Saturday, 3 December 2011

How Tennent's lost their independence

We're back with the Bass Charrington brewery history. This time seeing how Charrington United Breweries (CUB) made one of their biggest and most crucial purchases: J & R Tennent of Glasgow.
There are some ironies in this story, as you may be aware.

"The acquisition of Hardys was followed at an interval of one year by a successful bid for J. and R. Tennent Ltd. of Glasgow. A fair amount of rationalization had already been achieved in Scotland by United Caledonian Breweries over the previous two or three years. The Aitchison brewery had been closed in 1960, followed by Fowler's brewery in 1969* and George Younger's in 1962. Production was being concentrated at Jeffrey's Heriot brewery, although the former Aitken brewery at Falkirk was still in operation when C.U.B. was formed. The Scottish companies, however, continued to operate as more or less independent trading concerns under the wing of the regional management company, United Caledonian Breweries. Before there could be any further rationalization, C.U.B. needed to acquire at least one of the remaining independent brewing concerns in Scotland, preferably one which did not rely too much on free trade and whose name was relatively well known. On these criteria alone, Tennent's were an extremely valuable acquisition for C.U.B.

Like most Scottish brewing companies, Tennents had found that their traditional export trade to Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East was being eroded by the infant but strongly protected breweries which sprang up in these countries after 1945. Although Tennents had an ale brewery they relied quite heavily on their lager sales. Indeed, Tennents Lager was easily the best-known brand of lager in Scotland.1 In the 1950s, however, lager was still very much a minority drink even in Scotland. If Tennents were to survive they would have to reduce their dependence on exporting lager. They took a major step in this direction in 1960 through the acquisition of Maclachlans Ltd. This company had a brewery in Edinburgh but most of their trade was in the Glasgow area where they owned over 100 managed houses. Maclachlans, unlike Tennents, were an ale brewery (prior to 1960 they had sold Tennent's lager rather than brew one of their own) and, again unlike Tennents, they had had a lot of  experience in running a sizeable managed-house estate. Soon after the merger the Maclachlan's brewery was closed. The following year Tennents bought Turners of Ayr, a small, family-controlled mineral water business. Thus by 1963 Tennents had broadened their trading base and built up a licensed estate of about 240 houses, located mainly in west and central Scotland. But this expansion programme had put their financial resources under considerable strain. The Maclachlan's acquisition alone cost nearly £2 million. Their Wellpark brewery, while relatively up to date and efficient, required additional capacity; they also needed more money to buy licensed property. A merger with a large group such as C.U.B. would give Tennent's access to greater financial resources and this was the main factor which lay behind the board's decision to accept the C.U.B. offer."
"A History of Bass Charrington" by K.H. Hawkins, 1978, page 175 - 176.
Funny , isn't it, that Tennent felt the need to be part of a larger group in the 1960's. Yet in the 21st century reversed themselves out of a major international brewer. How times change.

More than many of its rival, Tennent had a rock-solid brand: Tennent's Lager. You may have heard of it. I do believe it's still brewed in small quantities. Joking aside, that's doubtless one of the reasons for the brewery's continued survival: a good brand. And having a well-known Lager in the early 1960's, just when the style was just beginning to really take off, was like winning the lottery.

I wonder if there's a connection between the loss of export markets for Lager that led to its early success back in Scotland? If they couldn't sell it in Africa why not try selling it at home instead? It's a theory. Not a very good one, but there you go.

There are some recurring themes in this tale. Of the desire to expand but without the financial means. It seems to me that there were two types of brewery owner at the time. The ones who had no real interest in the business, just using it as a way of earning an easy living. These owners sold at the first whiff of cash. The second group, which includes Tennent, were interested in the business, wanted to grow it but didn't have the money. They, too, were tempted by the money of the big boys, but not so they could retire to the Algarve.

In the old days, they often finish with a song. Me, I like finishing with a table. Not the kitchen type. The number type. Did you spot that mention of Machlachlan in the text?  Wonder what their beers might have been like? Wonder no more:

Maclachlan beers 1928 – 1955
Year Beer Style Price size package Acidity FG OG colour ABV App. Atten-uation
1928 Strong Ale Strong Ale pint bottled 1016 1080 80 8.39 80.00%
1931 Pale Ale Pale Ale 6d pint bottled 1005 1026 48 2.73 80.77%
1936 Castle Ale Pale Ale 5d canned 0.06 1009.5 1041.8 4.20 77.27%
1936 5d Edinburgh Ale Pale Ale pint bottled 1007.3 1028.5 2.75 74.56%
1939 60/- Ale Pale Ale pint bottled 1005.5 1038 9 – 10 4.23 85.53%
1947 105/- Ale Pale Ale pint bottled 1010.5 1044 4.35 76.14%
1947 80/- Ale Pale Ale 16d pint bottled 1008.5 1042 4.36 79.76%
1948 Stout Stout pint bottled 1009.5 1032 2.91 70.31%
1948 Strong Ale Strong Ale pint bottled 1024.5 1070.5 5.96 65.25%
1953 Strong Ale Strong Ale 1/2.5d nip bottled 0.05 1016.2 1063.2 16 + 40 6.12 74.37%
1954 Export Ale Pale Ale bottled 0.05 1011.7 1043.6 20 4.14 73.17%
1955 Extra Sweet Stout Stout 1/3d half pint bottled 0.05 1014.8 1035.8 225 2.71 58.66%
1955 Strong Ale Strong Ale 1/3d nip bottled 0.05 1023.4 1068.6 75 5.86 65.89%
1955 Export Ale Pale Ale 1/3d half pint bottled 0.04 1010.2 1040.6 20 3.94 74.88%
Younger, Wm. & Co Gravity Book document WY/6/1/1/19 held at the Scottish Brewing Archive
Thomas Usher Gravity Book document TU/6/11 held at the Scottish Brewing Archive
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/002

Nothing that unusual, to be sure. The typical Scottish mix of different-strength Pale ales, Sweet Stout and Strong Ale. I'm starting to think I'd feel right at home in a 1950's Scottish pub. Except for the total lack of comfort.

* Production actually stopped in May 1964. 1969 is when the Fowler company was formally liquidated.

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