Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Big Six

The Big Six. Who remembers them now? Probably no-one under forty. How did the companies who dominated British brewing manage to disappear so completely?

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.

Pub ownership
Brewer no. pubs % of total
Courage 5,921 8.18%
Watney 5,946 8.21%
S&N 1,678 2.32%
Allied 7,665 10.59%
Bass 9,256 12.78%
Whitbread 7,865 10.86%
Big Six 38,331 52.94%
Other brewers 13,800 19.06%
All brewers 52,131 72.00%
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
Brewery 1976 1985
Watney 13 12
Courage 9 9
S & N 11 10
Bass 20 22
Whitbread 13 11
Allied 17 13
All National (Big 6 only) 83 78
All National brewers 82
11 Regional brewers 11
41 local brewers 6
Micro breweries 1
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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting timing, SABMiller the next to go? ---

Ed said...

I saw talk of ABInBev taking over SAB only yesterday...

And some of the big six still exist as independent non-brewing companies.

Ron Pattinson said...

Wow. That would be a big merger.

beer guru, jr. said...

I think American craft is probably here to stay.... for a few decades. Some dozen or so will grow into very large breweris and the bean counters will then have at them- with predictable results. As major forces, IPA? Barrel aging? Sours? Probably not.

kaiserhog said...

I know CAMRA had issues with them but was their beer that bad?

Why did CAMRA have no gripe with Guinness?

I find all this fascinating.

Ron Pattinson said...


back when Guinness was bottle-conditioned, it was the one real ale you were guaranteedd to find in any pub. Plus they didn't own any pubs, which was one of the big areas of conflict between CAMRA and the Big Six.

Maxwell Power said...

Whitbread are still going strong due to Premier Inn and Costa Coffee. Sensibly or luckily, they managed to offload a large part of their pub estate to Enterprise a few years ago.

kaiserhog said...

Ron, thank you for the answer. I did not know Guinness was bottled conditioned.