Sunday, 13 November 2016

What Whitbread did to Tennant

Those working at Tennant were generally pleased at merging with Whitbread, which was already a national brewer. At least the company hadn’t been asset-stripped. Or at least not so obviously.

Because, despite promising to let Tennant continue as before, they soon started to ring the changes. One of the obsessions of the Big Six was to have national brands. Presumably because it was easier to push just a few brands rather than having competing products. Ultimately, I think it was their downfall. Drinkers never acquired the same emotional attachment to national brands that they had to local or regional ones.

Of course, change didn’t all happen at once. It was a subtle process, with the Tennant name and its brands slowly being phased out.

“Gradually, over the next few years, changes were introduced. Most of Tennant's bottled beers disappeared. No. 1 Barley wine had already been swallowed up by Gold Label and then Don Jon, Lion Brown Ale and the prize-winning Lion Pale Ale were discontinued. Whitbread Pale Ale was tankered up from London and bottled in Sheffield. Glucose Stout was replaced by Mackeson which was now brewed and bottled in Sheffield. There was even a suggestion that Tennant's Gold Label should be replaced by Whitbread's barley wine, Final Selection. I believe it was due only to the persistence of our strong-willed Head Brewer, Harold Burkinshaw, that this wonderful product was saved.”
"The Brewer's Tale" by Frank Priestley, 2010, page 23.

It’s incredible that they should have contemplated phasing out a classic beer like Gold Label. Ultimately, it was Final Selection that got the chop. I wonder where Final Selection itself originated. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t at Whitbread’s original brewery in Chiswell Street. It doesn’t turn up in the brewing records there until 1968. Did it come from another of Whitbread’s breweries?

Whitbread Pale Ale was a big brand back then, which was heavily promoted in newspaper advertisements. While Mackeson was one of the biggest brands of all, brewed at Whitbread plants all over the country. It’s interesting that the Pale Ale was always produced in London.

There was a similar paring down of the draught range:

“Tennant's draught beers didn't fare much better. The beautiful Queen's Ale was discontinued, as was Rock Ale, which was replaced by Whitbread Best Mild. Best Bitter, after a colour adjustment, was renamed Trophy Bitter. Whitbread's policy was to advertise nationally a product that was, in effect, each regions Best Bitter. It was a good idea. A national product, brewed to satisfy local tastes. Although, when Yorkshiremen went on holiday down south, they sometimes got a bit of a surprise when they ordered their favourite brew.”
"The Brewer's Tale" by Frank Priestley, 2010, page 23.

Rebranding a brewery’s flagship Bitter as Trophy was standard Whitbread practice, even though they didn’t particularly advertise the fact. At one point in the 1970’s there were more than a dozen beers sold as Trophy. On the other hand Tankard, Whitbread’s premium keg Bitter, was the same everywhere.

I assume Queen’s Ale was replaced by Trophy. And that Best Mild was brewed in Sheffield. It’s difficult to imagine this now, but Best Mild was a big brand for Whitbread in the 1960’s. Though I’d need to look at the brewing records to confirm it was the same beer as brewed in London.

In case you’re wondering, this is what the Whitbread range looked like back then:

Whitbread beers in the early 1960's
Year Beer Style Price per pint d package OG FG ABV App. Atten-uation colour
1965 Final Selection Strong Ale 57 bottled 1079.2 1013.5 8.63 82.95% 68
1964 Forest Brown Brown Ale 22 bottled 1035.6 1011.2 3.16 68.54% 90
1961 Mackeson Stout 32 bottled 1046 1019 3.48 58.70% 250
1963 Pale Ale Pale Ale bottled 1036.5 1007.5 3.77 79.45% 21
1960 Bitter Pale Ale 17 draught 1038.5 1011 3.56 71.43% 20
1961 Tankard Bitter Pale Ale 24 draught 1038.6 1011 3.58 71.50% 18
1964 Best Ale Mild draught 1030.6 1007.5 3.06 75.49% 100
Whitbread brewing records
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/002.

Gold Label might have survived by the skin of its teeth. But what happened to it next?


Dave said...

I'm curious about this comment: "Drinkers never acquired the same emotional attachment to national brands." There still seems to be a big push for national brands. Doom for example. Is it different now or do you think big brewers are making the same mistake assuming one beer can gain national loyalty and dominate more local beers?

Mike Austin said...

Was'nt Final Selection chosen in some kind of competition? I've a vague Idea from one of your previous blogs.
It was crap anyway......

Anonymous said...

Was there ever a case of a smaller brewer merging with a larger one that resulted in a long happy partnership with continued autonomy for the littler brewer?

The current takeover trend in the beer business with craft brewers and outfits like Ambev could probably benefit from a history lesson.

Stuart Carter said...

Dave, you can see that exact same game playing out today when a craft beer brand is bought out by one of the big players.

This is the tension between mass brewers and craft/local/traditional brewers: mass brewers think in terms of tens of thousands of barrels/hectolitres, while the local fans want a smaller place they can call "mine". That sense of ownership is lost when a mass brewer buys them out.

Ron Pattinson said...


M & B and Highgate. Lasted more than 50 years.

John Lester said...

I believe Queen’s Ale and Trophy continued to be separate beers until 1970 or thereabouts. The last two beermats issued by Tennants in around 1968-70 (both using the Whitbread trademark) were for “Trophy Best Bitter – brewed by Tennants” and “Tennants Queens Ale”. According to Andrew Campbell in his “Book of Beer” (1956), Final Selection was introduced in 1953 and was originally called “Chairman’s Ale ESA/142” before being renamed Final Selection. Campbell describes it as “very slightly sweet, with a refined flavour, rather carbonated and less full to the palate than the usual run of barley wines and therefore attractive to those who like strong beer but find some types rather cloying”. He doesn’t say much about Tennant’s Gold Label : “a mellow flavour, but rather strongly carbonated”.