewing or sold up.
Lack of international ambition was another cause of their demise. In the early 1970's, they had been amongst the largest breweries in the world. But they were too slow in spotting the internationalisation of the industry and found themselves small fish in an ocean full of sharks.
It makes you wonder what will happen to to the current crop of multinational giants. Heineken, AB Inbev, Carlsberg, SAB. How long will they survive? I'm sure there will be plenty of surprises.